How we covered the creative economy in 2022

This summer, I went straight from VidCon—the biggest conference for creators—to a working journalism seminar with the Sidney Hillman Foundation. One day I was chatting with famous TikTokers about their financial worries (what if their TikTok was accidentally blocked 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 the creative economy is work journalism. The creative pulse is the pulse of work.

Creators are bucking the traditional ways of making a living in the arts industries and taking control of their income to make money for themselves and not for big media conglomerates. Consider creators as they are Brian David Gilbert, who built a devoted fan base as a producer of chaotically funny videos for Polygon, Vox Media’s video game publication. Gilbert stopped working on other creative projects full-time, probably because he realized that he could make much more money independently from his audience than his media salary was paying him. Then there are YouTube channels like Defunctland and Swell Entertainment, which are essentially investigative journalism companies 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 arts industries that notoriously underpay the expertise their workers provide, YouTubers, Instagrammers, and newsletter writers are proving that creativity is a monetizable skill—one that earns more than a living wage.

This belief – that the creative economy is a workforce – has guided my coverage of the industry this year. I’ve collected some of our best stories about the state of the creative economy below.

Like most teenagers, Chris McCarty spent a lot of time on YouTube, but they had a serious question. How can children of influencers protect themselves when they are too young to understand what it means to be a 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 appearances in family roles.

As early as 2010, amateur YouTubers realized that “cute kid doing stuff” was a genre prone to virality. David DeVore, then 7 years old, became an Internet sensation when his father posted a YouTube video of his reaction to anesthesia called “David at the Dentist.” David’s father turned the public’s interest in his son into a small business that earned about $150,000 in five months from ad revenue, merchandise sales and a licensing deal with Vizio. At the time, he told The Wall Street Journal that he would save the money for his children’s education costs, as well as for charitable donations. Meanwhile, the family behind the “Charlie bit my finger” video made enough money to buy a new house.

More than a decade later, some of YouTube’s biggest stars are kids who are too young to understand the vital responsibility that comes with being an Internet celebrity with millions of subscribers. Seven-year-old Nastja, whose parents run her YouTube channel, was the sixth highest-earning 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 earned $27 million through various licensing and branding deals.

I’m excited about MrBeast, but in a “watching a car accident” kind of way. MrBeast still cruises down the highway comfortably, but I’m worried about the guy (… not too much. I mean. He’s doing okay). His business model just doesn’t seem sustainable to me, despite his immense wealth and irreplaceable success. As he tries to raise a unicorn-sized VC round, we’ll see if he can continue to step up his ventures without becoming another David Dobrik.

Is increasing always better? MrBeast’s business model is like a snake eating its own tail – nobody makes money like him, but nobody wastes it like him either. Speaking to Logan Paul, he described his margins as “razor thin” as he reinvests most of his profits back into his content. His viewers expect each video to 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, it’s led to disaster). So if MrBeast’s business really is a unicorn – I bet it is – then he has two options. Will he use the $150 million to build a more sustainable business so he doesn’t have to keep burying himself alive? Or will he continue to strive for more until there is nothing left?

Speaking of David Dobrik, longtime YouTuber Casey Neistat premiered a documentary about the 26-year-old YouTuber at SXSW this year. When Neistat started working on the documentary, he wanted to capture the phenomenon of Dobrik and his Vlog Squad, who were once YouTube royalty. The documentary changed after Insider published allegations of sexual assault on Dobrik’s film set — at which point Dobrik nearly killed his friend Jeff Wittek in a stunt that went terribly wrong. Neistat perfectly captures the creator’s fall from grace and the way the lack of regulation in YouTube’s film scene can set the stage for disaster, especially when creators are encouraged to do ever more insane feats to stay relevant.

TV series like “Hype House” and “The D’Amelio Show” devote entire plots to creators’ fear of “failure,” but Dobrik is still doing just fine, which begs the question of how far a creator has to go to lose his fans. Dobrik just opened a pizzeria in LA and has his own Discovery TV show. Wittek has had at least nine surgeries to date as a result of the accident on Dobrik’s set.

“I think there is always a pursuit. That’s important for a musician—how do you keep your music interesting?” Neistat said. “But what makes individuals like David Dobrik different is that they’re not pushing to release the next song or make the next movie. Their goal is, how can I be more sensationalistic? And it’s a very, very, very dangerous endeavor, because the moment you achieve something that was crazier than the last one, you have to move past it.”

The biggest open secret in short videos is that you can’t get rich on TikTok alone, as even the most viral creators earn a negligible portion of their income on the platform itself. TikTok has long dominated the short-form scene, but YouTube Shorts could give TikTok a run for its money next year by becoming the first platform to share ad revenue with short-form creators. The ad revenue doesn’t seem all that glamorous, but I couldn’t be more excited to see how this program changes the short-form game in 2023.

A big reason why TikTok and other short video apps haven’t yet unveiled a similar revenue-sharing program is that it’s harder to figure out how to fairly split ad revenue on an algorithmically generated short video feed. 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 put ads between two videos, who would get a share of the revenue? Creator whose video appeared immediately before or after? Or would a creator whose video you watched earlier in the feed also deserve a cut because their content made you want to scroll further?

At Root Devices Disrupt, I interviewed OnlyFans CEO Ami Gan and Chief Strategy Officer Keily Blair about the future of the platform, specifically as it relates to sex workers. Largely due to the success of adult creators, OnlyFans has paid out more than $8 billion to creators since 2016. By comparison, largely safe competitor Patreon has paid out $3.5 billion since 2013. Online sex workers are some of the most inventive, highest-earning creators in the business, but they are also the most vulnerable. Changing credit card regulations and internet privacy laws can wipe out their business, and that’s what almost happened to OnlyFans last year. The company said it would ban adult content, then lifted the ban — but adult creators are still 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 upgrading its image from a subscription platform for adult content to a Patreon-like home for all kinds of creators, but it’s far from distancing itself from them as users. Today, the platform’s CEO Ami Gan confirmed that adult content will still have a home on the site five years from now, and those creators can continue to make a living doing it.

The confirmation, made today onstage at Root Devices Disrupt, is notable for the rocky relationship OnlyFans has had with adult creators. Last year, the company announced it would ban adult content from the site after pressure from card payment companies and efforts it said it was making to raise outside funding. It then abruptly suspended the decision less than a week later following an outcry from users.

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