Why The Creator Economy Is Booming

Having clout on social media is becoming less of an aspiration and more of a matter of survival and freedom to live life on your own terms.
Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

Despite constantly declaring that we’re “over influencers” and social media stars, we still spend an inordinate amount of time dissecting their content, musing about their career trajectories, asking what motivates them, and having meta conversations about what it means to be an influencer and how sustainable it is as a career path. We’re both bewildered that fame can now be gained just by turning on your webcam, shocked how public our lives have become, and are still trying to figure out how in the world this could’ve happened. And today, as we’re reeling from the side effects of social media like partiers who woke up in a pigsty with cotton mouth and a splitting headache, all of these are things worth discussing.

Now, to borrow from a meme template, I’m something of a content creator myself. No, I don’t dance (personal choice), I don’t sing (court order), but I write, talk about bleeding edge science and technology on the radio, and yes, a long time ago, I have taken acting classes and can do a passable character study if the need arises. However, by day, I’m an engineer trained in math and science, trying to solve problems requiring the application of algebra and statistics, so, in a way, I straddle both words enough to have some answers for those opining on content creators and influencers in rhetorical questions intended to be pregnant with ruminations on the direction of society as we know it.

Let’s start with the basics. Why are so many people trying to become internet famous? The conventional answer is that fame means money and access. Our societies reward fame with money, sex, and material possessions, and who wouldn’t want to have those? And hey, the microphone and decent quality camera are built into your laptop and phone now, so it takes all of a few minutes to try your luck and see if anything clicks. But hold on a minute, ask older generations, couldn’t you just go to college, get an in-demand job, and make a whole bunch of money that way? Plenty of non-famous schmucks had a fair bit of luck on the dating scene and built nice homes and nest eggs that way, right?

Yes, that’s absolutely correct but note the past tense. Costs of living soared for four decades while wages stagnated when adjusted for inflation. College rings in at as much as an entry level luxury car for the average student, and as much as a starter house for certain professions like medicine and law. And speaking of houses, their prices are also soaring into the stratosphere thanks to deep-pocketed investors taking as many as one in five new houses off the market to rent them out at exorbitant rates, and triggering bidding wars for what’s left. Even dating is a nightmare these days, requiring one to parse through thousands of profiles just to find someone to take on a date, with many of those profiles being bots or scammers.

In other words, the world has changed, and not for the better. Conservatives complain that kids want to be YouTubers and streamers instead of astronauts, but they’ve done just about everything possible to destroy that lofty dream. Plus, it’s going to be decades, if not centuries until space exploration within this solar system is widespread enough to be a viable career option, and exploring beyond the heliosphere without warp drives means a lifetime of relative isolation in the radioactive void of space. That also includes crewing the pretty much inevitable support missions for generation ships because putting a closed system in space for decades, if not centuries, is a sure way to see that system break down.

So yes, even in a space-faring future, there will always be room for influencers and entertainers to help us kill time, watching astronauts on a mission to Titan doing the equivalent of TikTok and social media challenges of the 23rd century. We’re going to get bored with the same faces and gimmicks because our brains are wired to seek out novelty, and our inability to do that is one of the reasons why so many people are turning to angry conspiracy theories in the face of change. They’re bored half to death, they have virtually no power to change their lives, and live action role-playing a “redpilled” hero taking on the system gives those empty, boring lives consisting of a produce-consume-sleep cycle at least some semblance of meaning.

But while this will be true hundreds of years from now no matter what happens, we’re still very much in the early 21st century where teenagers and young adults are jaded and disillusioned by the seeming inevitability of the world treating them as disposable cogs in a giant machine. In their minds, they could go to college, rack up massive debt that will haunt them for decades, proceed not to use it for the vast majority of jobs they’ll end up getting, and get stuck in a rat race where every day is the same and you can be fired at any time, for any reason, and have to start from scratch very quickly because like 8 in 10 people, they’re likely living from paycheck to paycheck. Not exactly the life their elders promised.

