The dark underbelly of the creator economy

The reality of working on your passion as a creator is very different from the hype that surrounds it.

People are smart. Corporates are smarter.

Following the release of The Social Dilemma in 2020, many people started to question the amount of time they spend on social media platforms. There was a lot of talk around the ill-effects of the attention economy, Big Tech came under fire, andThe reality of working on your passion as a creator is very different from the hype that surrounds it. a significant number of people started to, if not delete, reduce social media usage.

Over the last couple of years, there has also been quite a bit of chatter around the exploitative effect of the gig economy and influencer culture, and companies needed to pivot their marketing messages to remain relevant.

Enter: Substack. A small start-up that was founded in 2017, Substack started to create a quiet revolution in the newsletter market. It shot into the limelight over the last year, when it emerged as an increasingly popular choice for journalists looking to run subscription-based publications. It soon attracted a host of other writers, many of whom already had considerable platforms on other social media channels.

The attraction: writers could charge for their newsletters, thus effectively monetizing their communities and followers.

Similar revolutions have taken place across various points on the internet value chain. And Big Tech has been quick to respond.

Twitter, for example, recently acquired Revue, another free newsletter platform with in-built tools to allow writers to monetize their newsletters.

A number of other start-ups focused on the creator economy received considerable VC funding, to the tune of a record $1.3 billion in 2021 alone.

What we are seeing is the nascent-stage pivot from the attention economy to the creator economy.

The rise of the creator economy

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Tired of fighting ever changing social media algorithms, artists and creatives are looking for ways to diversify their reliance on social media channels. When Instagram announced that it was no longer only a photo sharing app and that it would push more video content, it — expectedly — led to an outpouring of angst among the artists community.

Many artists and photographers reported seeing a significant decline in their reach, which led to an immediate fall in their sales. All of them responded in different ways — while some, like artist and photographer Nick Waplington, said they would probably go back to using Instagram as a personal account, others, like Lucy Pass started a new hashtag to focus on still photography.

Ironically, when announcing the change in focus, Instagram head Adam Mosseri claimed that Instagram wants to empower creators to “make a living” on the site, but creatives have actually seen sales suffer. That’s because there is a difference between “creators” and “creatives”.

A creator makes content that can only exist on a certain app, while creatives simply share their art online.

So while an Instagram creator can only exist on the platform, Instagram’s creatives can go elsewhere. And Instagram, of course, is interested in the creator. Because the longer you spend on the app, the more attention you give it, which, of course, can be monetized. Instagram’s changes, thus, feed right back into the attention economy loop.

Is the creator economy yet another Big Tech trap?

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Although they claim to democratize creativity and promote ‘creative talent’, social media platforms actually commoditize creators to maintain their grasp on the attention economy.

Fire up Instagram now, and you’ll see a succession of reels in your feed. The amount of time spent watching a reel – even if it’s a 10 second reel, is more than most people probably spend scrolling through photographs. And the majority of users don’t stop at watching just one reel.

When announcing Instagram’s change in focus, Mosseri said, “the number one reason people say that they use Instagram in research is to be entertained,” and the app plans to “lean into that trend” by experimenting with video.

We’re [also] going to be experimenting with how do we embrace video more broadly – full screen, immersive, entertaining, mobile-first video. You’ll see us do a number of things, or experiment with a number of things in this space over the coming months.

By declaring that Instagram was “no longer a photo-sharing app or a square photo-sharing app,” Mosseri fatefully alienated a large base of photographers, artists, and creatives.

However, social media is still the foundation of the creator economy, so despite the anger, creatives aren’t going to be quitting social media in droves. And although there are a number of start-ups — like Substack, Gumroad, and Podia — that are trying to help creators set up their own online properties and ‘earn more from fewer fans’, creatives still need social media to find and connect with their community.

While there are a number of business owners who have given up social media and social media marketing — artist Leonie Dawson and entrepreneur Alexandra Frazen are among the most well-known — they made the move off social media after they already had a significant platform and a sizeable mailing list to which to market to.

The myth of the break down of outdated power structures (a.k.a. Gatekeepers)

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

The biggest selling point of the creator economy is the eradication of gatekeepers.

  • Self-publishing removed the barriers put up by traditional publishing houses, allowing anyone to write and publish their own books.
  • Artists can connect with fans and collectors directly, eliminating curators and galleries.
  • Musicians can sell their albums through Bandcamp, eliminating record labels.

But, all of them need a platform to reach their fans and customers.

Hello, social media.

