Up next for the creator economy: labor laws
8 min read

Up next for the creator economy: labor laws

The online economy is everyone’s future. It’s time to protect it.
Up next for the creator economy: labor laws

A song to read by: “Donuts Mind if I Do,” by CHAI

What I’m reading: “The Longing for Less,” by Kyle Chayka

Burnt out

Last month, during a “day in the life” interview I was doing with recipe developer Molly Baz, the former Bon Appétit star described her newest venture, a recipe club on Patreon, with such stress in her voice that I briefly side-lined my questions to ask if she was okay.

She was, she said, but the anxiety of running her Patreon project, on top of finishing her cookbook and releasing four capsule collections of merchandise had left her feeling overwhelmed.

“When I was in the Test Kitchen at Bon Appétit, I would walk in and say, ‘Okay, well today all I have to do is develop recipes and then I get to go home.’ Now, I still have to develop those recipes, but I also have to check in on 17 other things, because no one else is doing that for me,” Baz said.

“No one else is looking over it. I'm accountable for the success of all of that. My brand and my world are only as successful as the amount of effort that I put into it.”

Baz is far from alone in expressing these sentiments, which some have taken to calling “creator burnout.” Last week, venture capitalist Hunter Walk wrote an essay called “Instagram, YouTube & TikTok Are Burning Out Their Creators. Here’s How to Fix That.”

In it, he wrote, “The falling economic costs of production and distribution have been replaced by a new set of taxes — physical, emotional, psychological — as your community expects new content, accessibility to their heroes and open book authenticity. Paired with the social media platform algorithms, which in themselves reward frequency and engagement, this combination saps joy and agency from the creative process and burns out the creators.”

The day after Walk published his essay, Jacob Donnelly, a general manager at Morning Brew and the author of the newsletter A Media Operator, wrote a piece entitled “Will Creator Burnout Lead to a Return to Media Companies?

In it, he wrote, “When people ask me how I am able to handle a full-time job and writing my newsletter, I say two things. First, that the Covid lockup has given me a lot more time to write. Second, that I’m tired.”

These three creators are lucky. Baz has legions of fans who would lay their body on a puddle for her to walk over; Walk is rich; and Donnelly has a high-level job at a rising media company. They are all, without question, experiencing creator burnout, but they have far less on the line than many other creators.

In my reporting for Business Insider, I have spoken with dozens of Patreon, OnlyFans, Substack, Twitch, and Cameo creators who all feel the same kind of pressure that Baz, Walk, and Donnelly do. The difference is that for most of these creators, they have nothing to fall back on.

They make their living creating videos, podcasts, illustrations, or other kinds of creative content. They are wholly responsible for their professional lives, schedules, finances, and responsibilities. They have made the decision to go all in on these platforms, giving them their time and talent in what they hope is a fair exchange. Increasingly, though, it appears not to be.

The perils of the creator economy

As Walk mentioned and research has confirmed, the creator economy rewards connection between creators and fans. In a recent Taylor Lorenz profile of Twitch demi-god Hassan Piker, the creator says he streams 10 hours straight every day. Being on-call, around the clock, comes with the territory, and competition between creators only exacerbates these negative loops. One OnlyFans creator I spoke with is in constant contact with so many fans that she described herself as a “professional texter.” These platforms are built on intimacy, and intimacy doesn’t scale.

Social platforms and internet algorithms play a role in worsening this crisis. Reporting from my Insider colleague Sydney Bradley shows how this happens on Instagram, where the algorithm rewards daily, consistent use of all the platform’s different products. For someone who uses Instagram recreationally, the official content recommendations are absurd: creating multiple posts, stories, Reels, and IGTV videos a day is an impossible task.

For content creators, though, these recommendations are not suggestions, but to-do lists. The stress inherent in jumping through all these hoops echoes what Baz told me: “My brand and my world are only as successful as the amount of effort that I put into it.”

In addition to the social and algorithmic expectations of constant creation, the nature of digital entrepreneurship is splintered and lonely. Modern creators work alone, conjuring up whatever tool or recommendation they need from the internet. While a glass-half-full perspective sees this kind of autonomy as empowering, it is also profoundly isolating. Working alone creates the false illusion that you are working alone, when in fact you have simply been siloed away from the others whose work is necessary for yours to exist.

This alienation is psychologically challenging and a key culprit in “creator burnout.” It is also damaging to the concept of labor as a class, because solo-preneurship disguises the fact that creators are not lone wolves, but rather part of a pack of workers scattered throughout the world. The isolation discourages them from coming together and taking advantage of the power their numbers provide, through collective bargaining, protesting, or just water-cooler gossiping. When workers are isolated, they are more vulnerable to exploitation.

Even more worrisome: modern creators have access to precious few workers’ resources. There are no federally mandated protections limiting the number of hours a creator can work in a day; no policy in place requiring them to take periodic breaks, buy ergonomic equipment, or eat lunch.

When a creator gets sick, they have no sick leave; instead, during their absence, they will likely lose followers and revenue. When a creator gets pregnant, there are no protections in place to safeguard their livelihood. When a family member needs caring for or a child needs extra resources, creators have few places to turn to meet these needs.

