This summer I went straight from VidCon – the biggest conference for creatives – to a Sidney Hillman Foundation labor journalism seminar. One day I was chatting up celebrity TikTokers about their financial woes (what if they accidentally get banned from TikTok tomorrow?), and the next I was learning the history of America’s union organization.
These themes are by no means independent of one another: writing about the creator economy is labor journalism at its core. The creator beat is a lab beat.
Creators are rebelling against the traditional way of making a living in the arts industry, taking control of their income to make money for themselves rather than big media conglomerates. Think of creators like Brian David Gilbert, who has garnered a loyal following as the chaotically hilarious video producer for Polygon, the video game publication on Vox Media. Gilbert quit to work full-time on other creative projects, probably because he realized he could make a lot more money independently from his audience than his media salary was bringing him. Then there are YouTube channels like Defunctland and Swell Entertainment, which are basically investigative journalistic channels run by individual video producers. We see chefs building their brands by going viral on TikTok, or teachers supplementing their income by sharing educational content on Instagram. In the arts industry, which notoriously underpays the expertise of its workers, YouTubers, Instagrammers, and newsletter writers alike are proving that creativity is a monetizable skill — one they deserve to do more than just make a living.
That belief — that the creator economy is a labor struggle — has guided my coverage of the industry this year. Below I’ve rounded up some of our best stories about the state of the creator economy.
Like most teenagers, Chris McCarty spent a lot of time on YouTube, but they had a serious question. How can influencers’ kids protect themselves when they’re too young to understand what it means to be a regular part of online videos? As part of her Girl Scouts Gold Award project, McCarty worked with Washington State Representative Emily Wicks to introduce a bill aimed at protecting and compensating children for their appearance in family vlogs.
As early as 2010, amateur YouTubers realized that “cute kid does stuff” is a genre prone to virality. Then 7-year-old David DeVore became an internet sensation when his father posted a YouTube video titled “David After Dentist” about his reaction to the anesthesia. David’s father turned public interest in his son into a small business that made around $150,000 in five months through advertising revenue, merchandise sales and a licensing deal with Vizio. He told The Wall Street Journal at the time that he would save the money for his children’s college expenses as well as for charitable donations. The family behind the “Charlie bit my finger” video has now made enough money to buy a new house.
Over a decade later, some of YouTube’s biggest stars are kids too young to understand the life-changing responsibility of being an internet celebrity with millions of subscribers. Seven-year-old Nastya, whose parents run her YouTube channel, was the sixth highest-grossing YouTube creator in 2022 with $28 million. Ryan Kaji, a 10-year-old who has been playing with toys on YouTube since he was 4, has made $27 million from a variety of licensing and branding deals.
I’m intrigued by MrBeast, but kinda “watching a car crash”. MrBeast is still cruising the highway at ease, but I’m worried about the guy (…not too much. I mean. He’s fine). His business model just doesn’t seem sustainable to me, despite his immense wealth and irreplaceable success. As he attempts to set up a unicorn-sized VC round, we’ll see if he can further escalate his stunts without becoming another David Dobrik.
Is bigger always better? MrBeast’s business model is like a snake eating its own tail – nobody makes money like him, but nobody spends it like him. He described his margins as “razor thin” in an interview with Logan Paul because he reinvests most of his profits back into his content. Its viewers expect each video to be more impressive than the last, and from the outside it seems like it’s only a matter of time before MrBeast can’t keep up (and for other creators, this has spelled disaster). . So if MrBeast’s business really is a unicorn – I’d bet it is – then he has two choices. Will he use the $150 million cushion to make his business more sustainable so he doesn’t have to keep burying himself? Or will he keep pushing for more until there’s nothing left?
Speaking of David Dobrik, longtime YouTuber Casey Neistat presented a documentary about the 26-year-old YouTuber at SXSW this year. When Neistat started working on the documentary, he wanted to capture the phenom Dobrik and his vlog squad, who used to be YouTube kings. The documentary took a turn after insiders surfaced allegations of sexual assault on Dobrik’s film set – then Dobrik nearly killed his friend Jeff Wittek in a stunt that went horribly wrong. Neistat does an excellent job of capturing the downfall of the YouTuber, as well as how the lack of regulation for YouTube film sets can set the stage for disaster, especially when YouTubers are incentivized to pull off increasingly insane stunts in order to to stay relevant.
TV series like “Hype House” and “The D’Amelio Show” devote entire storylines to the creators’ fear of being “cancelled,” but Dobrik is still doing fine and questions how far a creator has to go to serve his fans to lose . Dobrik has just opened a pizza shop in LA and has his own Discovery TV show. As a result of his accident on Dobrik’s set, Wittek has endured at least nine surgeries to date.
“I think there is always a pursuit. It’s relevant as a musician – how do you keep your music interesting?” said Neistat. “But what sets people like David Dobrik apart is that their aspiration isn’t to release the next song or make the next movie. Your pursuit is how can I be more sensational? And that’s a very, very, very dangerous pursuit, because the moment you achieve something that was even crazier than the last one, you have to get over it.”
The biggest open secret about short videos is that you can’t get rich off TikTok alone, as even the most viral creators make a negligible portion of their income from the platform itself. TikTok has long been dominant in the short-form scene, but YouTube Shorts could be TikTok next year as it becomes the first platform to share ad revenue with short-form creators. Ad revenue doesn’t seem all that glamorous, but I couldn’t be more excited to see how this program will transform the short-form game in 2023.
A big reason why TikTok and other short video apps haven’t unveiled a similar revenue sharing program is that it’s harder to figure out how to fairly allocate advertising revenue to an algorithmically generated feed of short videos. You can’t embed an ad in the middle of a video — imagine watching a 30-second video with an 8-second ad in the middle — but if you ran ads between two videos, who would get the revenue share ? The YouTuber whose video appeared immediately before or after? Or would a creator whose video you watched earlier in feed also deserve a cut because their content encouraged you to keep scrolling?
At TechCrunch Disrupt, I spoke to OnlyFans CEO Ami Gan and Chief Strategy Officer Keily Blair about the future of the platform, particularly as it pertains to sex workers. Due in large part to the success of adult creators, OnlyFans has paid out over $8 billion to creators since 2016. For comparison, competitor Patreon, which is mostly work-safe, has paid out $3.5 billion since 2013. Online sex workers are some of the most accomplished, highest-earning creatives in the industry, but they are the most vulnerable. Changing credit card company regulations and internet privacy laws can wipe out their business, and last year that almost happened to OnlyFans. The company said it would ban adult content but then withdrew that ban – but even adults have been skeptical about how long they can make a living on the platform. On our stage, I asked Gan if adult content will still be on OnlyFans in 5 years. She said yes.
OnlyFans has put a lot of effort into evolving its image from an adult content subscription platform to a Patreon-like home for all types of creators, but it’s far from straying away from them as users. Today Ami Gan, CEO of the platform, confirmed that five years from now, adult content will still have a home on the site and these creators will still be able to make a living from it.
The endorsement, made on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage today, is notable for the difficult relationship OnlyFans has had with adult creators. Last year, the company announced it would ban adult content on the site after pressure from card payment companies and reported efforts to raise outside funding. Then it abruptly suspended the decision less than a week later after an outcry from users.