When Jesse Ridgway and Brian Spitz cofounded creative platform StoryFire in 2017, they did it because they were fed up with YouTube.
Ridgway’s flagship web series is a 684-video viral hit called the Psycho Series that chronicles a perpetually angry, over-the-top bunch of relatives who frequently target the fictional version of Ridgway at varying degrees of hostility to disparage his love of video games and vlogging. The Psycho Series is hosted on Ridgway’s YouTube channel McJuggerNuggets (where he has 3.94M subscribers and nets 10M views per month), and its installments are far and away the most popular videos on the channel, having brought in a collective more-than-one-billion views, a whopping 11,494 years — and 39 days — of watch time, and a documentary series (directed by Spitz).
But there’s a problem: Ridgway isn’t making money off the majority of those views. More than 500 Psycho Series videos have been deemed advertiser unfriendly — videos like Psycho Dad Shreds Video Games (40 million views) and Psycho Kid Smashes TV (19 million), both of which feature violence aimed at inanimate objects. Some episodes, like one featuring ketchup used as blood and the presence of a chainsaw, weren’t just demonetized; they were deleted from the platform altogether, with no warning, Ridgway says.
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And even when it comes to videos that have remained monetized, Ridgway suspects YouTube has an algorithm that detects things like tone of voice and cursing, and suppresses his videos or saddles them with lower CPMs when it detects the Psycho family’s frequent shouting and/or swearing at one another, he tells Tubefilter. (We reached out to YouTube about whether it detects tone of voice in videos, but didn’t hear back.)
All of this is why, in January, after 13 years on YouTube, Ridgway’s calling it quits. He recently posted a 47-minute video (below) chronicling his decade-plus struggle to make money from his content on a site he feels has now been cored for corporate interests. “I no longer love this platform,” he says in the video. “I’m making a stand for what I believe in. I want the heart to come back to YouTube.”
But while that’s what he wants, it’s not what he expects. Ridgway isn’t going to wait around for YouTube to change. Instead, he’s going to throw himself full-time into YouTube competitor StoryFire — as both a content creator, and the creator of StoryFire itself.
So, what exactly is StoryFire? Originally, Ridgway and Spitz conceived of it as a place where the one thing they loved about YouTube — the community that sprang up around McJuggerNuggets and Psycho — could have a home. They were inspired by their fans’ dedication and creativity, and set out to make a place “where the full value of creators is realized,” Spitz tells Tubefilter. “StoryFire is a community where you can monetize and express your authentic storytelling without having to chase trends, algorithms, clickbait, or curb your art for advertisers.”
StoryFire was at first intended to host primarily text-based narratives with some video series, but now that they’re expanding the scope of the programming. As more creators hit an increasing number of pain points with YouTube, Ridgway and Spitz are accepting videos of all sorts, including popular fare like unboxings and cooking clips.
Over the past two years, the pair have grown StoryFire to more than 375,000 downloads, with a creator community that includes well-known YouTubers like KidBehindACamera, boogie2988, and Rob Gavagan. StoryFire’s users create, consume, and (crucially) monetize content like the aforementioned written stories, video series, and even tweets.
StoryFire has created a monetization economy using its own currency, Blaze
Here’s how things work. A large part of StoryFire’s monetization system, something Ridgway and Spitz are doggedly intent on ensuring is fair to creators, focuses on its in-house currency, called Blaze. Users can buy Blaze at 800 units for $0.99, and can also earn it by watching ads rolled before creators’ content. On the creator side, creators can choose to charge a specific amount of Blaze for access to their stories or videos, or can make those creations free to access. They can also use Blaze to set up teasers and partial paywalls — offering, for example, one chapter of a story for free, and charging 10 Blaze for access to each followup chapter.
Another avenue for creators to make Blaze is tweeting; StoryFire recently added a social feed featuring creators’ tweets, because Ridgway and Spitz noticed that “on Twitter, you have comedians and writers kind of giving great posts away for free,” Ridgway says. So now, if users are charmed by a creator’s tweet, they can toss that creator a tip for their thoughts in Blaze.
