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What the “Creator Economy” promises – and what it actually does

The influencer is a fading stick figure of the Internet’s commedia dell’arte. Often a conventionally attractive white woman, she shows her ambitious lifestyle via social media channels. She is gaining a huge following and making a living by getting companies to sponsor the content of her glamorous life. The influencer cliché emerged in the 1920s from multimedia platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, where the aim was to forge an image that was as curated and polished as possible. Influencers were social media users rather than celebrities, with much of the vanity and futility the comparison implies. In the meantime, the connotation of an influencer is mostly negative – edited selfies, empty captions, incorrect attribution, staged private jet photos and unmarked sponsorships. Accordingly, social media platforms are embracing a new catchphrase as successors: “Creator”.

“Creator” is a term with a healthier twist that conjures up an Internet where we are all artisanal blacksmiths doing our digital craft. But what exactly the word implies beyond that is up for debate. According to Taylor Lorenz’s coverage for The Atlantic, the term was originally marketed by YouTube in 2011 as an alternative to vocabulary such as “YouTube star,” suggesting that few famous people could be successful on the platform. But it is now used to describe virtually anyone who produces any form of content online. TikTok users are “TikTok creators”. Members of the invitation-only real-time voice chat app Clubhouse are “Audio Creators”. OnlyFans, a marketplace primarily used for pornography, is home to “adult content creators”.

Even proponents of the so-called “Creator Economy”, the network of new platforms and tools intended to serve creative people, cannot quite agree on what the term means and who it includes. Its rise has sparked a semantic debate tending towards solipsism. “I think all influencers are creators; maybe not all creators are influencers, ”said Nicole Quinn, partner at venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners. Lightspeed’s creator economy investments include Cameo, a platform best known for custom video messages that celebrities sell to fans, and Outschool, a marketplace for online courses. For Quinn, the difference in terminology is success: influencers are already famous; Creators strive for it. Li Jin, the founder of creator economy investment firm Atelier Ventures, instead defined creators in terms of revenue. “Anyone whose fame stems from online channels, if they can generate income from this influence, I consider the creator economy.”

Despite its vagueness, “creator” is used as a synonym for a new generation of social media spaces that are supposedly designed to support content producers in new ways. While the ad-driven platforms Facebook and Twitter take advantage of our data and attention without giving much back, Clubhouse and OnlyFans promise to bring a greater share of value to users by enabling what Quinn of Lightspeed calls “direct monetization”. ”Instead of the company selling ads based on total engagement, YouTubers can get paid by their individual viewers who buy subscriptions, send tips, or crowdfund new projects. The word “influencer” emphasized a person’s magnetic effect on their followers, a nebulous aura that easily turned into marketing. “Creator”, on the other hand, emphasizes that everyone who posts on social media produces something and participates in the joint effort to make user-generated platforms attractive and thus profitable. This idea has proven very marketable: the Creator Economy has reportedly received $ 1.3 billion in investment funding so far in 2021, almost three times as much as it did in all of 2020.

Creator economy companies have developed various revenue models as alternatives to advertising. Subscription-driven platforms like Patreon, Substack, and Buy Me a Coffee charge a percentage of users’ income in exchange for the publication and paywall of their content. Apps such as Linktree, Beacons and Feedlink offer a service that, for a monthly fee, expands the website links in the bios of social media accounts and directs fans to the various content channels of a creator. Non-fungible token (NFT) marketplaces like Foundation, Rarible, and SuperRare allow creators to sell expensive digital art objects for commission fees. Twitch, a site that allows users to live stream content such as video games, and Heygo, a streaming site that provides a virtual proxy for travel, give viewers free access to video streams and the ability to send tips to the hosts. According to Quinn, March 2020 was the “major turning point” for this emerging economy as the increased appetite for digital content and the loss of jobs in other industries during the pandemic led more people to try their luck as creators.

In a way, the creator economy seems to give the user more room for maneuver. In theory, instead of trying to play social media algorithms, creators can count on more reliable income from supporters. You can choose which tasks to take on, whether newsletters, live streams or audio chat. “You don’t have to worry about going against the tide of the platform,” said Sam Yam, co-founder of Patreon, a pioneer in the creator economy. For Yam, making a living as a creator is an evolution of what is known as the gig economy, made possible by companies like Uber and TaskRabbit. Followers pay to access a person’s unique talent or voice. “They care more about the individual than just the task that needs to be done,” said Yam. “Value is exchanged for creativity.” The model promises a more human and less automated interaction. What was once called followers – the anonymous numbers that pile up like so many fungible eyeballs on a profile page – are now customers, supporters and patrons.

But this emerging field resembles a gig economy for digital content in many ways. The participants are still precarious workers who rely on the whims of companies for their livelihoods. Much like an Uber driver or an Instagram influencer of twenty ten years old, the creator is responsible for her own marketing, health care, and tax contributions. She makes money for the platform it is hosted on without receiving the legal and financial protection of employee status or the stock options normally given to the platform’s engineers, designers, and managers. Meanwhile, the social media giants are developing their own version of the creator economy to keep users from fleeing to newer, smaller platforms. Last year TikTok launched a Creator Fund to pay its users directly for popular content. Snapchat has launched a similar program called Spotlight, which offers developers millions in compensation every month. Last week, Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced that it would pay more than $ 1 billion to users on its platforms by 2022.

Anshuman Iddamsetty, a former podcast producer who now runs a Patreon that focuses on erotic self-portraits and uses the pronouns “she” and “she”, told me that they make a fair living from this account and an OnlyFans site. But they said there is a gap between the platforms’ message that anyone can build an independent creative career, as the Patreon website extols, and the reality of being a solo entrepreneur. “Patreon doesn’t magically make creating your results easier all of a sudden,” they said. Ambiguous policies can allow platforms to block users or types of content as they see fit; Patreon allows some forms of adult content, but Iddamsetty, who describes herself as a “fat adult artist”, has encountered unexpected barriers. The hype surrounding the creator economy is “only relevant if you are a certain type of creator with a certain type of product,” they said.

Even Yam of Patreon recognizes the limits of the budding field. He anticipates a future in which both the social media giants and the creator economy brands are entirely avoidable. Each creator will instead have their own bespoke platform, “their own top-down world”, from underlying technology to published content – a “property economy”. For the time being, however, the majority of users will continue to rely on the already established attention economy for the majority of digital consumption. “Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, they are as dominant as ever,” said Jin. “Today nobody finds a person on Patreon; you go there after you find them. ”In other words, to be a creator you still have to be an influencer.

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