This summer, I went straight from VidCon -- the largest creator conference -- to a labor journalism seminar with the Sidney Hillman Foundation. One day, I was chatting with famous TikTokers about their financial anxieties (what if they accidentally get banned from TikTok tomorrow?), and the next, I was learning about the history of American labor organizing.
These topics are not at all unrelated: at its core, writing about creator economy is labor journalism. The creator beat is a labor beat.
Creators are rebelling against the traditional route to making a living in artistic industries, taking control over their income to make money for themselves, rather than big media conglomerates. Consider creators like Brian David Gilbert, who built a devoted fanbase as a chaotically hilarious video producer for Polygon, the video game publication at Vox Media. Gilbert quit to work on other creative projects full-time, likely because he realized that with his audience, he could make way more money independently than his media salary paid him. Then there's YouTube channels like Defunctland and Swell Entertainment, which are basically investigative journalism outlets run by individual video producers. We see chefs building their brands by going viral on TikTok, or teachers who supplement their income by sharing educational content on Instagram. In artistic industries that notoriously underpay for the expertise that its laborers provide, YouTubers, Instagrammers and newsletter writers alike are proving that creativity is a monetizable skill -- one that they deserve to make more than a living wage with.
This belief -- that the creator economy is a labor beat -- has guided my coverage of the industry this year. I've rounded up some of our best stories about the state of the creator economy.
Like most teens, Chris McCarty spent a lot of time on YouTube, but they had a serious question. How can the children of influencers protect themselves when they're too young to understand what it means to be a constant fixture in online videos? As part of their Girl Scouts Gold Award project, McCarty worked with Washington State Representative Emily Wicks to introduce a bill that seeks to protect and compensate 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. David DeVore, then 7, became an internet sensation when his father posted a YouTube video of his reaction to anesthesia called “David After Dentist.” David’s father turned the public’s interest in his son into a small business, earning around $150,000 within five months through ad revenue, merch 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 costs, as well as charitable donations. Meanwhile, the family behind the “Charlie bit my finger” video made enough money to buy a new house.
Over a decade later, some of YouTube’s biggest stars are children who are 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-earning YouTube creator in 2022, earning $28 million. Ryan Kaji, a 10-year-old who has been playing with toys on YouTube since he was 4, earned $27 million from a variety of licensing and brand deals.
I'm fascinated by MrBeast, but kind of in a "watching a car crash" way. MrBeast is still cruising comfortably along the highway, but I worry about the guy (not too much. I mean. He's doing fine). His business model just doesn't seem sustainable to me, despite his immense riches and irreplaceable success. As he attempts to raise a unicorn-sized VC round, we'll see if he can keep escalating his stunts without becoming yet another David Dobrik.
Is going bigger always better? MrBeast’s business model is like a snake eating its own tail — no one is making money like he is, but no one is spending it like him either. He described his margins as “razor-thin” in a conversation with Logan Paul, since he reinvests most of his profits back into his content. His viewers expect that each video will be more impressive than the last, and from the outside looking in, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before MrBeast can no longer up the ante (and for other creators, this has led to disaster). So, if MrBeast’s business really is a unicorn — I’d wager it is — then he has two choices. Will he use the cushion of $150 million to make his business more sustainable, so he doesn’t have to keep burying himself alive? Or will he keep pushing for more until nothing is left?
Speaking of David Dobrik, longtime YouTuber Casey Neistat debuted a documentary at SXSW this year about the 26-year-old YouTuber. When Neistat started working on the documentary, he wanted to capture the phenomenon that was Dobrik and his Vlog Squad, who used to be YouTube royalty. The documentary took a turn after Insider surfaced allegations of sexual assault on Dobrik's film set -- then, Dobrik nearly killed his friend Jeff Wittek in a stunt gone horribly wrong. Neistat does a brilliant job capturing the creator's fall from grace, plus the way in which the lack of regulations on YouTube film sets can set the stage for disaster, especially when creators are incentivized to do crazier and crazier stunts to stay relevant.
Television series like "Hype House" and "The D'Amelio Show" dedicate entire plot lines to creators' fear of being "canceled," but Dobrik is still doing okay, calling into question just how far a creator has to go to lose his fans. Dobrik just opened a pizza shop in LA and has his own Discovery TV show. Wittek has had at least nine surgeries to date as a result of his accident on Dobrik's set.
“I think that there’s always a pursuit. It’s relevant for a musician – how do you keep your music interesting?” Neistat said. “But what makes individuals like David Dobrik different is that their pursuit is not coming out with the next song or making the next movie. Their pursuit is, how can I be more sensationalist? And that is a very, very, very dangerous pursuit, because the minute you achieve something that was crazier than the last, you then have to go past that.”
The biggest open secret in short-form video is that you can’t get rich on TikTok alone, because even the most viral creators earn a negligible portion of their income from the platform itself. TikTok has long been dominant in the short-form scene, but YouTube Shorts could give TikTok a run for its money next year as it becomes the first platform to share ad revenue with short-form creators. Ad revenue doesn't seem that glamorous, but I couldn't be more excited to see how this program will change the short-form game in 2023.
A big reason why TikTok and other short-form video apps haven’t unveiled a similar revenue-sharing program yet is because it’s trickier to figure out how to fairly split ad revenue on 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 eight-second ad in the middle — but if you place ads between two videos, who would get the revenue share? The creator whose video appeared directly before or after it? Or, would a creator whose video you watched earlier in the feed deserve a cut too, because their content encouraged you to keep scrolling?
At TechCrunch Disrupt, I interviewed OnlyFans CEO Ami Gan and chief strategy officer Keily Blair about the platform's future, especially in regard to sex workers. In large part due to the success of adult creators, OnlyFans has paid out over $8 billion to creators since 2016. For comparison, the mostly safe-for-work competitor Patreon has paid out $3.5 billion since 2013. Online sex workers are some of the savviest, highest-earning creators in the business, yet 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 on OnlyFans. The company said it would ban adult content, then walked back on that ban -- but even still, adult creators have been skeptical about how long they can keep making 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 been putting a lot of effort into upcycling its image from an adult content subscription platform to a Patreon-like home for all kinds of creators, but it’s far from moving away from them as users. Today CEO Ami Gan of the platform confirmed that adult content will still have a home on the site in five years, and those creators can continue to make a living on it.
The confirmation, made today onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt, is notable because of the rocky 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 efforts it reportedly was making to raise outside funding. Then it abruptly suspended the decision less than a week later after an outcry from users.