When Bobbito Garcia wrote a column titled “Confessions of a Sneaker Addict” in The Source in 1991, there was no such thing as sneaker media. 26 years later, there are blogs, Instagram accounts, and YouTube channels dedicated to the ever-growing market for footwear fanatics. The lattermost, however, is the most unconquered media territory out of the three, with most of the YouTube channels run by independent “content creators,” as they refer to themselves, who are able to amass hundreds of thousands subscribers through unboxing videos, mall vlogs, and sneaker reviews. But like any burgeoning form of media, the growth of Sneaker YouTube doesn’t come without its own set of struggles, and it came to the front last week when a couple of notable Sneaker YouTubers said that they were going to sell their collections.

James Hesse, a 37-year-old from Portland, Oregon, content creator better known as “Hes Kicks,” announced that he was going to sell his impressive stash of sneakers on April 2; he says he wanted to help pay for his house mortgage and better support his family. Hesse, who works a full-time job at a medical office, says that YouTube is more profitable than his off-line career right now, but he had other reasons for wanting to get rid of his sneakers. “I’m just a hoarder and I need to get rid of some of this stuff,” he says. “There’s stuff I bought because people want to see comparisons between different sneakers. I wouldn’t have bought as many sneakers if people didn’t want to see reviews on them.”

Hesse’s video didn’t reveal that Sneaker YouTubers own way too many shoes, rather it exposed how the genre works in a microcosm. A handful of copycats videos popped up within days, with nearly every relevant content creator discussing how they felt about Hesse’s upload. None of them had intentions of selling their shoes, but they all jumped in on the conversation, hoping to get views and build up their subscriber totals. It also showed that while Sneaker YouTube is growing, the practices that are allowing it to flourish can be controversial amongst the people who are behind and in front of the cameras.

Mr. Foamer Simpson, who prefers to keep his real name and age private, announced that he would be selling his sneakers, too, with the goal of starting from scratch again. It’s commonplace in Sneaker YouTube to see a group of content creators all make videos on the same topic, but Simpson insists he didn’t make his video for views. “YouTube, in general as a platform, people see something that works and they jump on it. Everyone on YouTube, myself included, is guilty of that,” he says. “The ‘selling my sneaker collection’ video wasn’t that kind of party—that was something I’ve wanted to do.”

Like Simpson points out, there’s an ongoing trend of content creators making videos all on the same topic with the hopes of getting their video attached to a trending topic and receive more views. After Hesse and Simpson uploaded videos about selling their sneaker collections, a handful of well-known content creators made their own clips chiming in on the topic, although none of them had intentions of selling their own sneakers. “It’s because of the YouTube algorithm; it’s not about originality,” Hesse says. “I used to make videos based off of people’s comments. Today’s workspace with YouTube is driven off of related videos. People will grab titles off popular videos and add it to their videos, just so they can fall within the related field. They’re just poaching. I’m not mad at the content creators for gaming the system, because exceptional content often gets no visibility while a fuckery video will blow up for no reason.”

This sentiment is shared by other prominent YouTubers in the sneakerhead community. “[Sneaker YouTube] is a monkey-see, monkey do thing. It’s all about, ‘What can get me the views? Let me piggyback off someone who said they’re selling their collection,’” Says Patrick Carroll, a 23-year-old from New Jersey who runs a channel called We Are The Trend. “The title of the video is: ‘I’m selling my sneaker collection.’ Then they’ll say in the video, ‘Don’t worry guys, I’m not selling my collection.’”

Carroll thinks this is a big problem within the Sneaker YouTube community, and it has caused the quality of the videos being made to go down, as the creators race to get more views, make more content, and, ultimately, get paid more money by Youtube. It’s also led content creators to place dishonest or misleading titles on their videos, solely to get more eyeballs on their videos. “ “They say they’re not lying about [the title of their videos] because it’s a question: ‘Maybe I found Yeezys in the thrift [store], or maybe I didn’t,’” he explains. “YouTube is more of a cancer right now than anything. Everyone benefits from the clickbait — except the viewer.”

 
 
 

Clickbait is something that has run rampant on Sneaker YouTube, although it’s a new revelation for the content creators, who have tapped into the age-old practice of getting someone to click on something that they thought was going to be about else. “Sneaker YouTube wasn’t like this at first. I think Qias [Omar] introduced the more clickbait-y titles, it filtered through sneaker YouTube, now everyone does it,” says Jacques Slade, who has over 440,000 subscribers and has previously worked on a freelance basis for Complex. “A lot of the time, they’ll put the same title on their video and say, ‘Well, I’m not selling my collection but this person is doing it,’ and they just want to get in on it to get the views. The audience eats it up— they don’t want people to sell their collections.”

