Mia Mulder’s Theory of BreadTube and the Discourse

Knowledge for the well-versed, entertainment for the most-sophisticated — Mia Mulder’s take on BreadTube is fresh and unique.

Since BreadTube made its acquaintance with the mainstream, media had to come up with an arresting narrative of its role in the online discourse. Oftentimes it’s brought up as a perfect counterbalance to the radicalizing hands of the right, but if attention is turned away from the most popular onto the least, an interesting realization starts to slowly set in–for most BreadTubers, making content isn’t always about playing into a narrative of eternal strife between good and evil. Sometimes, it boils down to simple curiosity.

Mia Mulder is one such perfect specimen in this space. When first approached with the offer of an interview, her main preoccupation was preserving substance rather than baking a delicious good for click-hungry mainstream media.

This was apparent since the very first moments we started our conversation: “A lot of people on YouTube right now are talking philosophy, I’d like to think I talk ideology.” For Mulder, the calculus isn’t so much about making an air-tight case for your argument, as it is discussing why would it be salient in the context of her own ideological framework, which while recognizably leftist in broad strokes, has its own flair that is shaped by her own lived experiences.

Mulder is under no illusion that her content isn’t exactly engineered to appeal to the most eyeballs. For her, “you always want a balance between trying to appeal more to the mainstream to convert people into talking about discourse, while actually saying something. Because otherwise you run the risk of saying nothing, but sounding very good.” It’s the natural state of being on YouTube–if you want to be marketable, you’ll have to hit the highest clickthrough-rate by using as provocative a title and thumbnail as possible. Being conscious of the way this would alter her content, Mulder elected not to do that to preserve greater autonomy over what she has to say, unshackled from worrying about the unpredictable whims of an unknowable and ever-changing recommendation algorithm.

The term that most use, but very few truly embrace

The upset about how the YouTube algorithm has propped up a privileged minority above a struggling majority isn’t entirely lost on Mulder. Even though her position in BreadTube isn’t exactly prestigious — though by no means insignificant — she sees this more as a fundamental misunderstanding of how the platform works, rather than a perfect recreation of audience biases in terms of discovery and engagement. “At the end of the day, every creator needs to make enough money to pay rent. The only way to do that is by having an audience, and the best way to have an audience is on YouTube,” Mulder says, reflecting on the rough reality of relying on YouTube for a livable wage.

Given the nature of BreadTube itself and its emphasis on an ardent form of leftism, redistribution is often floated as a solution: Promote each other, and maybe even create a fund for smaller creators to help them rise through the ranks. Doing that though, presumes that YouTube would be willing to scale distribution linearly with investment, which is rarely the case. For YouTube creators, success can be as simple as hitting a moment in culture just the right way, such as their channel suddenly experiences explosive growth. For most BreadTubers, and especially Mulder whose content isn’t architected around maximal engagement, that growth has to come organically.

“There’s a balance act between focusing on your own content, and promoting the content of other people. Most people do that via collaborations, shout-outs or similar things,” Mulder says. “As a creator, I can’t really promote other creators all the time because eventually I need to focus on my own stuff.” There’s only so much mental capital to spare, and for creators who’re usually working solo on their own projects and can barely afford to live as it is, splitting that attention can result in spreading oneself far too thin.

You’ll notice that the term “BreadTube” has been used copiously so far, and it’s for good reason–Kevin Roose’s blockbuster essay “The Making of a YouTube Radical” for the New York Times popularized that usage to refer to the cohort of leftist commentators on YouTube, and since then, avoiding the nomenclature for creators in this space has become nigh-on impossible. As the term took on new-found notoriety, it prompted a backlash from certain creators calling the umbrella too broad, and others decrying white hegemony within it.

“I’m not super into that term,” says Mulder, echoing a similar trend across the community. “It’s important to keep in mind that BreadTube is more of a fan-created community […] [BreadTubers] have a tendency of attracting similar fanbases, so, it’s an accidental grouping more than anything else.” When pressed about whether she considered herself a BreadTuber, Mulder conceded that she’s so just by mere association–to reject the appellation would be counter to convenience.

Privilege on BreadTube

Being part of this space is often associated with natural-borne privilege. “I’m white and I live in Sweden,” Mulder lays it out in simple terms. “Because I was on sick leave and I couldn’t work a normal job, and could [only] just work 2–3 hours a day, I decided to do that on YouTube, because, where am I going to get a job where I work 3 hours a day.”

