The internet seems to offer plenty of opportunities for teenagers to earn money: selling vintage clothes via Instagram; listing unwanted Magic and Pokémon cards on eBay; posting videos on YouTube and hoping they go viral.
And if you’ve never made a dollar on the web, have you at least thought about it? What would you want to sell or do to try to earn cash on the internet?
Do you think making money online is easier or harder for most teenagers than just getting a traditional job, like working in a store, a movie theater or a restaurant? Why?
For years, Rowan Winch was nothing if not online. Each day his alarm went off at 6 a.m. and he would roll over in his twin bed, grab his iPhone and start looking for memes — viral images and videos — to share on Instagram. He’d repost a handful to his suite of popular accounts before getting into the shower. Afterward, he would keep searching, and posting, until it was time to board the bus for school.
On the way to his high school in suburban Pennsylvania, Rowan would curl up in a seat, mining the internet for content. The point was not always quality but quantity. Between classes, at lunch, during study hall, he would keep his social media empire running with new images and videos. (His school has a relatively relaxed cellphone policy.) Rowan’s target, at the time, was 100 posts a day. (By comparison, The New York Times publishes around 250 pieces of original journalism each day, though some of those posts take longer to make.)
When he got home, Rowan would turn on his laptop and sit in front of the glowing screen for hours, or flop onto his bed, his phone hovering above his face. His Instagram feed flashed before him like a slot machine. His most popular account, @Zuccccccccccc, taking its name from Facebook’s chief executive, had 1.2 million followers. If his posts were good, his account would keeping growing. If he took some time off, growth would stall. Rowan, like most teenagers on the internet, wasn’t after fame or money, though he made a decent amount — at one point $10,000 a month and more, he said. What Rowan wanted was clout.
On the internet, clout is a social currency that can be used to obtain just about anything. Rack up enough while you’re young, and doors everywhere begin to open. College recruiters notice you. Job opportunities and internships come your way. Your social status among peers rises, money flows in. Even fame becomes a possibility, if that’s what you’re after.
“I want to have enough clout to be recognized for who I am, but I don’t ever want to see myself like a famous person,” Rowan said one day in his bedroom. “I just want to be able to have connections everywhere and be financially secure and monetize what I like doing.”
Rowan’s economy was a primarily teenage one. Mostly he sold ads on his Instagram to other teenagers looking to promote their own pages, apps or online storefronts. He negotiated deals through direct messages on Instagram and posted about 10 ads per day — some in the form of comments, links and images — on his various accounts. The profits supported his lifestyle; he bought Saint Laurent sneakers, an iPhone XR, a Gucci wallet. He planned to purchase a Tesla next year, when he’s eligible to get his driver’s license.
Rowan’s meme account was not his first business. Like many teenagers, Rowan had begun leveraging the internet early for financial and social gain. In middle school he’d order stickers in bulk on Amazon, then sell them at a markup to his classmates by promoting them on Snapchat.
By the time he reached high school, Rowan had entered the apparel resale market. He would purchase designer clothes and accessories from brands like Supreme on websites like Letgo, OfferUp and Craigslist, then resell them on Grailed, an app for consigning luxury items.
Rowan also experimented with dropshipping. This entails setting up an online storefront that ships products from third-party retailers to customers, profiting on the difference. Before he monetized his meme account, Rowan also sold shout-out videos on Fiverr. His followers could pay a small fee to receive a video of Rowan delivering a personalized message.
All of these are popular ways for teenagers to make money on the internet. Rowan, however, was unusually successful.
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