YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram spawned 50 million ‘creators’ — what could go wrong?

YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram spawned 50 million ‘creators’ — what could go wrong?

  • Singers, actors, and artisans have a fashionable identity these days — “creators” — as well as their own “creator economy.”
  • For platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok, creators are a golden opportunity to create more profit.
  • But there are signs that the creator boom might not be as sustainable as Silicon Valley’s knack for clever marketing. 

One summer when I was in grade school my next-door neighbors and I started a short-lived, stapled-together publication we called the Neighborhood News. I have no memory of what we wrote about. I do recall that a friend’s mom made photocopies for us at her office and that we sold issues door to door for a pittance.

I think now of this childhood vignette as neither the beginning of my journalism career nor as evidence of a never-fulfilled entrepreneurial impulse. Instead, I realize that today my exertions would identify me as a pint-sized creator, the “it” term of the moment in and around Silicon Valley.

It’s a bit confusing, though, just what a creator is — and just how new this notion of creating for profit is either. Actors who wait tables (and waiters who audition for acting roles), freelancers, giggers, contractors, buskers, and basement newsletterists, have been around for eons. The difference now, at least according to a tech-industry cohort that has cleverly packaged the concept, is the breadth and depth of startups and tech tools available to the masses of unaffiliated workers to help them ply their trades.

Creators are all around us. They are solo-practitioner writers on Substack and performers on

Patreon
, “a membership platform that makes it easy for artists and creators to get paid.” Influencers, a subset of creators, are the economic engine of TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, all photo and video apps supporting various durations and flavors. Creators are the core of Etsy, which helps “creative entrepreneurs start, manage, and scale their businesses.” Various types of entertainers, from gamers to chess players, are creators on

Twitch
, the streaming platform owned by Amazon that started life as the voyeuristic Justin.tv.

“Creatorship is a movement,” says Josh Constine, a former TechCrunch journalist who is now an investor and head of content for SignalFire, a venture-capital firm that proudly stakes the “creator economy.” In the grand tradition of savvy VCs who write, tweet, and podcast intelligently to great promotional effect — see Fred Wilson, Andreessen and Horowitz, Naval Ravikant, and many others — Constine is a pied piper of creators. He and his partner Yuanling Yuan are authors of the firm’s “Creator Economy Market Map,” a cogent and comprehensive explanation of the trend. It’s also a dizzying compilation of the myriad tech titans and fledgling startups attempting to cash in on the fun.

@Sintica Twitch streamer

@Sintica.

Twitch.


The SignalFire report suggests there are some 50 million creators globally. Constine told me that while at one point that number may have represented an actual count of people, today there’s likely a good deal of duplication because the state of the art in the creating game is to exploit multiple platforms. “Many creators play across diverse mediums,” he says. The only way to get noticed is to draw attention on one of the algorithmically-driven mega apps. The goal is then to lure one’s audience to a venue where the person doing the creating has more control.

As is usually the case, aggressive and well capitalized tech companies are the best positioned to profit from all this. While creators compete in a classic long-tail quest to earn a living, the platforms that host them enjoy the best economics. As Cecilia D’Anastasio smartly wrote recently in Wired: “Yes, thousands of would-be pop stars mailed demo tapes in a time before streaming, but the record labels didn’t get to sell ads against them.”

Indeed, as typically happens when a tech trend catches fire, a wide variety of players is piling in. On Wednesday, Spotify launched a new app called Greenroom that allows anyone to host live chats and podcasts, along with a “Creator Fund” that will compensate the most successful. Twitter, whose product development hasn’t always kept pace with the times, recently added a “Tip Jar” feature that allows a “limited group” of users to accept payments for what they publish on Twitter. “This group includes creators, journalists, experts, and nonprofits,” Twitter explains in an announcement. (“Experts” comes off as nebulous as “creators,” but more the merrier, I suppose.) Clubhouse, the year-old audio app that says it was about creators from the get-go, has launched both a “Creator First” incubator for individuals who perform on the app and a payment tool to help them make money. (Anyone else sensing a dying down of the Clubhouse euphoria?) Journalists also are rushing the stage. The Information, a tech-industry trade publication, has created a newsletter, “Creator Economy,” a hyper-informative compendium of the industry’s new goings on.

For all this excitement, I’m still having a tough time deciding if all this is genuinely new or rather yet another example of Silicon Valley’s knack for selling old wine in a new bottle.

A bartender next to bar at an event adorned with YouTube branding

YouTube Space event

Timothy Norris / Getty Images contributor


The word creator itself is certainly smart marketing. In its current form it seems to be about a decade old, dating to the creation of the YouTube Creators program. The tech industry is good at backward-naming lucrative trends. The word “cloud,” for example, doesn’t appear in Salesforce.com’s 2004 IPO prospectus. Instead, Salesforce describes its niche as selling “on-demand application services,” an accurate if boring description. Techland also is great at sprinkling some pixie dust and declaring something that’s been around a long time to be new. (Substackers: Spend a few minutes reading about the muckraking journalist I.F. Stone and his newsletter “I.F. Stone’s Weekly.” You’ll be inspired.)

The cool thing about a cool name is that once it sticks the opportunities for redefinition are endless. Third-party software developers (an uncool label) have been creating for the likes of Microsoft and Apple for years. Now they are creators. Adobe commercialized desktop publishing and design software in Silicon Valley’s paleolithic era; now it bundles the Adobe Creative Suite for guess who?

The creator economy faces another problem endemic to tech fads: It already is threatening to burn itself out. Creators have discovered that working for oneself is a grind, what with not getting paid to take a vacation and having to pay for health insurance and all the other tedious things big, bad companies handle for their employees. (The New York Times and Vox are among those who’ve covered creator burnout recently.) This has prompted calls for the mega-cap platforms to provide for the mental health and general wellbeing of their non-employee workers. “Creators are at the mercy of the algorithm’s fickle tastes,” says Constine, the venture capitalist. “They penalize people for taking a break.”

The potential solution to creator burnout is a bit ironic. People in the ultimate fragmented industry are beginning to make noise about banding together to help each other out. Whether those confederations come to resemble worker cooperatives or companies, it lessens the  benefits of being a “solopreneur,” a real word in the creator economy. It’s also easy to see a day the biggest talent-focused companies either add or buy the tools they need to identify, nurture, and promote the people who create the information and entertainment for their media empires.

It all sounds a lot like broadcast networks, television and movie studios, and record labels of days of old. How creative.

Adam Lashinsky is an Insider contributor and former executive editor at Fortune magazine, where he spent 19 years. He is the author of two books: “Inside Apple” (about Apple) and “Wild Ride” (about Uber).

https://ragheadnews.com

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