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So, given all of the above as unfortunate and bleak realities, why not do the TikTok dance, or start a livestream, or fuck it, a hardcore OnlyFans? How can it possibly get worse? You might get admirers and brands ready to pay you for just being you, or at least the you they like. Not only that, but now you also stand out among the innumerable avatars dominating our social media-infused lives because app algorithms push you into more feeds, and you may even get a checkmark that labels you important enough that the public needs to be told that yes, this is indeed you, and to accept no imitations. In a world of online profiles and brands coming at us in minimalistic grids or lists, fame is a cheat code to float towards the top.

While all this may seem a little dark and overly existential, this is in fact our world: a cyberpunk proto-dystopia, which is essentially just feudalism with wi-fi. And that poses unique challenges for creators. To have the best chance of success, you have to appeal to the widest possible audience, which often means you can’t have too many vocal opinions, stand out too much, or do too many things the audience doesn’t understand or wants to. It’s perfectly understandable as a marketing strategy, but invites biting commentary from the pundit gallery ridiculing many top-performing creators as bland, generic milquetoasts, and ignoring the fact that only a select few can get away with being vocal firebrands and still make a living.

What else can they do when the choice is to get likes and follows or deal with an empty fridge and unpaid bills? Even the most skilled and talented creators may find it much easier to appeal to the widest possible fanbase. In my case, popular science is a hit-or-miss niche. There are hardcore devotees who’ll eagerly devour hours worth of very technical content, but let’s be honest, a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when you start diving into scientific arcana like how to use special lasers to create temperatures below absolute zero or the finer points of quantum monogamy and holography. And that’s okay. These are not simple topics and not everyone is required to understand or even care about them.

Creators like me make the bet that we’ll manage to connect with enough people who care, and with trial and error find the right balance of blowing people’s minds and delivering scientifically and technically accurate and educational content because when it works, it can be a thing of beauty that inspires future scientists, engineers, and inventors. But many of us have the luxury of technical and research day jobs to fall back on. If we had to get 50,000 followers to make a brand deal and pay rent, we’d probably be looking up sketch comedy ideas or figuring out how to make a cute pet video so we at least get a shot at being a fluffy internet darling’s manager, like some bizarro version of Pokemon in which Pickachu pays Ash’s bills.

The bottom line here is that like it or not, no matter how over social media personalities you may say you are, app trackers say you’re still watching them, and they’re not going anywhere. Well, to be more accurate, many of them aren’t going to make it big for reasons that have to do with math, but it’s going to become an industry full of household names and niche creators. Today’s flood of aspiring stars is a consequence of a new entertainment industry aligning itself around new ideas and economics, and while its exact future is uncertain, we can say for a fact that it’s going to have one. Thanos may not have been as inevitable as he boasted, but influencers and creators are, always have been.

Some 50 million people now identify as creators of one kind or another, and jobs designed to help them monetize their ideas at tech companies providing tools for them to reach new and wider audiences are soaring, with nearly 93,000 positions in just three years. Billions are flowing into creators’ pockets and startups, and way too much momentum has built-in influencers’ and creators’ favor. And keep in mind that even during recessions and pandemics, one of the very first places people turned was sources of escapism and entertainment. The distribution of the spoils may be unjust, but the industry has now proven that it can thrive even in a global crisis, something few other fields can boast.

And as we’ve seen in great detail, it’s not like we gave them much choice. Professions in which you can be successful without becoming a marketable, public-facing brand as all your hobbies and interests are inevitably monetized by late-stage dystopian neo-capitalism are getting fewer and further between. Right now an entire generation looking to open up their futures and wrest some control over their lives in a way that doesn’t require poisoning their minds with insanity from the putrid, lolicon hentai-infested bowels of the web researching a’s to ridiculous, leading q’s from the other side of the world, is taking notes on how to become the Next Big Online Thing. And all I want to tell them is good luck kids. I really, truly hope it works out for you.

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Opinion // Business / Creator Economy / Economics / Money / Social Media / Tech