According to the amateur online-business advisers of YouTube, the age of easily accessible AI is the age of asking and receiving. ChatGPT and other AI tools are ascendant in popular culture, as is the idea that you can ask them for anything. You can even ask them to make you rich.
Joshua Mayo, a YouTube personality who makes videos about work-from-home “side hustles” and methods for becoming a millionaire before age 30, told me recently that his audience of mostly young people doesn’t want to work a standard 9-to-5 job for several decades and then retire off of their 401(k). “A lot of them don’t find that appealing,” he said. “So they’re kind of turning to side hustles.” Younger generations often talk about the total fakeness of money and the surreal position of always having to collect it. Logically, they want to make money online by creating something out of nothing. And with the help of AI, they can even make money by making nothing out of nothing.
“A lot of my videos now have some type of AI in them, even if it’s not specifically an AI side hustle or an AI business,” Mayo told me. “You can still use or implement AI into the processes.” In one of his videos about using AI to make money, he explains that images created with Midjourney can be made in seconds and sold as digital downloads on Etsy—a way to tap into the “multimillion-dollar market” of clip art. Incidentally, this is one of the first ideas that ChatGPT gave me when I asked it to give me 10 ideas for online businesses: “The ideas stage is actually perfect for AI,” Mayo confirmed. “You can ask the AI to give you ideas for products to sell on Etsy and it will spit out a big list for you.”
Of course, you do have to sift through the list and use some human reasoning to determine if the ideas will work. You also have to hurry. “It’s a gold rush,” Mayo said. “It’s this era that may or may not last forever.” In “How to Make Your First $1000 With ChatGPT (still early),” a YouTuber lets viewers know they should get started “before everyone understands this stuff.” “You need to capitalize on the opportunities while they persist,” another YouTuber explains in “The Best Way to Get RICH with A.I. (2023).”
The urgency conveyed in these videos is softened with the reassurance that all of this is easy. You can take advantage of the “easiest” AI side hustle of the year (making stickers of AI-generated art) while possessing “No Skill.” You can make money with AI on YouTube’s short-form video app using “NO FACE OR VOICE.” Watching a video titled “How to Make $10,561 / month with Digital Products Using AI,” you can see that the promises of ease are true but not exactly the whole story. The host asks ChatGPT to list some ideas for children’s coloring pages, then puts those ideas into Midjourney to generate the images, which she then sells on marketplaces like Etsy. The results are impressive, in that they look basically like coloring-book pages. They’re black-and-white, with places to color in. However, in one image, a chicken has three legs, and in another, a fox has a bird mouth. The host doesn’t appear to notice this, or she doesn’t remark upon it.
Whatever, there are plenty of other ideas. You can buy them—a digital download of “250 Digital Product Ideas That Sell For Passive Income” is currently marked down to $3.29 from $13.14—or you can generate them. I asked ChatGPT for ideas that were different than the ones I’d already seen in the hustle videos—I didn’t want to make digital scrapbook paper, patterns for drop-shipped phone cases, résumé templates, stickers, mugs, candles, recolorized vintage photos, or portraits of people’s pets dressed up as British royalty. The bot suggested that I sell downloadable embroidery patterns, printable party supplies such as cupcake toppers or party games, and a fill-in-the-blank mindfulness journal. These all felt like pretty good ideas, probably because they sounded like Etsy products that already exist.
I had also learned from the YouTubers that the T-shirt and mug markets on Etsy are never, ever saturated. If you can think of something to write on a T-shirt or mug—which you won’t have to actually make yourself because you can hook your Etsy shop up to a print-on-demand service such as Printify—you’re set. So I asked ChatGPT to come up with some funny shirts about loving wine. “Wine Improves with Age, I Improve with Wine,” it offered. “I Make Pour Decisions.” “Sip Happens.” “I Only Drink Wine on Days That End in Y.” I initially believed that I could easily become rich from these. Unfortunately I didn’t hustle fast enough: Every one of these phrases is already available on Etsy on various print-on-demand T-shirts, tank tops, plastic stemless wine glasses, and coffee mugs, and also, of course, as downloadable clip art.
It may come as a surprise that AI-generated products are so commonplace on Etsy, a platform that was designed nearly two decades ago specifically for artisan, handmade items. But the site has been moving away from its history for years, and unrest among its longtime sellers is basically the status quo. In 2019, sellers bristled when they were pushed to offer free shipping to compete with Amazon, and CEO Josh Silverman told me at the time that “handmade” was no longer “the value proposition” of the site. Modern Etsy celebrates garbage as long as it sells.
