Artists and entertainers are the original gig workers. They’ve long sacrificed stability and security in exchange for freedom. Many work a day job to support their creative dreams and most are never able to make a living purely from their artistic work.
The emergence of social media platforms like YouTube promised a new age for creators. Finally liberated from the gatekeepers of the past, and with the internet’s scale at their disposal, creators could build a solid living on the “long tail” of the internet with thousands, not millions of fans. In some ways, that’s been true. Many creators have been able to build solid businesses online, and a few have made fortunes. Culture has become participatory and personalized in a way we’ve never seen before. Perhaps as a consequence, almost 30 percent of kids ages eight to 12 want to be a YouTuber when they grow up.
But the new spaces for creativity online have also replicated many of the problems of the old system, and led to new problems. Li Jin writes that the “creator economy needs a middle class,” pointing to the fact that “the top creators are massively successful, while long-tail creators are barely getting by.” Furthermore, even top creators are stuck in perpetual precarity, with their livelihoods dependent on the whims of a platform, and constant pressure to produce for increasingly demanding audiences and algorithms.
The platforms on which creators share their work fall under what we will call “creator logic.” Creator logic platforms enable users to share a specific type of media (like video, livestreams, or art), in a one-to-many fashion. They are home to “creators,” people who consistently make content for the platform, often as a source of income, and to audiences who turn to these platforms for entertainment, information, and a sense of identity and community in fandom. What distinguishes creator logic from other forms of social media—all of which enable users to create and disseminate media—are its tools for monetization and production, and its focus on consumption. Creator logic platforms mediate cultural production and consumption on a massive scale, essentially functioning as two-sided cultural marketplaces, matching producers with audiences. The power and importance of that role should not be underestimated: Legal scholar Jack Balkin argues that “cultural power is even more pervasive than state power,” pointing to the ways culture constitutes our identities and affects our lives.
Some creator platforms, like YouTube or Twitch, are more general-purpose. Others, like Wattpad or TikTok, have more tailored use-cases. The cultural forms that emerge on creator platforms are explicitly and implicitly shaped by the platforms, as well as by users. For example, TikTok’s sound library, video filters, and 60-second time limit make it easy for users to mimic popular TikToks and give them their own twist, creating what are essentially video memes. Creators have used those tools to spawn a number of new trends in the past year, including dances like M to the B, comedy formats like #YouHaveTo, and songs like #BoredInTheHouse. Even more general-purpose platforms like YouTube shape cultural forms. Though YouTube allows you to share videos of virtually any length and format, it implicitly encourages lengthier videos and mainstream topics through its recommendation algorithm and content policies. This interaction between platform design and user agency is present on all social media, but is particularly prominent on creator platforms, which place a premium on creativity.
To attract creators, platforms offer them an audience, and help with monetization and production. Creator platforms help creators monetize their content by sharing revenue and by building tools that enable subscriptions and tips. Creator platforms help creators produce content with tools like TikTok’s video filters and sound library, and resources like YouTube’s “Creator Academy.” By offering creators help with monetization and production, platforms incentivize and subsidize creation, raising the quality and quantity of content on the platform.
Monetization also serves a governance function. Platforms can use it as a carrot and a stick, offering help when content hews to their guidelines, and withdrawing help when it doesn’t. For example, to qualify for revenue sharing on YouTube, videos have to be “advertiser-friendly,” which means, among other things, videos can’t include violence or inappropriate language, and can’t cover topics such as firearms or “controversial issues.” In addition to limiting the types of videos that can be monetized, YouTube sometimes demonetizes entire channels when creators repeatedly or egregiously violate the rules. For example, before Alex Jones was kicked off YouTube in 2018, his channel was demonetized after he called a survivor of the Parkland school shooting a “crisis actor.” Similarly, Steven Crowder’s channel was demonetized in 2019 after he repeatedly harassed then-Vox writer Carlos Maza. The channel was remonetized a year later because, per YouTube, “Mr. Crowder has … taken steps to address the behavior that led to his suspension and has demonstrated a track record of policy-compliant behavior.” (Though Maza tweeted that the decision “proves that YouTube has no real interest in enforcing it’s [sic] anti-hate policies.”)
