Meet Tiffany Ferguson, YouTube's Resident Internet Scholar
On privilege, wielding a platform responsibly, creative burnout, and so much more.
To understand the internet, one must first understand its culture. For a long while, that effort was exclusively undertaken by academia and news media–that was until a new legion of content creators imparted upon some fresh wisdom based on their familiarity with the space, adding much depth to what was erstwhile tackled with crude simplicity.
Tiffany Ferguson is one such creator. Once a repository for musings about the challenges of young adulthood, her channel has now become known for the ‘Internet Analysis’ series where the internet’s often-convoluted cultural happenings are rendered less opaque. “I’ve been on YouTube since [around] 2007–2008. ‘Internet Analysis’ as a series, and everything I’ve been doing in the last almost two years, is obviously a lot more recent,” she says. “I’m a media studies major with an emphasis on media analysis and criticism, and I actually started internet analysis a few months before I transferred to my current university and started this major. So it’s all been very relevant to each other.”
At first, Ferguson was skeptical about the idea of turning internet culture analysis into a permanent staple on her channel. “It was kind of an accident, doing this kind of content,” she told me. “I was talking about Joana Ceddia when her channel first blew up, then I made a video about how Vine influenced young people, and then I was like, “You know what, this is good shit.”.”
It didn’t take long for Ferguson to settle into her new role as doing ‘Internet Analysis’ videos almost became second nature. “I enjoy trying to dive deep into the internet culture that I appreciate so much, and I felt like there weren’t a lot of people taking internet culture seriously or trying to question elements of it,” she says. “People either just see it as drama or pure entertainment — which it can be — but I think there’s a lot more to it.”
Talking about culture entails abording the political conditions surrounding it, and it’s something that Ferguson firmly acknowledges as she makes an earnest attempt to wield her platform for good. “The topics that I discuss, they are political,” she says. “I think it’s very hard to talk about social issues, cultural issues, and keep politics out of it.”
Sometimes in trying to talk about her politics, Ferguson feels outside pressure to conform to audience perception who either see her as left of the mainstream, or fitting the profile of the affluent American YouTuber which was presumed for the longest time to be synonymous with liberalism. “It’s been an interesting balance in that, I found some of my audience to be socialists or communists and they’ll be like “Hey, comrade! I love that.” But then some of my audience I can tell are either not political, or just tiptoeing into these issues,” she says. “That’s a conflict I have because I want to stay true to my own political beliefs — I identify as a leftist — but sometimes I don’t know how much of my political ideals to put into my videos.”
Part of what makes Ferguson’s personal beliefs so easily discernible, is due in part to just how accessible the literature is–to her, much of that is to owe for the copious amounts of research that go into each and every episode. “It’s probably more of a happy accident than something that’s really intentional,” she says. “Before [the Internet Analysis series], I never used to script my videos. […] This series is entirely scripted, and it takes a lot longer to write and research and film, but then I actually know before I even record that it should make some sense.”
With that work ethic, comes the difficulty of maintaining a steady pace without a noticeable drop in quality–and when the two coincide, it’s often a recipe for creative burnout. “I’m glad that I don’t have a specific upload day. I have literally never in my 12 years of YouTube ever had a specific day, which people always say is the number one thing you need to do,” she says. “My audience doesn’t expect a video at a certain time, which I appreciate. […] It’s tough because I’m trying to balance YouTube and school still. I’m a senior in college and it’s hard because I’m so tired of college work, but I know that I have to get through it. So I have to dedicate however much time to my classes and work.”
Being her primary source of income, Ferguson has to rely on sponsorships to counter the uncertainty of YouTube’s monthly ad revenue. “I find that sponsorships add so much more stress to my plate because of the actual deadlines,” she told me. “Naturally, the brands want to know what video you’re going to make next month. “What video is this integration going to be in? When can you send it for approval?”, and I can plan [ahead] in my head. […] I can know that I have a deadline, but if writing or researching isn’t working right or if it’s not an idea I’m really excited about, I find it really difficult to force it.”
When burnout occurs, the symptoms are rarely pleasant for Ferguson. “I had a breakdown recently where it just paralyzed me,” she confessed. “I’m just like “Should I just drop out of my classes? Should I just bail on these sponsors? Can I afford to do that? No. What do I do then?”
A part of what’s made Tiffany’s work more emotionally taxing is her aversion to undue criticism–especially when it’s done in bad faith. “Another thing that sometimes contributes to work stress is I’ve become too terrified of criticism–which is bad when you are an internet person. I try really hard to make my videos fair and make sure that I’m speaking clearly and put all the [necessary] disclaimers,” she says. “I get so nervous before I post a video. “Is someone gonna misinterpret something? Did I say something wrong?” I can drive myself [insane] going through all of that.”
Owing to an explosive influx of new subscriptions in late 2019, Ferguson had become enveloped by the anxiety of not meeting their expectations. “When your channel starts to grow quickly like that, suddenly you have this newer audience that may not be as familiar with you, and then you feel like you need to be more careful with them because they may have only seen one or two of your videos, and now you might not meet their expectations, whatever those are;” she says. “I’m kind of scared for my channel to grow too much. I just need to stay true to myself and keep making content that I like and that really matches what I believe, but that is definitely easier said than done.”
