What the “designer economy” promises and what it actually does


The influencer is a common character in commedia dell’arte on the Internet. Often a conventionally attractive white woman, she shows off her ambitious lifestyle through social media channels. She accumulates many followers, then makes a living having companies sponsor the content of her glamorous life. The influencer snapshot emerged over the nineties from multimedia-rich platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, where the goal was to forge an image as polished and polished as possible. The influencers were social media users as celebrities, with much of the vanity and pointlessness that the comparison implies. Right now, the connotations of being an influencer are mostly negative: edited selfies, tasteless captions, false relativity, staged private jet photos, and unmarked sponsorships. As a result, social media platforms are adopting a new buzzword as their successor: “designer”.

“Creator” is a term with a healthier air, evoking an Internet in which we are all artisan blacksmiths plying our digital profession. But what exactly the word implies beyond that is subject to debate. According to Taylor Lorenz’s report for Atlantic, the term was initially marketed by YouTube, as early as 2011, as an alternative to a vocabulary like “YouTube star”, which seemed to imply that only a few famous personalities could be successful on the platform. But it’s now used to describe virtually anyone who produces any form of content online. TikTok users are “TikTok makers”. Members of the Clubhouse invite-only real-time voice chat application are “Audio Creators”. OnlyFans, a market primarily used for pornography, is home to “adult content creators”.

Even proponents of the so-called “designer economy,” the network of new platforms and tools meant to serve creators, cannot quite agree on what the term means or who it includes. Its development has sparked a semantic debate that tends towards the solipsist. “I think all influencers are designers; maybe not all creators are influencers, ”Nicole Quinn, partner at venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners, told me. Lightspeed’s investments in the creator economy include Cameo, a platform best known for personalized video messages that celebrities sell to fans, and Outschool, a marketplace for online courses. For Quinn, the difference in terminology comes down to success: influencers are already famous; creators strive to be. Li Jin, the founder of creator-economy investment firm Atelier Ventures, instead defined creators in terms of income. “Anyone whose fame comes from online channels, if they are able to earn an income from that influence, I would consider it to be the economy of the creators. “

Despite its vagueness, the term “creator” is being adopted as synonymous with a new generation of social media spaces believed to be designed to support content producers in new ways. Where Facebook and Twitter ad platforms take advantage of our data and attention without giving much in return, Clubhouse and OnlyFans promise to deliver more value to users by enabling what Quinn of Lightspeed calls “monetization.” direct ”. “Instead of selling company ads on the basis of overall engagement, creators can get paid by their individual viewers, who can buy subscriptions, send tips, or fund new projects. The word ‘influencer’ underlined the magnetic effect of a person on his followers, a nebulous charisma easily turned towards marketing. “Creator”, on the other hand, emphasizes that all those who post on social networks produce something, being involved in the effort collective aiming to make user-generated platforms compelling and therefore profitable. This idea has proved to be highly marketable: the creators’ economy has so far benefited from investment funding of $ 1.3 billion in 2021, nearly three times the funding it received in 2020.

Companies in the creative economy have devised various revenue models as alternatives to advertising. Subscription platforms like Patreon, Substack, and Buy Me a Coffee charge a percentage of users’ income in exchange for posting and paywalling their content. Apps like Linktree, Beacons, and Feedlink offer a service that, for a monthly subscription, expands website links that are found in the bio of social media accounts, directing fans to a creator’s various content channels. . Non-fungible token (NFT) marketplaces like Foundation, Rarible, and SuperRare allow creators to sell expensive digital art in exchange for commissions. On Twitch, a site where users can stream live content like video games, and Heygo, a streaming site that provides a virtual proxy for travel, viewers can access video streams for free, with the ability to send advice to hosts. According to Quinn, March 2020 was the “key inflection point” for this booming economy, as increased appetite for digital content and the loss of jobs in other industries during the pandemic prompted more people to try their luck as creators.

In some ways, the creator economy seems to empower the user. Rather than trying to play on social media algorithms, creators can theoretically count on more reliable income from supporters. They can choose the types of work they undertake, whether it’s newsletters, live broadcasts, or audio chats. “They don’t have to worry about beating the mainstream of the platform,” said Sam Yam, co-founder of Patreon, a pioneer of the creative economy. In Yam’s mind, making a living as a creator is an evolution of the so-called gig economy facilitated by companies like Uber and TaskRabbit. Subscribers pay to access someone’s unique talent or voice. “You care about the individual more than the task at hand,” Yam said. “It’s value exchanged for creativity. The model promises a more human and less automated interaction. What used to be called subscribers – the anonymous numbers that pile up on a profile page like fungible eyeballs – are now customers, supporters and customers.

But this emerging field, in many ways, looks like a gig economy for digital content. Participants are still precarious workers, who depend on the whims of business for their livelihood. Much like an Uber driver or twenty-dozen Instagram influencer, the designer is responsible for her own contributions to marketing, healthcare, and taxes. It earns money for the platform that hosts it without benefiting from the legal and financial protections of employee status, nor from the stock options generally granted to engineers, designers and managers of the platform. Meanwhile, social media giants are developing their own version of the creator economy in an effort to prevent users from fleeing to newer and smaller platforms. Last year, TikTok launched a Creator Fund to pay its users directly for popular content. Snapchat launched a similar program called Spotlight, which offers creators millions of dollars in compensation per month. Last week, Instagram owner Facebook announced that it would pay more than $ 1 billion to users of its platforms by 2022.

Anshuman Iddamsetty, a former podcast producer who now runs an erotic self-portrait-focused Patreon, which uses the pronouns “they” and “them”, told me that they are making enough of a living from this account and an OnlyFans page. But they said there is a gap between the platforms’ message that anyone can “build a freelance creative career,” as Patreon’s website claims, and the reality of being a solo entrepreneur. “Patreon doesn’t suddenly and magically make it easy to create your deliverables,” they said. Ambiguous guidelines can give platforms the power to block users or types of content at will; Patreon allows some forms of adult content, but Iddamsetty, who describes himself as a “big erotic artist,” has encountered unexpected obstacles. The hype of the designer economy is only relevant “if you’re a certain type of designer with a certain type of product,” they said.

Even Yam, from Patreon, recognizes the limits of the burgeoning estate. He anticipates a future in which social media giants and designer economy brands are completely avoidable. Each creator will instead have their own bespoke platform, “their own top-to-bottom world”, from the underlying technology to the published content – a “property economy”. For now, however, the bulk of users will continue to rely on the pre-established attention economy for the bulk of their digital consumption. “Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, these are still so dominant,” Jin said. “Today, no one can find anyone on Patreon; you go there after finding them. In other words, to be a creator you still have to be an influencer after all.

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