Despite the fact that many creators pledge their entire lives to platforms, they receive next to nothing in return. The platforms are, in essence, their employers: they pay them, give them feedback, and set expectations for them. But unlike employers, the social media and internet spaces that dominate modern life have no legal obligations to the individuals that make them valuable.

And before you say, “Well that’s what you get for trying to be a professional podcaster,” or dancer, or musician, or writer, consider that the economy is headed in a direction that will one day make the digital economy the only economy. The problems of the creator economy are not exclusive to a tiny group of people; they are a glimpse at the future.

Platform limits

Per usual, if I am thinking intently on a problem, Li Jin has already beat me to an answer. The venture capitalist recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Creator Economy Needs a Middle Class,” in which she names a number of the problems I have pointed out here.

Anyone who studies the creator economy knows that total revenue, or even average payout, are bunk metrics, because payouts are skewed such that the top 1% on most platforms earn the lion’s share of revenue. As Jin notes, “On Patreon, only 2% of creators made the federal minimum wage of $1,160 per month in 2017.” The same is true of Substack, OnlyFans, and other platforms; it’s the same reason you can’t use GDP as an indication of economic health.

As a solution, Jin offers a number of ways that platforms can make their payouts more equitable, from randomizing content suggestions to decoupling payouts from audience demographics. Walk, the venture capitalist, has similar suggestions. He proposes that creators work in “seasons,” which imply the existence of off-seasons. He also suggests that platforms institute a version of paid-time off, in which a creator passes a certain threshold and then is paid to relax.

While both Walk and Jin offer cogent ideas that platforms would do well to implement, I am generally of the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” school of thought.

Platforms will never meaningfully alter their policies if doing so endangers their engagement or profit.

In some areas, creator needs and platform needs align, and in those cases the platforms are always magnanimous in their willingness to accommodate the creators who do so much to bring light to their communities, etc., etc.

But when those incentives do not align, platforms will always prioritize the bottom line. The platforms can be worked with, but they cannot be relied on. Instead, creators should organize.

Creators guild

Two recent events are wonderful reminders that platforms are useless without the creators who give them value.

As (who else) Taylor Lorenz recently covered in her article “Snapchat Wants You to Post. It’s Willing to Pay Millions,” the world is watching a bidding war of epic proportions play out in slow motion. Snapchat is battling irrelevancy by paying creators, many of whom are teenagers, millions of dollars to post. The platform sees the ground it is losing to TikTok and is fighting tooth and nail to claw it back. At the center of the drama are creators, following the money from one platform to another, posting to whichever writes them a bigger check.

This is a key example of the power that creators hold over platforms. The users that Snapchat is courting are, of course, power users, but the underlying logic is the same: Creators and users determine the value of a platform. They hold the agency in the relationship. In the same way railroad barons were powerless when their workers refused to lay railroad ties, the platforms are impotent when creators withhold their talents.

Another great example, and one more germane to the world of editorial, comes from the fights against Google and Facebook from publishers and courts in France and Australia. In Australia, where Rupert Murdoch is king, publishers have been trying to get major platforms to pay to host their content.

The argument goes that if you google search “Inauguration Day” and nothing shows up, Google is of little use. Similarly, if you hop on Facebook and see no BuzzFeed quizzes, your news feed is a lot less compelling. Publishers provide a lot of value to these platforms, not the other way around. Without Google and Facebook, people will still need to read the news. Without news, Google and Facebook offer much less.

This example is a zoomed-out version of the same essential concept: that creators hold the power and that content is gender-neutral aristocrat. Tech is replicable — in fact its replicability is guaranteed! — but creativity is not, or at least not yet.

As a result, nothing is new under the SEO sun: the value of companies comes from their laborers. Armed with this knowledge, creators can and should negotiate conditions with their platform-employers that guarantee them the same rights that we expect from our physical employers. Creators, at least at some basic level, need to be given worker protections from platforms, not just sporadic compensation.

This notion might seem outlandish now, but years from now it will be as obvious. As we saw from Trump’s deplatforming, nothing you create on the internet truly belongs to you. All creation, on any platform — on any device! even this right now!— belongs, at least in part, to someone else. For now, we can continue to create content for platforms and tech overlords without asking for anything in return, slicking their palms in exchange for a bubble or two of serotonin.

But in the years to come, the reality of our actions will eventually become clear: That creating for free, from a position of vulnerability, for companies that profit off our largesse, was a misstep that temporarily derailed decades of labor organizing. Everything you do on the internet, you do for someone else. Isn’t it time we change that?

Some good readin’

— The Brick House Cooperative launched a month ago, so I looked at the operating agreement that governs the worker-owned, subscription-based, external-investment-free group of nine publications. (Business Insider)

— ProPublica is so impressive. The publication compiled 500 videos of the Capitol Coup by stitching together footage from Parler. (ProPublica)

— Content moderation: Is what’s expected for incumbents the standard for startups? If so, expect some issues. (OneZero)

— If you missed this fun case of the Hive Minds, my Insider colleague wrote a much more deeply researched version of last week’s Medialyte, about NYT Cooking. (Business Insider)

Cover image: “Factories at Clichy,” Vincent van Gogh