What is a "content creator" anyway?

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 30, 2023, 7:03 PM | comments: 0

Have you noticed that the term "content creator" gets thrown around constantly, and applied to anyone who puts something on the Interweb? I was watching Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) interview Simone Giertz (yetch.store), both of whom I consider among the best people using YouTube today, and they self-applied this term. Honestly, I think it devalues what they do. He's a tech product reviewer, she's a maker. Both are diversifying what they do with products so they're not entirely beholden to YouTube and its algorithm. But to slap the generic label on them is to lump them in with kids who post 10-second dances on TikTok.

Let's take away the platform for a moment. Marques could review technology in any number of ways. He just happened to grow up (literally) with YouTube and he's raking in millions for it. But twenty years earlier, he may have ended up writing for Wired or PC Magazine or something. Simone would have made stuff, but I'm not sure it would have easily transitioned into a job until she decided she could sell the things she was making. So the former would put "tech reviewer" or "journalist" on his resume, while the latter would have been "entrepreneur" or "owner of small business." Similarly, Mark Rober would have been an engineer and science educator, and maybe make his way to television if he still left JPL. Hell, I'm making a documentary, and calling me "content creator" would be fighting words. I'm a software developer, author (got the book to prove it) and soon, documentary filmmaker.

Now, there are a ton of people who make ephemeral stuff that has zero shelf life and isn't valuable to anyone other than the platforms. Facebook and Instagram are now relentlessly pushing that out front, and it's a huge waste of time that keeps us doomscrolling and seeing ads. For me at least, the scale has tipped where this is no longer interesting or enjoyable, so I'm using those platforms less and less. But the ephemeral crowd keeps making this stuff because they may aspire to the level of the very few people who can make a buck (or worse, believe that "influencer" is a real job). It's like varsity basketball players thinking they might get into the NBA.

At the turn of the century, it really felt like the Internet was full of promise, and a great equalizer. It meant that you didn't need to own a TV network or magazine or movie studio to get what you made in front of people. This is true, but it's only half true. For the most part, the entire content ecosystem is held captive by a small number of platforms. Twenty-five years ago, things were largely found by word of mouth, and Google was mostly an idea. Even in the early and mid-aughts, there was still a healthy ecosystem of independently run things that we tied together with RSS, niche forums and early blogs. As the social function of the platforms continues to decay, I wonder if people will revert back to this.

I have noticed that some of the better video producers are looking for other ways to distribute their shows (and they really are shows, even if they have no schedule). There's Nebula, for example, which takes advertising out of the picture and has a curated set of producers making podcasts, documentaries and other series. (And yes, they unfortunately are self-labeling as "creators.") Smart YouTubers like Grady of Practical Engineering are using Nebula while also making sure they could flip in a moment with their own site. I think there's a lot of awareness of the platform danger.

And yeah, I get it, because one day YouTube added arbitrary engagement minimums to do revenue sharing. I went from making a few hundred bucks a year off stuff I just wanted to host, to zero, and they keep all of the money. I'm not interested in making a "channel," but at least pay me for what I've essentially loaned you.

If you're making durable, interesting things, you are more than a creator. You're an author, filmmaker, videographer, journalist, enthusiast... let's call it what it is.


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