There are millions of creators looking to share and sell their work, and an algorithm that dictates which accounts are ‘discovered’. Content is commoditized and easily substitutable, and a relatively small number of creators rise to the top, while the rest try everything they can to gain some visibility.

However, it is also true that you do not need a massive following to be able to monetize your craft — 1,000 true fans, defined as a die-hard fan who will buy anything you produce, apparently, is plenty.

Many creators are trying to leverage the communities they have built on social media, hoping that at least some of their fans will move with them to a different platform — and pay for expanded access to their work. That could be through recurring subscriptions via Substack (newsletters), Kajabi (subscription-based communities), and Patreon (different monthly tiers offering different levels of content); or one-off purchases via KoFi or Gumroad; or big-ticket courses on platforms like Teachable or Podia.

However, as Ed Zitron, CEO of Media Relations and Public Relations company EZPR, argues, most “creator economy” companies are looking to become the Amazon of creators’ content. Platforms like Patreon and Substack essentially provide what amounts to a “content distribution system and payment rails“, in exchange for which they take a cut of creators’ earnings.

While that’s not necessarily a problem — companies do need to earn a revenue, after all — most of these platforms provide very little in the way of promotion to help creators get their enterprises going, but, as Zitron says, they “profit off of every moment of your success.

The creator economy, then, is just the hustle wrapped up in a new nom de plume.

Patreon presents it as a “way to get paid for creating the things you’re already creating,” while Substack positions itself as helping you to “Get paid to do what you love”.

The subtext is clear: if you’re already doing it, why not monetize it (hustle harder, often via social media).

Zitron presents a much more scathing view on the creator economy:

“This is the justification that the creator economy uses to justify swindling creators – that this is all vocational work that you, on some level, should be grateful you can make a single cent from, and glorious, generous creator economy companies are there to “help.” This is the intentional framing of the creator economy that these companies want — that they’re “enabling people to make money doing what they love,” as if that isn’t work, as if it’s something that’s inferior to work because you may enjoy it, and thus they can justify taking on billions of dollars in funding as a means to drain creators of the money from that labor.”

Perhaps all we’ve really done, then, is to rebrand the attention economy as the creator economy; given “hustle culture” a more palatable name; and replaced one set of gatekeepers with another.

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14 comments

  1. This is an extremely important article. Social media is more of a bane than a boon for true talents. The Instagram reel is the worst thing that could have happened. These days, so much of cringe in scattered all over social media that it is difficult to find a good creator or artist.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What I find really odd is when people approach you to write a post and then ask for a minimum of 20k followers on Instagram? Where will I get them from? How will I keep them engaged? While I do enjoy posting reels – just off the cuff ones – I can’t be bothered spending time doing perfect ones!
    I really can’t be bothered with it all. Just stick to writing and networking in the old fashioned way, I think!
    I must tell you that I use Kajabi as a consumer – not a creator and it’s pretty great.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I like your reels, Corrine! I do like making reels too, but not too often. Art reels require a whole lot of editing to fit into that ridiculous 30 second time-frame. While I enjoy editing video from time to time, too much of it makes me grumpy. I’d rather do other, more interesting things! I’ve used Kajabi as a consumer too, and it’s quite good! It’s also really expensive to use as a creator — so you already need to have a big following that’s willing to pay you to make a profit off of it!

      Like

  3. I’m a happy blogger because I don’t care what happens in the social media wrt my posts. Usually there’s not even a single like. A few, at best. But I get readers from somewhere I know not. That’s enough for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Big tech is treating creators like performing monkeys. The more you play by their rules, the more visibility you get.

    I don’t understand the trend of monetising everything under the sun. I think it spells the end of creativity because you don’t want to risk experimenting and upsetting your customers.

    Like

    • lol – performing monkeys — that’s a pretty apt description for what I’ve been seeing on Instagram recently!

      100% agree with that statement, Satabdi. Everything doesn’t have to be monetized. Creativity involves risk taking, and monetizing more often than not curbs that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Trying to keep up with social media to get followers for my posts just took away the joy of writing or posting. So now I just write or post for the sake of writing and posting. I did attend a workshop on how to make reels, but I still haven’t got the hang of it. So I guess I will just stay with posting pictures and continue writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is one of the reasons I love the concept of emailers and websites. Everywhere else you have to fight to get what you’re looking for but on these 2 platforms, they come to you. I really liked that last quote. Just because creatives love their job doesn’t mean its not work.

    Liked by 1 person

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