The Death of the Creator (and Rebirth of the Creator Economy)

Many post-mortems of traditional social media have been written recently (including my own two weeks ago), explaining how Instagram and other social apps are prioritizing content creators and "recommended" content over existing social graphs, at the expense of their users.

But few of these have considered the counter-intuitive consequences for creators themselves. 

This post will explain how “follower platforms” are being replaced by “content platforms”, why followership is being automated away, what this means for creator longevity (hint: it's not good), and where the opportunities lie for the creator economy in 2022.

Follower Platforms vs. Content Platforms

In my last post, I wrote about how TikTok is disrupting the consumer-social app ecosystem by unbundling “entertainment” from “social”. One of the ways TikTok did this was by showing users the best content from all creators, not just the ones users follow. 

We can generalize this shift with a simple framework: a spectrum from “follower platform” to “content platform”.

On what I call a “follower platform”, a user subscribes to a creator, and expects to see most, if not all, of their content (and no content from creators they don’t follow). The first social apps were follower platforms; Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, and Instagram, even to some extent YouTube, began as ways to share content with friends.

This has changed rapidly over the last ten years, with the widespread adoption of “content platforms”. On a “content platform”, the user is fed content both from creators they follow and from creators they do not follow. The platform parses through the uploaded content, and feeds the most “relevant” to the user. This strong algorithmic feed means a creator with almost no followers, with the right viral content, can get millions of impressions. It is a dopamine driven candy shop-casino for creators; anyone can be a star.

TikTok has rapidly grown share by rejecting the core “social” features of a follower platform and focusing on the “entertainment” features of a content platform (my last post covers this in some detail).

How did the incumbent social networks fight back? The only way they know how: imitation. To compete with TikTok, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram are all rapidly attempting to transition into content platforms. Powered by new products such as Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, they are putting more and more content outside the user's follower graph into the feed (landscape diagram below).

Content platforms are taking over the landscape of consumer-social. “Social media” is rapidly becoming “content media”. 


The Death of the Creator

Although content platforms like TikTok make it easier than ever for creators to go viral, this short-term audience is not nearly as engaged. Creators cannot build long-lasting narratives and storylines, instead they are relegated to seconds of airtime, crammed in a feed, competing with a universe of other similar creators. 

In other words, the shift from follower platforms to content platforms is causing the user’s addiction to move from the creator to the platform itself. 

The relationship between creators and their audience is moving from a friend-like interaction (follower platform), cultivated by engagements and storytelling over months and years, to a transactional court-jester style relationship (content platform), optimized for maximizing short term views, clicks and hormones.

In this new world, creators need to keep making viral content to stay relevant. Like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, "it takes all the running you can do, to stay in the same place". Many creators can’t keep up with their own content, and their creator lifespans are shrinking as a result. Social media lifespans are reverting to the mean.

This is the Death of the Creator.

We are seeing early tangible signs of shorter lifecycles for creators already. Vidcon, founded in 2010, is the premier event in the world of digital creators, and has long been known for its long lines, euphoric atmosphere and adoring fans. 2022’s Vidcon was a commercial and logistical success, but various creators attending the Vidcon conference reported empty meet and greet sessions, and a deflated fan sentiment versus previous events. See @missdarcei’s post below about her empty fan meetup (she has 500,000 followers).

Another way to predict the future is to look to past cohorts of creators. How are TikTokers doing from times gone by? A 2019 Taylor Lorenz piece profiled many of TikTok’s early rising stars (Sam Ko, Micky Nolan, Vincent Marcus, Joe Waud, Payton Moormeier, Lee McCall, Piff Peterson). Almost all these creators are either not uploading, or have viewership below well what they had three years ago, in many cases dramatically so. There are obvious examples of mega-TikTokers that have retained their fame (the D'Amelios and various other creator-house alumni), but these are exceptions rather than the rule. 

The Rebirth of the Creator (Economy)?

This is not a eulogy of the creator economy and consumer-social. The venture capital model is built on the principle that market disruptions will create opportunities for investors. This case is no exception; despite challenges for creators themselves, there is more than ever to be excited about in the space as a whole.

First, the opportunity for what I call “intimate social” apps. This flight towards content platforms is creating an opportunity for apps focused on interacting intimately with your real-life friends. BeReal (daily tit-for-tat photos), Feels (expressive dating for Gen-Z), NGL (honest Q&A), and other apps are taking advantage of the newfound hollowness of Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. I have referred to the next ten years as a period of Cambrian explosion of social apps. Hugo Amsellem has created the terminology of the Loneliness Economy; these apps can be the antidote.

As follower platforms move “upstream” towards content platforms, this has created an opportunity for a new breed of “intimate social” apps.

Second, the opportunity for engagement platforms. Creators are more desperate than ever for social apps that allow them to truly own their own audiences. Some have argued that crypto facilitates that, and I’d encourage anyone to read the best proponents of this view (e.g. Li Jin, see here and here), who make this point convincingly. The other way for a creator to truly own their audience are real creator-fan engagement platforms, using open protocols such as podcasts and newsletters. beehiiv, which allows creators to spin up newsletter infrastructure and creator websites in minutes, in which we have invested and on which this blog is written, are one such way of engaging an otherwise fallow audience. 

Finally, monetization. If creators are going to live for less long, they are going to need to find ways to monetize their fame quickly. Influencer marketing, live-streaming commerce (e.g. YouTube + Shopify integration announced recently), courses, and subscription entertainment are all becoming critical tools for creators to turn their views into cash, while they still can. I will write more in future about the prospects of influencer marketing, but TikTok is creating an opportunity orders of magnitudes more attractive than prior platforms for influencer marketers.

So I do not intend to be alarmist; the creator economy is far from dead. But we must face the reality that it is undergoing a meaningful realignment in the relationship between creators, their content and their audiences. We will be actively investing in this new paradigm, but are doing so eyes wide open.

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