It was early 2019, maybe, when the kids I’d interview who’d gone viral on TikTok started proudly referring to themselves as content creators. My initial reaction was: Why not “comedian” or “competitive dancer” or “aspiring actor”? Didn’t that sound more exciting than two of the most meaningless words in existence: “content” and “creator”? But as talking to kids tends to do, it only revealed that I was washed.
More than 50 million people worldwide now consider themselves creators, a term that encompasses everything from YouTubers to podcasters to writers to artists to people who sell courses online to people aspiring to be any of those things. You have likely heard pundits lament the percentage of teenagers and children who aspire to be influencers and moralize on why that’s a sign of society’s unavoidable doom. I think the more interesting question, though, is when did seemingly everyone in the world become a content creator, whether they signed up for it or not?
Boringly, it probably has something to do with the pandemic, like seemingly everything does. Bloomberg called the $20 billion creator industry “pandemic-proof” due to the explosion of people monetizing their social media followings over the past two years, some of whom were laid off from their jobs, some of whom were part of the Great Resignation, some of whom had time on their hands and screens to stare at.
This is the future of work, according to the people paying attention. “No matter which industry you’re in, people are all going to be creators,” Li Jin, a 30-year-old investor focusing on the creator economy, told the Information. “All of us will have to adopt some of the skill sets and behaviors of creators in order to be successful.” Celebrities whose career trajectories started in the traditional entertainment business have pivoted to YouTube; meanwhile, the sorts of people becoming celebrities in their own right on TikTok span from professional home cleaners to ER nurses. The boundaries between who is or isn’t a creator, as well as who is or isn’t famous, have become increasingly irrelevant.
We’ve had plenty of terms for these new-ish, uncategorizable cohorts. During the 2000s’ fetishizations of all things handmade and twee, “artisan” and “maker” became catchall terms for DIYers selling their wares, while the latter term later began to connote something to do with science and technology. In the last 10 years, a special reverence has been placed on the title of “entrepreneur,” or the position of a single “doer” or “influencer” working outside the system to “make shit happen.” But these days, practically all of these things can fall under the umbrella of “creator.”
In a 2020 newsletter post on the definition of “creator,” Jellysmack VP Hugo Amsellem compared the term to “startup,” which gained traction in the ’90s to describe the phenomenon of young people building internet companies in their own homes. He argued that whereas “startup” described an organization in search of a scalable business model, a creator is someone who “scales without permission.” “Creators are less judged on their talent or passion and more on how good they are at being themselves,” he wrote. Essentially, they’re one-person media empires, whatever medium that may be.
The creator economy, or the network of people working as creators and the businesses that rely on them, is related to but distinct from the gig economy. Both offer promises of flexibility and “being your own boss,” but in one scenario the worker agrees to participate in a particular place in an existing system, and in the other, the worker chooses to add something to an existing ecosystem that wasn’t there before. (That’s not a value judgment, by the way. Consider the number of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok creators whose entire business model is repurposing or ripping content found elsewhere — these offerings, while technically “new,” are hardly original.)
What is a value judgment, at least implicitly, is the word itself — “creator” — which connotes innovation, art, even godliness. It’s attractive in a way that “gig” or “freelance” or “temp” or anything else isn’t. And yet the only reason we use the term to describe this segment of workers is that one of the biggest companies in the world designed it that way: After purchasing the multi-channel network Next New Networks in 2011, YouTube adopted its term “creator” to describe the users that made up the platform. “The secret of it all is that ‘creators’ was a really utilitarian term. You could say it to a Hollywood person, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he would identify that term,” Next New Networks co-founder Tim Shey told the Atlantic. “Or you could call a [YouTube star] a creator and they would also identify with it.”
“Creator,” though, is so utilitarian to the point where it is almost meaningless. It is the stuff of airport business magazines (“Does your startup have a maker, a doer, and a creator? Here’s why you need all three”) and insidious public transit advertisements (“You’re a doer. You eat coffee for lunch. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice.”). (I made up the first example but the second one is an actual advertisement for Fiverr, a freelancing platform that’s been accused of promoting exploitative labor practices.) There are creators who exist to educate the public on deeply important topics and manage to do so in a nuanced, meaningful way. There are also creators who spout hatred, racism, and bigotry, but are creators nonetheless.
The word’s vagueness has allowed countless startups to blossom around serving the millions of people who make up the industry. “Creator-first” platforms seem to sprout up near daily; at least a dozen mobile financial services market themselves explicitly as “for creators.” Lili Bank, an app that says it has 500,000 clients in the US, saw a huge spike in usership when masses of people were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, then again last summer when many people quit their jobs. “[Creators] are underserved by traditional industry; they’re not getting paid every other week from the same employer, so they’re considered riskier,” Lili founder Lilac Bar David tells me. The startup eventually plans to offer lending, credit, and crypto services to creators.
Sunroom, a nascent platform exclusively for women and non-binary creators who must apply to join, acts as something like a TikTok-meets-OnlyFans, where viewers see a snippet of a video before deciding whether they want to pay to watch the rest. “[Our creators] don’t want to feel like they’re ‘selling out,’ for lack of a better term,” co-founder Lucy Mort says over the phone. “Putting a price out there and even announcing that you’re on a monetization tool can be a little bit scary. They don’t want to feel judged.”
Reply to @karamelioness What being a content creator & influencer is like vs working a 9-5 job, if you don’t already have rich parents.♬ original sound - joshomz
This is the central tension of making your own digital self-performance and the industry around it your job: “Everyone wants the job because it’s creative, freeing, not a 9-to-5. But ever since going full time [as a content creator], I realize I traded my 9-to-5 to work 24/7 instead,” explained Joshua Holmes, a TikToker with 1.5 million followers, in a recent video. “Not a second goes by that I’m not thinking about creating content. I don’t watch sunsets or have genuine moments with my friends without being like, ‘Can we do that again? I wasn’t recording.’” He said that being a content creator for most people doesn’t become profitable for a year and a half, if that. “Every day I ask myself, did I really choose freedom, or just a fancier cage? But at the same time, isn’t the fancier cage better than the regular one? Yeah, probably.”
The happy connotations of “creator” also distort the reality of the work. When I interviewed internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz, who’s working on a book about the creator economy, we spoke about how often we interviewed creators struggling with burnout, isolation, and feelings of extreme powerlessness. “I would say the creator economy is 10 times more volatile than Uber and these gig companies,” she said. “You’re holding onto this big moving ship that’s shifting shape beneath you and you have to stay afloat. It’s really hard to adapt to these platforms and adapt your public persona to continue to resonate. It’s almost impossible.”
And yet. There are the creators who make lucrative livings by being themselves on the internet, something most of us do for free. There is an element of FOMO around “content creation” simply because of how easy it is to do and how difficult it is to make real money from. Isn’t it more elegant, after all, to call yourself a “creator” as opposed to “part-time barista, part-time Uber driver, and part-time Instagram influencer,” even if the latter might be more accurate? Young people already know this. Whenever I quote them in a story, I’ll ask how they’d like to be identified: high school student? Swim instructor? “No, ‘content creator.’” Perhaps we all will, too, someday.
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