Mulder acknowledges the privilege that Sweden’s robust social safety net put her in, but she still recognizes that externalities outside of her control — most notable of them is YouTube’s black box of an algorithm — played a bigger role in getting her where she is today. “Luckily it worked out!” Mulder admits. “For every success story, there are hundreds where it doesn’t work [out]. Thankfully here, I could take the risk in the first place.”

But any conversation about privilege would not be complete without recounting the instances where that has especially taken on a racial dimension. Kat Blaque was one of the first to float this criticism, lamenting the way her fellow white YouTubers have been paid much more attention to for issues she’s already talked about ad nauseam. “Coverage of [BreadTube] has exclusively focused on white YouTubers, and people of color have been excluded from the narrative entirely” says Bitch Media’s Marina Watanabe. When I asked Mulder about her own perspective on this debate, she expressed charity, but was still realistic about the fact that bolstering class privilege is a necessity when seeking to claim a greater piece of the attention pie:

A lot of BreadTube is whiteat this point, if it’s their job, not only is it their job, but they earn a significant amount of money doing it. I’m not on that level yet! […] But a lot of people in the sphere earn a significant amount of money they can sink into production costs, and obviously that results in the end video where you can see super fancy lighting, expensive cameras, assistance with research and social mediastuff like that. […] It is kind of a privilege to be able to do thatto have something that is sustainable, because most people who do YouTube or social media as a job anyway, are not even close to monetizing it. Let alone making enough money to have that as a full-time job.

As salient as a lot of BreadTube criticism is, one aspect of it that feels particularly overblown is the extent to which YouTube’s ad-revenue is overestimated. YouTube creator Tiffany Ferguson — whose channel’s performance is nothing to scoff at — recently broke down her expenses, and much to her audience’s surprise, she could barely break even. Anyone below the Holy Trinity of Hbomberguy, PhilosophyTube and ContraPoints is almost guaranteed to make but a mere fraction of that revenue.

Class-reductionist analysis isn’t exactly a new thing for the BreadTube discourse, and Mulder firmly acknowledges that: “Sure, some individuals earn a lot of money, but […] 90% of BreadTubers who aren’t in the highest echelons barely make enough to make rent.” It’s a classic case of pointing fingers at individuals who happened to be in the system’s good graces, rather than the mechanisms that allowed them to attain such disproportionate amounts of attention. “Hours go into writing, into scripting, [and] when you talk about production value and stuff like that–costs add up.”

On the creative process, being trans, and managing audience expectation

Taking a detour away from BreadTube’s intricate politicking, I was curious to know what Mulder’s creative process was–how the sauce was made so to speak. The answer was a mite familiar: “Usually what happens, is that I will read a comment about someone misunderstanding a minor point in a video that’s not really about the video itself. […] When I read a comment like that, it’s like “Now I know my angle!”

Similarly, Mulder’s struggle as a creative isn’t all that dissimilar from overdue coursework. “I just channel a lot of that anger and write at four in the morning until I collapse, then wake up, and look at whatever’s in it and it’s all crap, because I’ve written it in the middle of the night, so it’s all useless” she says as I chuckled, reminded of an all-too-familiar predicament in my own process. “But from that, there’s a first draft, you get into the second, the third, and eventually you reach a video that’s somewhat usable.”

Being aware of who Mia Mulder is, and how her content will inevitably be read from the lens of a trans individual, she doesn’t seem terribly preoccupied with that framing. “Sometimes it’s relevant to a topic I want to talk about, and it’s obviously a large part of the life that I have, but there is definitely that tug to keep talking about it more than I want to,” says Mulder. Nonetheless, she recognizes that the scarcity of trans content on the internet is conducive to it taking on an identitarian tone in spite of itself. “Whenever I talk about trans stuff, that’s the stuff that will be shared. That’s the stuff that people will post about, [and that] I get emails about.” Though, Mulder is well-aware that her content often strays from that mold, making it harder to firmly categorize under a single umbrella. “People will be critical of my transness because it exists in my videos […] But I don’t deal with it, and I don’t contextualize it. Because it’s not the norm, people will always see that it’s there.”

As is custom with YouTube, breaking out of a set audience expectation is very hard, and so Mulder set out from the start not to let her content be defined entirely by who she is. “If you allow yourself to be defined by just one aspect of who you are as a creator, I think it sets you up for stagnation and running out of content,” Mulder says. “You can only talk about a certain thing too much, before it becomes repetitive.”

