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I almost didn’t read this recent article about social media personalities and influencers (gift link so you can access) because I just assumed I didn’t care about the topic.
But I’m so glad I did, because the informative piece, which chronicles the genesis and rise of online content creators, and the $250 billion industry they have created in the last thirty years, was a revelation to me about a number of issues directly relevant to authors and other creatives.
This year, Goldman Sachs valued the creator economy at $250 billion and predicted that it would double in the next five years to nearly half a trillion dollars.
To put that into perspective, the entire sports industry—which has been in existence for literally hundreds of years—generated $512 billion globally in 2022, and is forecast to grow by another $111 billion by 2027, a compound annual growth rate of just over 5%.
I’m old enough, of course, to have been around and fully sentient and working in the creative industry at the beginning of the online creator movement—in 1997. (I’m an OG editor who started my career in publishing in 1992.)
I wasn’t tech-savvy or prescient enough to understand the impact that the internet and nascent blogging would have on my industry—at the time I was still picking up actual printed manuscripts from publishers, and editing in actual red pencil using resources from the actual library.
But forward-looking creators did, starting with “mommy blogger” Heather Armstrong, who, according to the timeline of the article, was the first influencer to realize the monetary value of what she was offering and sell ads in 2004, with celebrity gossip-blogger Perez Hilton hot on her heels.
What’s fascinating to me about the admittedly reductionist view in this article of the rise of online influencers and moneymakers is how they constantly adapted to a fast-changing medium…and how their creative product drove the evolution of the industry—and its economy, which relies almost entirely on their creative efforts.
But it also reflects to me bigger issues—of ownership of rights, of creatives’ dependence on certain platforms to reach the audiences they have created, of potential abuse.
A few of my key takeaways from the article:
1. The Power of Creatives
Who run the world? Artists.
From the article, on YouTube alone creators support the equivalent of 390,000 full-time jobs in the United States—four times more than General Motors, America’s biggest automaker.
The astonishing financial figures from the online creator economy don’t even factor in the $2.3 trillion dollars generated by the global media and entertainment industry—and yes, that’s trillion—some categories of which grew by more than 35% percent between 2021 and 2022 alone, and most of which are forecast to grow in the next three years by more than 25%.
Creative products are in high demand, and that demand is only growing across almost every sector of entertainment. One of the main reasons Hollywood finally was forced back to the table to negotiate with striking writers this summer was because stockholders demanded it, as the lack of creators providing the product on which the industry is based ground it to a halt.
Artists—creators—are the indispensable source of the content insatiable consumers watch, read, listen to, and look at, as well as increasingly a driving source of market demand for a wild array of other products as well.
2. The Financials of Creative Content
Who benefits most monetarily from art? Corporations.
In 2007, per the article, YouTube started its partner program with creators that allowed them to share in ad revenue on their videos on the site.
Yet what these creators make is still just a fraction of what their work is generating in revenue for YouTube—or what any host corporations are making from the work of creative content providers on whom their entire business model is based and relies.
Now open-AI companies are profiting from the downloaded creative work of thousands of creators—with zero compensation to the artists without whose work the technology would be all but useless.
In our industry, publishing, a $119 billion market that generates almost $26 billion in revenue, author advances average around $5K-$20K, and authors receive a paltry share of the profits from their work (and only if they sell through the amount of their advance). Most authors don’t make a living wage from their writing alone—yet again, it’s the industry that depends on their creative product that makes a profit.
Read more: “The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career”
3. The Cost of Commodified Creativity
Who pays the price? Creators.
A creative career can come with costs both measurable and immaterial to creators, whether financial or personal.
The WaPo article above talks about GamerGate in 2014, when “a harassment campaign against women in the video game industry that involved doxing and death threats erupt[ed].”
The article also reports widespread creator burnout and breakdown in 2018, “sparking a national conversation about the pressures of social media success and the incessant demand for content.” That conversation, however, seems to have resulted in very little action or change.
Platforms hold the power—witness the panic run when the U.S. government was considering banning TikTok, or the exodus of YouTube advertisers in 2017 who learned their ads were being featured alongside offensive and extremist content—but whose decampment from the platform due to the corporate policies hurt creators all across it.
Who else pays the price? Audiences.
A major source of creator income now comes through sponsored content. It’s easy to imagine that becoming a prime goal of content providers, given that most creators want to be paid for their work. But what does that do to the value of their endorsement? Are these truly their favorite products, services, and recommendations—or just the ones with the highest ticket price for them?
The business model of much social media also encourages ever more controversial content that drives clicks—often leading to amplified messaging and increased influence for even damaging, potentially dangerous personalities, like toxic misogynist (and notorious idiot) Andrew Tate, among other creators propagating lies, misinformation, and hate speech that can lead to real damage: For instance, some of the mob of insurrections who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, made thousands of dollars by live-streaming the riot on certain platforms (which may have backfired on them, admittedly, where it documented their involvement for the court in their prosecution).
And who pays the price for that? Individuals and society at large, as evidenced by increasing polarity, incivility, and toxicity both on- and offline. Another side effect of Gamer Gate, per the WaPo piece, was “providing a blueprint for bad actors looking to use social media to attack marginalized groups.”
So what’s my ultimate takeaway?
Frankly, the logistics of the business of art boggle my non-mathematical mind, but here’s what I came away with from this article and others about the topic relative to authors:
- Never forget the power and importance of your art. Look at those figures above if you doubt the impact of art and artists.
Read more: “How Do You Value Your Creative Work?”
- You must be your own champion and gatekeeper and guard. Too often there are no gatekeepers or regulators when profit is king, and legal protections often lag far behind misuses and abuses of creators’ rights. You are and must be your own best advocate for your art.
Read more: “Advocating for Yourself as a Writer”
Read more: “How Do You Protect Your Writing?”
- Don’t let your art subsume your life. Too much of the business of creativity lies outside the control of the creators. If your art is your sole identity or source of fulfillment—especially on a financial level—you are putting your happiness and well-being in the hands of countless mercurial, unpredictable factors that have the power to upend it.
Read more: “Why Do You Write?”
How about you, authors—what are your thoughts on the commoditization of art and what it means for creators? Is it part of your calculus in your own writing, and if so, how?
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