Making Money Online, the Hard Way

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

On a typical morning, Chrissy Chlapecka lets the dog outside, spends an hour on professional makeup and hair and carefully selects an outfit. Then Chlapecka, a 21-year-old Chicagoan, starts work as an internet creator.

Chlapecka posts at least one short video a day on Instagram and TikTok, where she has a combined 4.5 million followers. Nothing dramatic happens in the videos. But Chlapecka is who you might imagine if Lady Gaga were your favorite barista dishing out advice and zingers. (In fact, Chlapecka used to be a barista.)

In a few seconds of video recorded at home or in a mall, she seems at ease. Chlapecka invites viewers — particularly gay people and women — to feel good about themselves with an online personality that Chlapecka described as “an encouraging big sister type.” (Readers, please note that Chlapecka’s videos are not necessarily family-friendly.)

But this is also work. In addition to daily posts, Chlapecka records rough cuts of videos to save for the days when the creative juices might not be flowing. In line at the grocery store, she jots down concept ideas. Chlapecka weighs in on pitches for promotional videos to incorporate certain products or song clips that companies hope will take off. She also told me about hosting a gig at a comedy club and creating strategies to build a bigger fan base on YouTube and sell merchandise to fans.

For many people like Chlapecka, who try to make a living from entertaining or sharing information online, their job is part Hollywood producer, part small-business owner and all hustle.

“Some people really underestimate the work that creators do,” Chlapecka told me. “I wish they would understand more that this is a real career — and it’s a serious career — and a form of entertainment.”

Chlapecka knows that some people believe she’s just goofing around on the internet. But it takes skill and perseverance to come up with fresh ideas day after day, establish rapport with online followers and stay on top of the constantly changing algorithms and tastes of internet users.

This week, On Tech has focused on the economics of the internet creator economy. No one person is representative of the millions who try to earn a living from their online creations. But Chlapecka offers a glimpse at what this work is like and how creators earn money. This job may not look like yours or mine, but it can be gratifying and maddening like most work.

As with many online personalities, the biggest chunk of Chlapecka’s income comes from companies that pay to have their products or songs featured in videos. Brands typically provide a big-picture concept and leave it up to Chlapecka to do the rest.

Chlapecka has also earned money from Cameo, a service for people to pay for personalized videos from celebrities and sports stars. She has experimented with selling subscriptions to followers on Twitter and the digital creator service Fanhouse. Chlapecka also collects money from TikTok’s fund for video makers, which she described as “not enough to pay rent, but it is nice.”

Chlapecka wouldn’t say how much money she makes. But until about a year ago, she was working at Starbucks and a vintage store and making TikTok videos on the side. Now online work is a full-time job.

She said she felt fulfilled by “the power that social media has given me and the fans who love me — and I love them back.” Chlapecka also relishes FaceTime conversations with other online creators who trade how-to tips and sympathy for difficult days. It’s their version of drinks with co-workers to moan about a bad boss.

Like many other creators, Chlapecka is harassed and threatened online, she said. Social media stars succeed by creating intimacy with followers, but Chlapecka said that hecklers act as though the person they see through a smartphone screen doesn’t have feelings.

“People behind the camera are human beings, and we deserve to have boundaries and respect,” she said.

Chlapecka said that she understood how the grind of being constantly online burned many people out. She hopes that creators’ work can be sustainable, but she also imagines that online fandom may open doors for pursuits in TV and music.

This is the life of creators, a staple of the digital economy. They fill the apps that consume our leisure hours. It’s a career aspiration for young people that didn’t exist a generation ago. It can be all-consuming, invasive and precarious — and also, fun.

More from On Tech on the internet creator economy:


Tip of the week

Your smartphone might be permanently connected to you like a digital baby. But your phone number doesn’t have to be, says Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times.

Your phone number is an incredibly sensitive piece of data. It’s a unique string of digits linked to other highly personal information found in public records including your full name, home address, the names of your relatives and even your criminal record (if you have one).

A phone number also is likely to stay attached to you for many years because it’s such a hassle to get a new one and share it with all of your contacts. (I, for one, have had the same cellphone number for more than 15 years.)

That’s why everyone can benefit from having a burner phone number that you share with people and entities you don’t fully trust. The simplest free option is to sign up for a Google Voice account. There, you pick an area code and choose from a list of phone numbers. You can even set it up to forward calls and text messages to your real phone number.

I recently had a number of situations in which a burner phone number came in handy:

The beauty of a burner is that if someone abuses it, you can get rid of it and create a new set of digits. Who wouldn’t want one?

  • Rock pioneer vs. podcaster: The musician Neil Young called on Spotify to choose between hosting his songs or Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host who has been accused of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines. Spotify sided with Rogan, my colleague Ben Sisario reports.

  • What does that screaming ace sound like? The Australian Open is testing audio technology that translates the travel of balls and other tennis action into soundscapes for fans who are blind or have limited vision, my colleague Amanda Morris explains.

  • Saying no to Elon Musk: Jack Sweeney, a 19-year-old college student, programmed software that sifts through complex data about private jet flights and tweets the details about Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, and other prominent people. Sweeney told Protocol that Musk offered him $5,000 to stop the tweets tracking his jet trips, but Sweeney declined.

This dog is very excited about meeting a new friend. Stick around for the moment when the older dog shares its toy.


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