Alejandra Gaitan was, until eight months ago, living below the poverty line and struggling through college in Montreal. Then she discovered YouTube. Specifically, Gaitan discovered that if she found the most popular video on YouTube and filmed herself talking about it in a low-cut top, she could make some money. A lot of money.
More than 1,000 videos and 25 million views later, Gaitan dropped out of college to focus on reply videos full-time. She is now comfortably “middle class,” thanks to earnings from ad revenue generated by her new career showcasing her breasts on YouTube. “At the beginning, I won’t deny it, it was pure desperation,” says the 24-year-old, who moved to Quebec from Latin America seven years ago and spent a year blogging about art on YouTube before discovering reply videos. “I was just in it for the money. But as the time passes, I’m really starting to enjoy it.”
Gaitan is what is known as a reply girl, a term she coined through her username—thereplygirl—that seems to have inspired a legion of young buxom women to try their hand at YouTube entrepreneurship. Video replies have long been a staple of the YouTube community, allowing viewers to comment on a video by posting a video of their own. The original videos and the replies are usually linked as related content, which allows viewers of a video to watch the conversation unfold and join the discussion. But reply girls are a particular brand of video blogger who sit at the nexus where user-generated content goes from exhibitionism to spam. They typically troll YouTube for hours looking for trending videos and then post rambling, often nonsensical replies that have little to add to the conversation except to smother it in cleavage.
Gaitan is the most prolific of the reply girls, posting as much as 20 times a day. Her most popular video, a reply to a video of a North Carolina dad who shot his daughter’s laptop, garnered 1.5 million hits. Like most, they are not particularly edifying. Hers usually begin with “So yeah, I just saw a video about some guy . . .” and end seconds later with her sign-off, “Peace and love everybody. See ya!”
The few dozen or so reply girls have sparked a backlash among YouTube faithful who complain they go online to watch videos of cats doing backflips only to be bombarded with unrelated, breast-laden replies. YouTube’s content creators, such as the gaming site The Yogscast, accuse reply girls of siphoning off ad revenue by stealing male viewers.
It’s the money that seems to irk YouTube users the most. Since it purchased YouTube in 2006 for $1.7 billion, Google has struggled to monetize the site’s giant reservoir of videos, mostly by allowing companies to run banner ads on the most popular content. And it should come as no surprise that, like everywhere else on the Web, breasts sell on YouTube. “They are taking the way the Internet was built on sex and sexual images to motivate traffic and they’re actually using it for their own purposes,” says Queen’s University media professor Sidneyeve Matrix. “So it’s controversial, but it’s just so clever.”
Gaitan won’t reveal how much she makes, saying she’s bound by a confidentiality agreement with Google’s AdSense, which gives users a portion of ad sales generated from every 1,000 viewers. It’s enough that she plans to file taxes this year and hopes to move out of the apartment she shares with her mom. “I’m not a millionaire,” she says. “All I can say is it’s a decent amount of money.”
Along the way, Gaitan has generated a tremendous amount of hate mail. She has been called a prostitute and threatened with death and rape. Hackers have tried to break into her account and she claims a rival reply girl spammed one of her videos in an attempt to shut her down.
The irony, she says, is that the more angry comments she receives, the higher her video ranks on the site and the more money she makes. “People are trying to bury me, they’re trying to make me stop,” she says. “But the way I see it, it’s free publicity and absolutely counterproductive for the haters. The more attention I get, the stronger I’ll become.”