In addition to carrots and sticks, creator logic platforms use algorithms to govern content. Most social media platforms use algorithms to help moderate and surface content, but for creator platforms algorithms are central. On social media organized around connection, users choose who they want to see content from, while algorithms play more of a background role, curating content and offering suggestions. But on creator platforms, users don’t come to the platform with a list of content they want to consume. Instead, algorithms have to infer that list and connect creators with consumers. On TikTok, most of the videos people watch are chosen by its For You algorithm. Similarly, YouTube’s recommendation system chooses 70 percent of the videos people watch. Because algorithms are so central, creators try to optimize their content for them, a challenging task, as platforms typically ensure their algorithms are opaque.
The canonical example of optimizing for the algorithm is the “reply girl” on YouTube. Creators figured out that using a suggestive thumbnail to promote their content drove a lot of clicks and thus a lot of views. Because YouTube’s recommendation algorithm mostly focused on views, it would push the video out to more people, driving even more views, and making the creators a significant amount of money. Eventually, YouTube revised its algorithm to focus less on the number of views and more on watch time, a change that mostly killed the phenomenon because people usually stopped watching when they realized the video was unrelated to the thumbnail.
All of this discussion about the power of creator platforms highlights an important point: Creator platforms exist in a state of tension. On the one hand, they exert significant control over the creators and content on their platforms. On the other hand, they preach the gospel of creative freedom, pushing the ideal of the entrepreneurial, independent creator and celebrating the disruption of cultural gatekeepers. That tension enables creator platforms to switch between the role of gatekeeper and the role of creative liberator, depending on what suits their interests. If this tactic sounds familiar, it’s because Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and their gig economy peers tell similar stories of individual freedom and bypassing gatekeepers, while exerting significant power over drivers and delivery workers.
In fact, creators share some of the challenges that face gig workers, citing burnout from dealing with demanding audiences and algorithms, frustration with opaque platforms, and the insecurity of work without traditional benefits. In 2017 and 2018, those challenges boiled over, and a wave of YouTube creators quit the platform.
Consider Ethan Klein and his wife Hila Klein, the creators of h3h3Productions, a popular YouTube comedy channel. They make videos that satirize popular YouTube content and creators—for example, one of their most popular videos, with 27 million views, “VAPE NATION,” makes fun of the popular genre of vaping videos.
In 2017, at the height of their success, the Kleins posted a video titled “We’re at an Important Crossroad in our Lives,” about their struggles to make money from their videos after YouTube, in an attempt to make content more advertiser friendly, made changes to its algorithms and policies. Ethan Klein explained, saying, “The problem is that YouTube, in an effort to bring brands back, has given them the tools to not put ads on anything that might seem controversial. But it’s so blunt and it’s so stupid that it is destroying our channel and our livelihood.” Since then, the Kleins have shifted away from primarily making comedy videos towards focusing on their vlog and podcast—content formats that are easier to monetize. Seven months after posting the video about their difficulties to monetize, the Kleins posted a video titled “Where have we been?” that detailed Ethan’s struggles with burnout. Ethan said, “The truth is that I’ve been like, I’ve been depressed,” saying he was “working nonstop” and that he “kind of like snapped a little bit, and I just … I couldn’t make h3 videos anymore.”
However, for some creators, quitting isn’t an option. During the pandemic, thousands of people who lost their jobs turned to creator platforms as a source of income. OneZero interviewed a massage therapist who started making videos about stretching and guided relaxation after her studio closed. She said it was never her “dream” to be a creator but it’s the only option she has. Unfortunately, many of the people turning to creator platforms find that the “long tail” fails to support them. On YouTube, the top three percent of creators receive 90 percent of the views, and even the average creator in the lucky three percent only receives $16,800 per year in ad income, less than one-third of the median household income. Similarly, on Spotify the top 43,000 artists—1.4 percent of the platform—make 90 percent of royalties. (It’s worth noting that these distributions are exactly what’s expected from a Pareto-distributed “long tail” economy.) The same OneZero article described a chef in Nebraska who, after seeing his shifts cut during the pandemic, was spending $400 per month on groceries to support a cooking channel on Twitch—an investment that at his current subscription rate would take years to recoup.
There are important differences between traditional gig economy platforms and creator platforms. Creators produce unique, differentiated goods—their labor isn’t commodified like drivers or grocery shoppers—which should give creators more power to negotiate with platforms. But that may be changing. The latest manifestations of creator logic make it easier than ever for anyone to be a creator, and they distribute rewards based less on past performance and existing audiences, and more on the success of a particular piece of content.