Once creators have amassed some Blaze, they can cash it out directly into real-world currency, and the exchange rate going out is the same as the rate going in — so, 800 Blaze translates to $0.99. (StoryFire takes an undisclosed slice of creators’ Blaze earnings before they’re cashed out.)
I have MADE MORE MONEY on 3k views on StoryFire than 200k demonetized views on Youtube…LET THAT SINK IN! LMAOOOOO #StayLit 🔥
— Jesse Ridgway (@McJuggerNuggets) October 30, 2017
Additionally, like on YouTube, StoryFire creators monetize their content through ad revenue. StoryFire splits revenue, with 70% going to creators and 30% going to the platform. That means creators get a higher cut than they would on YouTube (which generally takes 45% of AdSense revenue). And, on top of taking less, StoryFire’s creators also say their platform is bringing creators better rates. In his video about leaving YouTube, Ridgway gives hard numbers, comparing the $1 per thousand views he makes on YouTube to a screenshot showing his videos are making an average of around $10 per thousand views, and as much as $16 per thousand views on StoryFire. He supported these numbers with a recent tweet showing his StoryFire earnings report from September, when he netted a total of $2,157 from ads.
For the sake of further transparency, here is my earnings report for September for @storyfireapp
The biggest takeaway is our CPM’s. $8 – $10 on average. This absolutely crushes my experience on Youtube. Also, I can say fuck and create what I want… 🤪🔥 pic.twitter.com/LXu5Uj53Du
— Jesse Tyler Ridgway (@McJuggerNuggets) October 19, 2019
One more major difference between StoryFire and YouTube: creators on the former legitimately never have to worry about their content being demonetized. Demonetization doesn’t exist on StoryFire. That’s both because they have advertisers willing to run marketing on edgier content, and because…
StoryFire has a rigorous approval system for every single video on its platform
A core part of StoryFire’s video business relies on each and every video being preapproved before it’s uploaded to the platform. While users can create as many written stories as they want as soon as they open an account, the ability to create a video is locked until the StoryFire team manually opens it for each creator. (Written stories are perused by community moderators, and, since users of all ages are allowed on the platform, “anything super sexual, offensive, or violent might be removed.”)
To get videomaking unlocked, a creator must apply to one of StoryFire’s open submission rounds. Every six weeks, StoryFire asks interested folks to send in pitches for new videos or video series. Creators often send in full pilot episodes or trailers, and describe exactly what’ll go down in their video. Then, StoryFire’s team combs through the pitches and picks the best of the best, and those creators are granted video upload abilities to bring their approved projects to life.
To give you an idea of how selective StoryFire can be, in its last submission round, it received more than 1,000 video series pitches, and ended up approving a grand total of just eight new ones.
Ridgway says the process is “a middle ground between YouTube and Netflix, where not everyone can upload anything they want, and we’re able to curate some quality content.” He adds that StoryFire doesn’t currently offer production support à la Netflix to projects it approves, but “that’s definitely something we’re looking to get into down the road.”
As for one more common creator beef with YouTube, its often-complained-about recommendation algorithm, StoryFire says its own creators and their content are all on equal footing. The creators and content that are recommended on its recently-rolled out homepage — debuted in early July — are simply the creators and content that are getting the most engagement.
If I got these views on StoryFire…I would’ve made at least $1600, probably well over $2000 given the mid-roll ads. Also, complete creative freedom.
— Jesse Tyler Ridgway (@McJuggerNuggets) October 20, 2019
Ultimately, it comes down to what Ridgway said about YouTube losing heart. The heart of StoryFire, what’s most important for the company and for Ridgway and Spitz, is “making sure people are getting what they want and feeling like they’re driving where the platform’s going, feeling like they have a voice,” Spitz says. “Jesse and I are always available, we actually converse with the community. Whereas YouTube…I feel like it’s turned its back on the community.”
Ridgway concurs, adding that StoryFire is, at its core, built on the idea that creators are its true value.
“It’s the people,” he says. “It’s not these amorphous tech platforms and AI. It’s the people and their creativity.”
You can check StoryFire out here.