Being a YouTuber entails its own set of challenges. For Mulder, it isn’t just the creation of the content–there’s also the newly-introduced consideration of conforming to the audience’s view of who their creator is, contingent upon a very thin slice of their online presentation:

We make very engaging content in the sense that you don’t just listen to it, you don’t just watch it, but also you can follow people on Twitter, interact with the person directly, [and] have a very high level of engagement with the creator of the thing that you like. Which I think can exacerbate this effect.

The relationship between audience and creator is often the front on which controversy is waged and either won or lost. If the core audience deems a creator’s actions unfitting of their purported profile, many will rise in indignance–as was demonstrably the case when ContraPoints had to depart social media after the ensuing backlash of cameoing a controversial figure in a recent video of hers.

It seems like putting a safe distance between creators and their fandoms has become almost an imperative, seeing how often that relationship can be exploited to nefarious ends. “I tried to limit the spaces where my fans can hang out,” says Mulder. “I am lucky so far that I haven’t really had any schism or something in my own community […] Thankfully, I’ve been able to get away with saying “No comment” a lot of the time.” Mulder is cognizant that having a cult of personality is almost inevitable, but she cautions that it needs to be kept “very minimal”, such as it doesn’t slip control of the message away from the creator.

YouTube’s dire straits, collective action, and choosing hope over despair

A certain subsection of BreadTube recently has embarked on a journey to claim further independence from YouTube. Knowing how big the platform is, this initiative was already doomed to fail, but it nonetheless was interesting to hear Mulder’s take on it. “We shouldn’t break the picket line if we could. We shouldn’t enthusiastically just support the mega corporations, and when someone does a protest action, I think we should support that,” says Mulder, further emphasizing that the inefficacy of the initiative is a sign that YouTube is due for a massive shake-up. “I don’t think there’s literally anything that people can do to fight it, short of making political action to break up Google as a corporation.”

It’s uncharted territory for creators to be talking about such a radical change to a platform they so hold dear, but given YouTube’s latest gaffes with content moderation and the quasi-monopoly it holds on online video sharing, breaking it up might prove a boon to creators who are frustrated with how the platform failed to innovate on ways to promote stability–between fluctuating ad rates, confusing policy and the relentless pace at which the platform expects videos to be released, they’ve clearly got their work cut out for them. Mulder sees that as partly being the issue of YouTube not being taken seriously, or at least not properly conceived of as the money-making prospect it is for many creators, prompting it negligence from discussions of labor reform by virtue of being deemed “niche”.

One of the greatest impediments to BreadTube’s influence on the political sphere has always historically been the lack of any semblance of collective action. Sure, there’s thematic similitude, but very little material collaboration is done beyond subtle cameos, or the occasional shout-out in a video or on social media. There’s a noticeable lack of synergy, and it was interesting to see Mulder’s reaction when I proposed the formation of a guild to consolidate creator strategy.

“BreadTube as a collective of creators have very different end goals in mind, for themselves and for the platform in general,” Mulder says, pointing out the difficulty of synergizing such a discombobulated collective. In opposition to the right-wing, Mulder is aware of the financial leg-up many conservative outlets have in terms of funding and staff, and because of that, she posits logistical complexities as at least one factor as to why BreadTube doesn’t have as organized an operation as the right-wing does: “What we need is newspapers, production companies–and YouTubers in all their glory, can’t run production companies! I don’t know how to hire editors and camera people. Most YouTubers don’t.”

Despite the apocalyptic tone of Mulder’s assessment of the BreadTube space, she’s optimistic that the right-wing’s hold over politics on YouTube is a temporary one. “The left has always new voices coming in, and not many voices leaving. So it’s growing in quality in terms of diversity of opinions […] It makes me optimistic for the future, because I don’t see lefty YouTube stopping.” Even with the presence of infighting, Mulder is hopeful that “eventually, [BreadTube] is going to eclipse the right.”

Whether such a future will occur remains to be seen, but if anything, Mulder’s contributions to the online political left apparatus are a testament to her abilities as a creator to make the mundane appealing, and ask real questions about the implications of lackluster inquiries into the thorniest issues of social justice of our current age. If a bit scarce, the content makes up for it through prescience and timelessness that is otherwise impossible to achieve with a more strenuous release schedule.

What comes later for Mia Mulder is very much up in the air–the channel is growing, and BreadTube’s core fanbase is at least peripherally aware of who she is. Though, much like other fixtures in this space, it’s not the cultural cachet that matters as much as being a reliable anchorpoint in online discourse. Mulder’s content manages to stick the course even when there’s great pressure to do otherwise, and that’s — not to mince words — admirable and quite rare in the age of performativity.