Dispatch from the Publisher at VidCon 2023: Creators Offered to Algorithm Altar

Grace Stanley | Remixed by Drew Grant on Adobe Express

Hi there. If you’re new here to Passionfruit, that makes two of us. 

I’m James Del, the publisher behind the curtain for this here news and community operation we’re spinning up for the creative underclass. Welcome to the party, hope you got the memo about BYOB. And DMCA takedown notices.

I’m filing from the press room of VidCon, the annual gathering of digital video creators and fans in the heart of Anaheim, CA, a city that, until the 1950’s, was primarily farmland and German immigrants (fun fact: the name combines the Santa Ana River with the German “heim”, or home).

Save for a few older hotels dating back to the 1960’s, Anaheim is now a modern national landmark to late stage capitalism. Like Vegas with all the vice stripped out, the city is billed as a family resort town, resplendent with franchise restaurants, hotel chains, and of course, Disneyland. In the last 48 hours, I’ve eaten at an IHOP, a Denny’s, a Red Robin, and an Outback. Gotta use that per diem.

I’m here because for one week every June, the gravitational center of the creatorverse shifts to VidCon, where platforms, brands, creators, and fans all descend to collab, create, commiserate, celebrate, vape, and, most notably: capitalize.

Sponsored primarily by TikTok and Youtube, what was once a free-for-all meshing of fans bumping into their favorite internet stars has become its own branded experience; every inch of the Anaheim Convention Center is adorned with bright logos. Some are obvious, like the aforementioned TikTok and Youtube. Others are a little more tangential and targeted to young people, like General Mills, Nintendo, and Mars Candy.

One longtime industry track attendee and regular VidCon speaker tells me, “this year feels different.” When pressed, he notes that there seem to be fewer fans in attendance, and the platforms seem to be programming most of their activations around exclusive e-commerce tools. The magic of collaboration has been replaced with capitalization.

For creators, getting access to on-demand merchandise printing via TikTok, YouTube, Meta, and Spring is a breakthrough in making monetization easy. For a fan waiting in an hour long line to buy creator merch from the Youtube Shop installation…well, VidCon must feel like a digital shopping mall where the mannequins all ask you to like and follow. 

Each stage appearance starts and ends with megastar creators acknowledging and appreciating the money and creative freedom these platforms afford them. Popping in and out of sessions, it seems like every panel discussion features at least one person who was, until recently, doing some kind of menial gig job, like scooping ice cream or styling hair

That is until one fateful moment when they experienced their individual “canon-event” that transformed them from fresh-faced nobody into an internet sensation, a natural inflection of main character daydreaming that we all occasionally suffer from. The only difference between the creators on stage and the creators in the audience is that the former has already had their ego validated by a platform’s algorithm, and the latter is still seeking that validation.

Kinda like how Trump voters see themselves as “temporarily broke millionaires,” aspiring creators are just influencers temporarily looking for an audience. They’re repeatedly told some pretty standard advice for anyone undertaking any creative pursuit: Be yourself, keep working at it, and when it doesn’t work, learn something and then keep going.

That’s all true to a point, but it glazes over the most fundamental and important element of finding success online: The platform’s algorithm is your gatekeeper. Keeping the gatekeeper happy means keeping the algorithm happy. The algorithm is fed by the signals that users send it…the shares, the likes, the repeat views. Learning to hack those algorithms has become a cottage industry of its own, with creators like Colin and Samir (and even this publication) offering endless tips for how to get your work seen and monetized.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, gatekeepers were often rich white men who decided what stories would turn into screenplays, which directors would adapt those screenplays into films, and what actors would bring those characters to life. It was a system built for abuse of power, and it’s no surprise that the #metoo movement was ignited by the women of Tinseltown.

The algorithms, on the other hand, aren’t interested in favors for fame. In that sense, we’ve opaquely democratized the tastemaking mechanism, and on its face, that’s a good thing. 

In another sense, however, we’ve created mini-studio executives out of every creator who reaches a certain level of notoriety, decentralizing some of the toxic power dynamics that have plagued other creative industries for as long as we’ve tried to mix capitalism and creativity. Just look at our story from this past week about allegations against Miranda Sings, or the collapse of the FaZe clan earlier this month.

Unlike a studio with a reputation and back catalog to protect, the platforms seldom take responsibility for the actions of its most powerful users. This new power dynamic is a feature, not a bug. The platforms are only interested in generating revenue for themselves, they reluctantly accept that the people making the content deserve some remuneration for their effort.

But those payments aren’t equal, with 95% of the money flowing to the top 5% of creators (with gender and age disparities baked in there, to boot). What we’ve created is a kind of enormous national lottery for creative individuals, and the winners of that lottery get to go on stage at VidCon to tell aspiring creators that with a little hard work and commitment, they too can ditch their hourly wage for internet fame.

Don’t get me wrong. Any monetization is better than no monetization. But I’ve been monetizing internet content since 2006, and I can tell you with certainty that the underlying metric that underpins every cent on the internet is attention. The algorithms are fed by attention, but they also drive it.

At VidCon 2023, creators are presented as the center of attention, but it’s the platforms that creators need to be paying attention to. More and more people are following their passion and making a go at being a creator, but the tools and structures to do so sustainably and reliably are still in their infancy. They often lack equity, they sometimes lack accessibility, and they always lack transparency. The result is an open air, unregulated marketplace for ideas and production, where free market forces will continually drive dollars to the creators with the largest reach for the lowest (per impression) price, all while the platforms continue unparalleled growth and profit.

Passionfruit exists to force these conversations to the forefront, and maybe even encourage some needed change in the creator labor market. When I asked someone at one of the most popular platforms how they reconcile the unseen power of algorithms, I’m given a list of exemplary creators who managed to break through it, and directed to an article from Eugene Wei who compares the work of algorithms to that of the Harry Potter sorting hat. In other words: It’s magic, just leave it at that.

At a dinner last night, I sat with a group of old-timers (in internet years) who were lamenting the early days of the internet, when creativity and capital were distinctly separate digital concepts that needed to be reconciled manually. Advertising revenue was the most obvious way to monetize eyeballs, but it was merely an old media, capitalist solution to a decidedly new media, communal problem. Like most antiquated solutions, it just doesn’t scale for anyone except the very cream of the crop.

That’s why you won’t see banner ads on Passionfruit any time soon (though we do accept sponsors in our newsletter, get in touch if you’d like rates). We’re also starting a new program to feature our creator subscribers in places that you’d normally expect to see advertisements. If you’d like to apply (for free) to be featured, subscribe and fill out the form here.

We’re not here at VidCon to convince advertisers to underwrite us, we’re here to convince aspiring creators to join us. Capitalism may have turned Anaheim’s pristine farmland into a plastered strip mall in 50 years, but I’ll be damned if we’re just going to sit back and let the same thing happen to the internet. 

The creators who make the internet: That’s why we’re here, that’s why we exist. If you’re making something online, or thinking of making something online, you deserve better than the shopping and monetization tools you’ve been handed by the platforms who are printing money off of your individual efforts. Creative labor is labor, as the writer’s strike continues to remind us.

It’ll only get better if we bring attention to it together, so if you have any stories worth telling about your struggles as a creator, don’t hesitate to send us your tips.

We hear for you, and we’re all in this together.

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