The influencer is a fading stock character of the Internet’s commedia dell’arte. Often a conventionally attractive white woman, she shows off her aspirational life style via social-media channels. She accrues a large following, and then makes a living by getting companies to sponsor the content of her glamorous life. The cliché of the influencer emerged, during the twenty-tens, from multimedia-rich platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, where the goal was to forge as curated and polished an image as possible. Influencers were social-media users as celebrities, with much of the vanity and purposelessness that the comparison implies. By now, the connotations of being an influencer are mostly negative—edited selfies, vapid captions, faux relatability, staged private-jet photos, and unmarked sponsorships. Accordingly, social-media platforms are embracing a new buzzword as a successor: “creator.”
“Creator” is a term with a more wholesome air, conjuring an Internet in which we are all artisanal blacksmiths plying our digital craft. But what, exactly, the word implies beyond that is up for debate. According to Taylor Lorenz’s reporting for The Atlantic, the term was originally marketed by YouTube, as early as 2011, as an alternative to vocabulary like “YouTube star,” which seemed to imply that only a few famous figures could succeed on the platform. But it’s now used to describe practically anyone who is producing 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 mostly used for pornography, hosts “adult-content creators.”
Even proponents of the so-called “creator economy,” the lattice of new platforms and tools meant to serve creators, can’t quite agree on what the term means or whom it includes. Its rise has sparked a semantic debate that tends toward the solipsistic. “I think all influencers are creators; maybe not all creators are influencers,” Nicole Quinn, a partner at the venture-capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners, told me. 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 classes. For Quinn, the difference in terminology comes down to success: influencers are already famous; creators are striving to be. Li Jin, the founder of the creator-economy investment firm Atelier Ventures, instead defined creators in terms of revenue. “Anyone whose fame stems from online channels, if they are able to earn income through that influence, I consider that to be the creator economy.”
Despite its vagueness, “creator” is being adopted as a byword for a new generation of social-media spaces purportedly designed to support content producers in new ways. Where the ad-driven platforms Facebook and Twitter profit from our data and attention without giving much back, the likes of Clubhouse and OnlyFans promise to deliver a larger share of value to users by allowing for what Quinn, of Lightspeed, calls “direct monetization.” Instead of the company’s selling ads based on over-all engagement, creators can get paid by their individual viewers, who might buy subscriptions, send tips, or crowdfund new projects. The word “influencer” emphasized a person’s magnetic effect on her followers, a nebulous charisma easily turned toward marketing. “Creator,” by contrast, stresses that everyone posting on social media is producing something, pitching in to the collective effort of making user-generated platforms compelling and thus profitable. This idea has proved highly marketable: the creator economy has reportedly seen $1.3 billion in investment funding in 2021 thus far, nearly three times the funding it received in all of 2020.
Creator-economy businesses have devised 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 return for publishing and paywalling their content. Apps like Linktree, Beacons, and Feedlink offer a service that, for a monthly fee, expands the Web site links that sit in the bios of social-media accounts, directing fans to a creator’s various content channels. Marketplaces for non-fungible tokens (N.F.T.s), like Foundation, Rarible, and SuperRare, allow creators to sell expensive digital-art objects in exchange for commission fees. On Twitch, a site where users can live-stream content like video games, and Heygo, a streaming site that provides a virtual proxy for travel, viewers can access video streams for free, with the option to send tips to the hosts. According to Quinn, March of 2020 was the “key inflection point” for this burgeoning economy, as the increased appetite for digital content and the loss of jobs in other industries during the pandemic prompted more people to try their luck as creators.
In some ways, the creator economy does appear to give more agency to the user. Rather than trying to game social-media algorithms, creators can theoretically rely on more dependable income from supporters. They can choose which kinds of work they take on, whether it be newsletters, livestreams, or audio chats. “They don’t have to care about fighting against the current of the platform,” Sam Yam, the co-founder of Patreon, a pioneer of the creator economy, said. In Yam’s mind, earning a living as a creator is an evolution of the so-called gig economy facilitated by companies like Uber and TaskRabbit. Followers are paying for access to someone’s unique talent or voice. “You care about the individual more than just the task that needs to be done,” Yam said. “It’s value exchanged for creativity.” The model promises a more human and less automated interaction. What were once called followers—the anonymous numbers racking up on a profile page like so many fungible eyeballs—are now customers, supporters, and patrons.
But this emerging field, in many ways, resembles a gig economy for digital content. Participants are still precarious workers, relying on the whims of corporations for their livelihoods. Much like an Uber driver or a twenty-tens Instagram influencer, the creator is responsible for her own marketing, health care, and tax contributions. She makes money for the platform that hosts her without receiving the legal and financial protections of employee status, or the stock options typically given to the platform’s engineers, designers, and managers. Meanwhile, the social-media giants are developing their own version of the creator economy in an attempt 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 launched a similar program called Spotlight, which offers creators millions of dollars of compensation a month. This past week, Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced that it would pay out more than a billion dollars to users across its platforms by 2022.
Anshuman Iddamsetty, a former podcast producer who now runs a Patreon focussed on erotic self-portraiture, and who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” told me that they make an adequate living from that account and an OnlyFans page. But they said that there’s a gap between the platforms’ message that anyone can “build an independent creative career,” as Patreon’s Web site touts, and the reality of being a solo entrepreneur. “Patreon doesn’t suddenly, magically make the act of creating your deliverables easier,” they said. Ambiguous guidelines can give platforms the power to block users or types of content at will; Patreon does allow some forms of adult content, but Iddamsetty, who describes themself as a “fat erotic artist,” has run into unexpected barriers. Creator-economy hype is relevant “only if you’re a certain kind of creator with a certain kind of product,” they said.
Even Yam, of Patreon, recognizes the limitations of the burgeoning field. He anticipates a future in which both the social-media giants and the creator-economy brands are avoidable altogether. Each creator will instead have her own custom-built platform, “their own world top to bottom,” from the underlying technology to the published content—an “ownership economy.” For the time being, though, the bulk of users will continue to rely on the preëstablished attention economy for the bulk of their digital consumption. “Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, those are just as dominant as ever,” Jin said. “Today, no one finds a person on Patreon; you go there after you’ve found them.” In other words, to be a creator, you still have to be an influencer after all.