Slade doesn’t think it’s hurting Sneaker YouTube, but he believes it’s all because the content creators are chasing views. “It’s just a short-term way of thinking,” he says.

Qias Omar, a 28-year-old from California whose QrewTV channel has over 670,000 subscribers, admits that he’s the godfather of clickbait titles on Sneaker YouTube. His channel is a mix of daily vlogs and unboxings and is currently one of the largest independent sneaker-based channels on YouTube. “Everyone can point fingers at me. I don’t like to be cocky or say I changed everything, but I was the first to bring [clickbait] to Sneaker YouTube,” he says. “If you want to keep up and get the views, you’ve got to do it. They can point the finger at me, but I can point the finger right back at them, because they do it now.”

In fact, Omar sees clickbait more as a marketing opportunity for Sneaker YouTubers to grow their channels to people who aren’t already following them. “[Clickbait] is a way for us get people to watch our videos,” he says. “It’s not a way to trick people. It’s a way to get people to watch our videos who aren’t subscribers.”

Omar, along with Simpson and Slade, all do Sneaker YouTube as their full-time jobs. (Simpson also owns a beardcare company with his brother, who’s involved in his YouTube channel, too.) But the actual dollars behind their channels are blurry at best. “There’s a fuzzy cloud of how much a YouTuber makes, because nobody wants to disclose that,” Hesse says.

Social Blade, a media analytics site, estimates that Simpson’s channel, with over 230,000 subscribers, can generate over $70,000 a year. Views aren’t the only way Sneaker YouTubers get paid, and it’s not uncommon to see them have their shows sponsored by upstart clothing labels. “The bigger money, though, is working with brands and retailers and get paid that way,” Simpson says. “I get emails every day from brands that want to send me stuff, and I always want to check them out first, and then I hit them with my rates and see if it works for both of us. I turn down more than I take.”

The allure of free sneakers is what brings some people into making YouTube videos centered around sneakers, and Omar admits this is what made him start a sneaker-specific channel after originally joining YouTube in 2007. “I was doing skit [videos] for 7 years, but I was always a sneakerhead,” he says. “I saw that [Sneaker YouTubers] were getting seeded sneakers and going to Michael Jordan’s house, so I started putting sneakers into my videos and launched a sneaker channel.”

Slade was one of the Sneaker YouTubers invited to Michael Jordan’s Chicago mansion  in August 2014 (along with the likes of Complex Sneakers). It wasn’t just a fun experience for Slade on a personal level, but it also produced his most successful video, “Inside Michael Jordan’s House in Chicago: Vlog,” which has received over nine million views to date.

Free sneakers are commonplace in the world of sneaker media. Editors of websites, “influencers,” and the people behind YouTube accounts are all sent them from a multitude of brands and retailers. Sneaker YouTubers not only see this as a way to keep a fresh pair on their feet, but also as an opportunity to create videos and gain more views. But it’s hard to keep stay objective in this environment.  “You have a sneaker channel and people want content everyday, so you need shit to do content on. I haven’t got anything from Champs in a while, because, maybe, they were bent out of shape because of not doing videos or things I said in them. I’ve always kept it funky with how I felt about a sneaker,” Simpson says. “It’s cheap promo for brands. They know that sneaker YouTubers need content. They don’t pay me for the videos, but I don’t have another sneaker to make a video on. So you get stuck in this weird see-saw.”.

The constant flow of free sneakers has allowed YouTubers to amass huge collections—and to not worry much when it comes to selling them. New sneakers are surely be on the way.

Slade doesn’t see clickbait as a reason for brands to disassociate themselves from content creators. “I don’t think brands care about clickbait,” he says. “Because if they did, they’d stop fucking with the blogs along time ago. It’s the same thing but in a different format.”

Some YouTubers wish that brands took them seriously as a legitimate media source, rather than something that’s made for sheer entertainment on the Internet. “I think [what] would help sneaker YouTube is the brands realizing how important we are to them. We’re not getting invited to these launches. They take us as a joke,” Omar says. “If brands take us serious and see us growing, then I think we’ll take over the regular blogs.”

That same sentiment isn’t shared by Slade, who has worked  a several sneaker sites. “I don’t think [YouTube] will replace the blogs. I think social media is the place information is going, and I don’t consider YouTube as social media,” he says. “It’s TV for a different generation and blogs are magazines.”

Wherever Sneaker YouTube is going, one thing is for certain, and that it’s growing. Where it’s headed, no one can say for sure, but Omar has some thoughts. “I think creators can come up with better content and come up with trends that no one has seen. It will start to get the attention of YouTube,” he says.