For example, TikTok’s production tools have made it easy for anyone to create videos for the platform, while its“creator fund” distributes money purely based on how much engagement a piece of content receives, engagement that is determined by an algorithm in a “meritocratic” fashion—essentially every video posted to TikTok is shown to a small subset of people based on their interests, and depending on their engagement with the video, the video is shown to more or fewer people, with the process repeating itself. On the one hand, this may democratize access to large audiences. More creators have a shot at going viral and being rewarded for it. (More freedom and cultural liberation, with a side of meritocracy!) On the other hand, this may be a way to commodify creators and increase platforms’ control by unbundling audiences from creators and ensuring that there will always be someone ready to produce engaging content.
To date, creator platforms have received proportionally less attention than other types of social media, particularly social networks like Twitter and Facebook. In a paper that’s under review, co-author Ethan Zuckerman points out that between 2008-2019 YouTube was the subject of fewer papers per year than Twitter and Facebook—YouTube’s number was a little more than half of Twitter’s and Facebook’s—despite YouTube’s enormous reach and importance. Likewise, evelyn douek asks in a recent Wired article, “Why isn’t Susan Wojcicki getting grilled by Congress?” pointing out that Congressional hearings on social media consistently leave out the CEO of YouTube. douek argues this overlooking of YouTube is because, “In general, researchers, lawmakers, and journalists focus on the problems that are most visible and tractable, even if they are not necessarily the only important ones.” Creator platforms can be harder to study because they often host content that is more difficult to analyze than text, like video, images, and audio. Their users also skew younger, which means the platforms are less visible to researchers, policymakers, and journalists who mostly use Facebook or Twitter. Also, creator platforms tend to portray themselves as spaces for creativity, downplaying political activity on their platforms in a bid to reduce scrutiny.
Who does pay attention to creator platforms? Advertisers. And because brands do most of the advertising on creator platforms, brands can have a significant amount of influence over creator platforms’ policies. For example, in 2017 YouTube faced an ad boycott from brands who complained that their ads were appearing next to hateful and offensive content. YouTube quickly changed its advertising policies and made it significantly harder for creators to monetize their videos. Compare that with what happened when brands boycotted Facebook this past summer in response to Facebook’s actions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing: Facebook made almost no changes, and Zuckerberg was quoted as saying, “We’re not gonna change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue.” Unlike YouTube, Facebook is able to ignore brand advertisers because most of its revenue comes from small, direct-response ads (direct-response ads aim to persuade people to immediately click and buy a product). Direct-response ads are estimated to make up only 20-30 percent of YouTube’s revenue, with the rest coming from brands. Recent efforts to grow direct-response advertising on YouTube could be a sign that the platform is looking to reduce brands’ influence.
Going forward, scholars, journalists, and policymakers who study the platforms should take seriously creator platforms’ role mediating the mass production and consumption of culture. Research like Rebecca Lewis’s “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube” or Kevin Munger et al.’s “Fifteen Seconds of Fame: TikTok and the Democratization of Mobile Video on Social Media,” and journalism like Kevin Roose’s “Rabbit Hole” are good examples. What types of content do creator platforms incentivize? What values are embedded in the algorithms that surface content? Who is allowed to participate in the construction and development of culture? Platforms are shaping the work of creators who in turn are shaping the culture and worldview for millions of fans. In essence, we have a new television industry, with creators reaching millions of people every day, but we talk very little about the power and incentives behind it. One clear demonstration of this attention gap is a comparison of viewership for streamers on Twitch with popular television programs. Hasan Piker, a progressive political commentator, who streams daily on Twitch averaged over 35,000 concurrent viewers during his 10-plus hour streams in January 2021. For comparison, in January 2021 among adults 18-49 (a comparable but likely broader demo than Twitch), Fox News as a whole averaged 147,000 viewers. Fox News’s reach is larger with older viewers, of course, but it is still the most popular cable news network among adults 18-49. Or consider TommyInnit, a 16-year-old Minecraft streamer from England. TommyInnit averaged over 256,000 concurrent viewers in January 2021, a level that outpaces popular late night shows like The Late Late Show with James Corden (176,000 among adults 18-49) and Late Night with Seth Myers (227,000 among adults 18-49). Given the centrality of cable news and network television in our debates about media, politics, and culture, it’s likely we need to be paying closer attention to figures like Piker and TommyInnit and the platforms they create on.
In the end, we should acknowledge creator platforms’ role in fostering a more participatory culture, but we should also be wary of their preferred narratives, and treat them as the powerful institutions that they are.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci is a research fellow at the Knight Institute.
Ethan Zuckerman is Associate Professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, and the 2020-2021 Senior Visiting Research Scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute.