Jake Paul, Shane Dawson, Tana Mongeau… today’s content creators are drama magnets. But many influencers are some of the most popular people in our culture—so why don’t they get the same amount of respect as other creatives? Our image of the stereotypical content creator is someone who has almost fluked their way to success. And many of them seem to experience overnight success, leading us to believe that what they do doesn’t take much effort. It’s also harder to see famous content creators as doing anything special given how much content creation is a part of all of our daily lives. But, is our stereotype of the content creator even accurate anymore?
Content creators are some of the most famous, influential, and popular people in our culture…so why don’t they get the same amount of respect as other creatives? Our image of the stereotypical content creator is someone who has almost fluked their way to success. They’ve become famous by playing video games, unboxing their mail, or just filming the mundanity of their lives. And many of them seem to experience overnight success, leading us to believe that what they do doesn’t take much effort.
It’s also harder to see famous content creators as doing anything special given how much content creation is a part of all of our daily lives. Most of us have our own social media accounts that we contribute content to every day. In comparison, artists, actors, filmmakers, and writers all occupy a rarefied place in our culture – since we see their work as something we couldn’t do easily.
But, is our stereotype of the content creator even accurate anymore?
Birdman: “Maybe not to you or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to “go viral” – Birdman
The fact that only a small percentage of the millions of TikTok accounts and YouTube channels are able to turn what they do into a sustainable business, having started out with nothing, shows how difficult it actually is. Here’s our take on why the content creator hasn’t been respected the way other creatives are in our culture, and why it’s time to change that narrative.
The lack of respect afforded to the content creator comes down to the divide between art and commerce. While artists are often seen as dedicated creatives who do it for love, content creators are more inextricably linked with money. Adobe designer Khoi Vinh writes “Content is inherently transactional; its goal is to drive towards some kind of conversion, some kind of exchange of value.” And buoying this is the fact that we see content creators and influencers — whose main function seems to be to sell stuff to their audience — as one in the same.
Erika: “I didn’t buy any of this stuff, it’s all influencer swag.” – Boo Bitch
But there’s a sort of cognitive dissonance afforded to the fact that actors, musicians, and more traditional “artists” are also selling things all the time. Buying tickets to a movie or a concert feels very different than supporting a creator’s brand deal or having to sit through ads to watch online content. Both are creatives that need money from fans to survive…but one seems more rightfully earned.
This binary was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. During lockdown, many content creators were criticized for continuing to travel across the world to make content. Meanwhile, in a recent interview promoting The Banshees of Inisherin, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson revealed that they were considered “essential workers”. One could argue that their continuing to work was for the same reason as content creators – that people needed the entertainment that they were providing – but it’s one thing to work on a regulated set with a lean crew and entirely another to flaunt partying or going to large public gatherings.
So maybe the problem with content creators is that the lines they operate within feel a lot more blurry. Content creators often project an image of authenticity, but this is undercut by an idea that they’re driven purely by numbers and reach.
In ‘We Are Lady Parts’, the content creator Zarina – in an effort to help build the band’s profile – twists what they are into something else. And she succeeds – but, much to the band’s dismay, by focusing on sensationalism rather than authenticity.
Zarina: “I have 1.2 million followers because I understand how to engage with an audience.” – We Are Lady Parts
Another problem comes down to what content actually is. By literal definition, content is “the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website,” But with a definition so broad and vague – and the fact that “content” has become such a buzzword – it simultaneously means everything and nothing. And this idea of nothing content is backed up by the fact that creators often churn out posts on a daily – sometimes hourly basis – seemingly without the need for any quality control. Artists on the other hand could traditionally go years without releasing new material, with the time in between generating excitement and anticipation.
And while we expect artists to experiment, try new things, and have a semblance of creative freedom, it often feels like content creators get siloed into one kind of content. Whether it’s mukbangs, ASMR, or fashion hauls – as a medium, it feels creatively limiting. But the content industry is young and still growing, and many of these assumptions we have about it are being challenged. If we take a step back and look at the content industry objectively, we might have a different view.
People may not respect content creators, but they cannot deny their success. The “creator economy” is worth more than $100 billion, and while other business struggled during Covid, most content creators were able to plough ahead and keep their business afloat, growing their audiences as people were forced inside. Their objective influence is solidified even further when we look at the viewing habits of younger generations. A study from TechCrunch found that by June of 2021 kids between the ages of 4 and 18 were spending an average of 56 minutes per day on YouTube and 91 minutes per day on TikTok. Another study found that young adults spend more time browsing TikTok than consuming broadcast television. And these platforms are changing and defining what kinds of content our society is watching as a whole. During the pandemic, we saw a gravitation towards “feel good, short form content” – that hasn’t waned – undoubtedly thanks to the rise of TikTok.
Newt: “This week has been very emotional, tense - a lot of adjectives okay? So I thought, let’s make a breakfast sandwich together!” – TikTok
But perhaps the most shocking revelation (that also affirms their reach) – is that content creators are getting the most eyeballs from our youngest when it comes to news and information. A recent study revealed that over half of teens prefer to get their news from influencers over traditional news organizations. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by our most powerful – in fact, it’s been capitalized on. At the start of the war in Ukraine, Joe Biden briefed 30 high profile TikTok creators on the conflict as a way to communicate directly to young people, and combat the misinformation that often runs rampant on the platform.
Despite this rising influence there continues to be a push and pull over how legitimate content creators are, and whether or not their influence is a good thing. Many high profile content creators have been in significant hot water over the content they create. Logan Paul was quote unquote “canceled” for filming a dead body for his channel; Gabbie Hanna was called out for live-posting through a manic episode in which she made racist and transphobic comments; and Andrew Tate has managed to build a huge profile off the back of some seriously toxic, misogynistic content.
And yet, this kind of controversy seems to sell. YouTube’s algorithm is almost expertly designed to prioritize click-bait-worthy videos – which has brought about a crisis of ethics for the creators who want to see success on the platform.
Ethan Kline: “So it came out that you faked a very racist social experiment”
Joey Salads: “…Just trying to create something shocking and create controversy and that’s what it did.” h3h3 Productions
Many of them have been accused of manufacturing drama for the sake of clicks and views…like Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau’s infamous wedding…Sam and Nia’s miscarriage…or when ImJayStation actually admitted to faking his girlfriend’s death to get more subscribers. Not the first to break the 4th wall, Mukbang creator Nikocado Avocado attempted to pull the curtain back on the industry as a whole with one of his more notorious, manufactured incidents. And it makes sense – as prank videos, influencer drama videos, and in turn drama commentary videos are some of the most popular types of content on YouTube.
It’s become so pervasive that even the apology video that normally follows these controversies is an expected opportunity for views. So many content creators have been through this cycle of controversy, potential cancellation, apology, and back online that it’s hard to keep tabs or keep up. Which once again brings up the question of authenticity – perhaps we don’t respect the content creator because we feel like we can’t trust them.
This inauthentic content creator personality has become so popular that it’s been satirized in our movies and TV shows – further cementing their image as a joke, not to be taken seriously. From the innocuous albeit empty “Instagays” on The Other Two – to the murderous protagonist in Spree who is so desperate for followers, he livestreams himself killing people to get attention.
And as satirical as it may be, it speaks to the image our society has of the content creator – they’re all just vapid, click-hungry, hacks willing to do anything for the views. But do all of the high profile troublemakers – that undoubtedly inspired these characters – give us a right to criticize the industry as whole? or is there something deeper about content creators that still makes people wary?
New artforms are often criticized as they emerge because of the way they disrupt the creative ecosystem. For a long time, video games weren’t seen as being on the same level as other artforms, and were even blamed for anti-social behavior and rising criminal activity. But now, you’re more likely to see video games treated as a legitimate art form – in their own right – in conversation with other artforms, rather than in competition with them.
Narrator: “With more than 100 million copies sold, Minecraft has become more than a game. This game has become an artistic medium.” Vox
Content, and content creators, are undergoing a similar process, but what’s different is how content creators have disrupted other industries. There’s now an almost unspoken understanding in pop music that in order to make a hit, you need to write something that “works on TikTok.”
Musicians and artists are now also expected to become de facto content creators to effectively promote their work. But this shift towards content creation being a necessary part of the industry hasn’t been so easily accepted. Artists like Halsey, Charli XCX, and Florence and the Machine have all publicly complained about how their music is essentially being held hostage by their labels until they go viral on the app.
And it’s not just established artists becoming content creators – social media platforms are also breaking new artists. Scottish songwriter Katie Gregson-MacLeod was tapped up by three record labels after posting a 45-second clip of her song Complex on TikTok. And of course, Lil Nas X’s meteoric rise came after he turned Old Town Road into a meme. Someone like Lil Nas X is a great example of how the business of content creation has also helped amplify the voices of underrepresented communities. Black creators and creators of color – who may have been overlooked by Hollywood or the music industry in the past – are now able to build a platform for themselves online and get noticed.
And these days it’s unlikely anyone would call Issa Rae a “content creator”, but the truth is that she started her career by writing, producing, and acting in a low budget series on YouTube, and turned it into the now-famous HBO series, Insecure.
So if we want new – but more importantly – diverse artists in our creative fields, then content creation seems to be a necessary vehicle. At the same time – content creators are breaking out of their own boxes more often now. People like KSI, Addison Rae, Logan Paul, Chase Hudson, Bryce Hall, Lily Singh, Lucas Cruikshank — have all since branched out into various different projects and artforms…sometimes to the public’s dismay.
Gabi Conti: “Addison opened up about how challenging it was for her to transition from tiktoker to actor as she told Elle quote in the industry when you come in you get labeled as one thing people like to keep you there.” – Hollywire
There’s an irony here in that these creators who have made it on their own are criticized or disrespected, while numerous actors and musicians who benefit from nepotism and family connections seem to get more of a free pass. While nepo babies do find themselves under a magnifying glass of their own — people like Maya Hawke or Maude Apatow, who’ve emerged in the past few years to become stars in their own right have undeniably had a leg up – one that content creators certainly haven’t.
It might feel strange to some that the lines between what we once considered legitimate artists and content creators are being blurred – but art always has been and always should be constantly evolving. And if we want new voices in our creative industries, then the rise of the content creator is giving us just that.
The truth is that for younger generations, the distinction between actor, musician, and content-creator feels pretty nebulous. Whereas for older folks, they may have to reshape how they think about “the arts” to incorporate these new ideas. Also, given that we’ve all sunk countless hours into social media, there’s undoubtedly going to be a little bit of jealousy that some people have done exactly the same, but turned it into a business.
There are still flaws in content creation that need to be ironed out. Creators shouldn’t be expected to churn out endless content, risking burnout, over-exposure, and a lack of quality. But at the same time, it’s clear that these new mediums are encouraging experimentation and wild creativity; and allowing new voices to emerge.