So Your Video Went Viral: Great! Just Don’t Expect to Get Rich

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Thanks to the Internet, it’s never been easier to become briefly famous. Posting an especially creative, embarrassing, funny, or otherwise highly “shareable” video or blog online will usually do the trick. But becoming rich and famous? That’s far more difficult.

The original creators of the “Harlem Shake” should see a big chunk of change because they’re entitled to a portion of the ad revenues generated from each video featuring the song that’s posted at YouTube. A year ago, the New York Times highlighted how the family behind the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video—viewed well over 400 million times since it was posted on YouTube in 2007—had helped net its creators over $150,000.

The vast majority of online videos and blog posts, on the other hand, never go viral. Instead, they’re mostly ignored. And even those that do manage to generate widespread attention rarely result in a big cash windfall for the people behind them.

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The Seattle Times recently pointed out a few examples of people who attained Internet fame—and very little in the way of a monetary payoff afterwards. There was the kid playing the drums on the washing machine. His video, posted last December, has been viewed more than 1.7 million times. He and his dad were flown out to Chicago to appear on “The Steve Harvey Show,” and his family is being given an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans so he can perform at a cleaning industry convention.

Those are some nice perks. But how much actual money has the video pulled in? Around $400 in YouTube ad revenues.

Another example is the “Bitter Barista,” a blog filled with snarky comments about coffee shop customers. It was created by Matt Watson, a (bitter) barista in Seattle, who wound up getting attention from Internet tabloids around the globe. Did he manage to turn his 15 minutes of fame into big money? Not really. “I had a lot of people who would tell me that, that I’d cash in,” Watson told the Seattle Times. “That’s not how the world works. I never believed that.”

Instead, Watson was fired after his boss caught wind of the blog. He has since tried to sell “Bitter Barista” T-shirts and mugs, generating a couple hundred bucks in profits. He also ran a Kickstarter campaign to help him put out a hardcover book of Bitter Barista sayings; it’ll result in a few thousand bucks tops, Watson estimated. He’s still a barista, working at a coffee shop with a name he’d rather keep secret.

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So how do some people manage to squeeze decent money out of their Internet fame? The “Charlie Bit My Finger” video was unusual in that it was viewed hundreds of millions of times over the course of several years, and the ad revenues had piled up. Also, the boys featured in the video have made a few commercials, thanks to bookings from Viral Spiral, an agency that specializes in monetizing viral fame.

Quite often, though, there’s just no way to quickly and easily turn Internet fame into riches. Generating attention isn’t easy, but it’s much, much easier than generating money due to the fact that you’ve gotten some attention. No wonder that barista is still bitter.