More recently, some sellers organized a strike when the company raised its transaction fees. An Etsy spokesperson declined to comment on the record for this story, but the company’s policy is that AI-generated digital products are permissible because some level of creativity is still involved. This definition of creativity is even more capacious than it sounds, as it appears to include digital products that are essentially just lists. When I looked, among the top listings for digital products on Etsy were PDFs with names such as “500 Digital Product Ideas” and “808 Digital product ideas.” (Also: “Passive Income with ChatGPT,” “50,000 Ultimate ChatGPT prompts,” “799 AI Prompts for Artists” “How To Use ChatGPT and Prompts to Create Ebook Automatically,” etc.)
In the Etsy forums, sellers are confused. “Is art created by AI the seller[’s] ‘own original design’?” one asked rhetorically, referring to the site’s policies. What does original mean anymore? They suspect that the proliferation of cheap AI art is pushing real artists down in the already highly competitive search results and ultimately off of the site. “Couldn’t find a single handpainted watercolor clip art of a highland cow,” a commenter wrote in April. “So sad for all the true artists out there.” One thread about AI art had to be closed by a moderator because of the “unproductive nature” of the conversation. (I don’t know specifically which comments caused the problem. Maybe it was “Social Darwinism, baby. Use the machine, or get good at something a machine can’t do, or go extinct.”)
The Etsy seller and clip-art designer Jane Cide told me she wasn’t surprised at all that Etsy was allowing AI art. “It is a platform for making money, and AI is making a lot of money right now,” she told me. She started selling paintings on Etsy in college, but did much better with digitized illustrations, which eventually turned into her full-time job. She said her sales had dropped about 50 percent since the end of last year, which is when AI art started hitting the Etsy marketplace. “It could just be a coincidence,” she acknowledged. “There’s so many factors that go into that. But when I look up clip art on Etsy, half of the search results are AI-generated clip art. It’s kind of hard not to draw conclusions when you’re very obviously competing in a space that is no longer for you.”
The side-hustle acolytes aren’t unsympathetic to this perspective. Mayo told me he was initially a bit hurt when he saw people talking about having ChatGPT write YouTube-video scripts or having Midjourney generate YouTube-video thumbnails. Those are things he spends hours and hours doing himself. At the same time, “it’s not like you’re cheating the customer,” he argued. They get what they pay for. There’s a market for stuff that isn’t very good.
He used the example of a woman with a hugely popular store on Etsy that sells T-shirts that have unique phrases on them but all use the same design template from Canva. “There are two schools of thought here,” he said. “The first school is That’s not right. Like, she should have created stuff with her own imagination by herself. But then there’s a second school of thought that says Well, she’s not just copying these templates verbatim and placing them on T-shirts. She is still changing the words. She is still changing the color of the text. It is still a unique product; it’s just that she had a little bit of help.”
It’s all about spotting an opportunity. Steven Hornyak, a proprietor of an Etsy shop selling collections of prewritten ChatGPT and Midjourney prompts, supplements his teacher’s salary with about $300 a day in profit. His most popular products are a ChatGPT Etsy-listing generator—a detailed prompt that users can input into ChatGPT to help them create Etsy product listings that are optimized to appear in Google search—and a collection of 2,500 Midjourney art prompts. “The secret sauce is that once you learn how to engineer prompts, you can create prompts that generate other prompts,” Hornyak told me. “I’ll take my best sellers and feed them into ChatGPT and say, ‘Hey, here are 10 of my best sellers from my Etsy shop. Help me generate 25 new ideas of possible products I could also sell.’”
He says he offers a much different product than some of the stores that post cheap prompt bundles that are clearly unedited—straight from ChatGPT’s mouth, with no human input or discretion. He also gives customers bang for their buck by editing his lists even after they’ve been sold. “I deliver all my products through Google Sheets so that I can update them, and the customer always has the most current version,” he said. He’s having fun. He genuinely enjoys experimenting with these tools and figuring out how to get the best results out of them.
Sure, sometimes customers are unhappy. They say, I could have done this myself. “Well, yeah, you could have done that,” Hornyak says. “But when you buy it, you’re getting my video; you’re getting me walking you through the process.”
Also, you could have done it, but you didn’t.