Even if Ferguson’s subscription numbers pale in comparison to YouTube’s top brass, she thinks it is no less important for her to indulge the occasional dose of self-reflection. “I’m constantly questioning myself. “Am I being responsible? Am I thinking about the power of my platform?” It’s a weird thing,” she says. “At the end of the day, I’m just a person. I think about what my real day-to-day life is like, and it’s obviously not glamorous. I genuinely still just feel like a regular person, but then I think of my internet persona and it really does feel like there is a disconnect.”
In the background of that, conversations about cancel culture haven’t been off of Ferguson’s radar–while her content perfectly lends itself to more commentary on it, she thinks the term has been used more liberally than it perhaps should’ve been. “Is cancel culture good or bad? Well, it’s not good, but holding people accountable is good, but to what extent and what does that mean?” she says. “I recently was disappointed by a YouTuber that I watched, and I unsubscribed and made a statement about it on Instagram, then I got a reply from someone who was like “How could you call what she said nonsense? How dare you not let her have her opinion?” I was like, I’m not calling for her to be canceled–I’m just saying I’m not gonna watch her anymore because [what she said] was so bad. I think that’s totally fair–if a creator says something that you so badly disagree with, you can unsubscribe and stop supporting them.”
YouTube as an American-based platform skews very white, and it’s probably no accident that the material conditions under which minorities live are to account for why they don’t have as big a share of the cultural pie. Issues of systemic racism withstanding, Ferguson suspects the recommendation algorithm’s neutral stance is partly to blame. “I was thinking about this recently because I was sharing some black creators’ videos and noticed my recommended [tab] change. I watched one Black BookTuber’s video and then suddenly I had a ton more [pop up]. It’s nice when you can actually notice your viewing patterns change things,” she says. “I would think that the typical white viewer probably does watch almost [exclusively] white creators. If you just look at the top creators in any genre, they probably are majority-white. So I think unless you’re very intentional as a viewer, it’s easy to get stuck in that very white [space].”
What is downstream of that, is audiences’ implicit desire for proper etiquette–something that is incidentally hard to disentangle from whiteness. “I realized that the way you style yourself — if you put some effort into your hair, your makeup, your outfit even — how much of that can play a role in your videos because people might comment about your appearance, and that feeds engagement,” she says. “So now that’s become part of my strategy–which is so weird because it has nothing to do with the content of the video, obviously, but you like to watch people who look put-together or who they think are cute or pretty or whatever.”
However excessive the demands are, Ferguson feels the pressure to fulfill them so she may not fall behind. “You need decent lighting, a decent setup, your audio needs to be good — audio can make or break a video for sure — and then you have to look at least appealing enough to where people don’t mind looking at you, which is [honestly] so weak,” she says. “I feel like with this veneer of perfection or organization, you do notice anything out of place much more quickly.”
Once thought to be the great equalizer, the internet reflected much of society’s pre-established inequities. It’s why so much of YouTube’s attention capital is concentrated along the top, as creators on the lower scale of the income ladder struggle to keep up. “There was the age of the young teen beauty gurus, and most of them came from upper middle-class families. They would do their room tours or their house tours, and you could just tell that their parents have money, they have this nice setup–it was easy for them to do YouTube because their parents would give them whatever they needed. They had the money to buy makeup, clothes or whatever their content is about, and that’s definitely a barrier to lots of types of content,” she says. “There’s that subconscious kind of issue on YouTube where people want to watch someone who looks rich or someone who has an aspirational setup, and I think that plays into it. So again for people who are not rich working class, they don’t have this influencer setting–that in itself is a barrier to even getting started.”
Class disparities aside, race plays a huge role in who gets to reap all the spoils. “Because I’m a white woman, a lot of my viewers will trust me and immediately see me as educated or articulate or whatever, and they can trust what I say, especially if they’re white, too,” she says. “Even though a non-white creator could say the exact same thing even better than I said it, [audiences] might not have that same instinct to believe them as much.”
Of those who managed to make the top cut, they are simultaneously YouTube’s main driver of revenue and source of negative PR–Ferguson doesn’t see the platform’s flaws as quite clear-cut. “I generally have an optimistic view of YouTube, and that might just reflect the YouTubers I watch,” she says. “I’ve found so many great small channels with a thousand subs or less who are making fucking incredible videos that are so well-researched, well-written and well-filmed, and I always share them as often as I can. That part of YouTube definitely gives me hope.”
With a global pandemic ongoing and economic downturn on the horizon, YouTube’s fleeting financial stability is slowly nudging Ferguson to consider more viable alternatives. “I do feel like sometimes I’d just rather graduate, get a nine-to-five and just go have a situation because as great as [YouTube] is, there are obviously downsides,” she says. “If I were to get another regular job, I think it would be a good idea just to keep me stable as a person.”
But if there is no other recourse, Ferguson shares my desire for greater regulation and more protections for creators who find themselves constantly in the crossfire of corporate drama. “More actual regulation [is needed] on what content is worth or what you can or can’t ask for because there’s just no consistency,” she says. “As my channel has grown, I feel like there are so many bits of information that are just not available for up-and-coming YouTubers. […] There’s no resources for that and unless you happen to have a YouTube friend group, there’s no one that you can really turn to, to figure this information out. So a lot of people do get screwed over, or don’t get the advice or help that they need because where are you supposed to find it?”
Those reforms however, will have to come from the top-down, and unless the political forces coalesce around seeking justice for YouTube’s labor force, nothing of substance will be achieved.
Still, those tasked with clarifying the internet’s purpose of existence will no doubt find Ferguson’s videos to be of much use. It’s what we need in an age where good information is becoming a scarce resource, as the impulse to cash in on outrage and controversy is ever-unyielding.