How we covered the creator economy in 2022
This summer, I went straight to VidCon , the largest creator conference in the world, to a labor journalism seminar at the Sidney Hillman Foundation. One day I was talking with TikTokers about their financial worries (what if they get banned from TikTok tomorrow?) The next day, I was learning about American labor organizing history.
These topics are not unrelated: writing about the creator economy is labor journalism at its core. The creator beat is a labor beat.
Creators are attempting to rebel against the traditional route to earning a living in the artistic industries. They are taking control of their income to make more money for themselves than large 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 full-time work to focus on other creative projects, likely because he realized that he could make more money with his audience than his media salary. Then there’s YouTube channels like Defunctland and Swell Entertainment, which are basically investigative journalism outlets run by individual video producers. We see chefs making their brand by becoming viral on TikTok. Or teachers sharing educational content on Instagram to supplement their income. YouTubers, Instagrammers, and newsletter writers are all proving that creativity can be monetized in an artistic industry that is notoriously underpaid for the expertise it provides.
This belief, that the creator economy is a labor beat, has guided my coverage this year of the industry. Below are some of my favorite stories about the state and future of the creator economy.
There are no laws protecting kids from being exploited on YouTube — one teen wants to change that
Chris McCarty, like many teens, spent a lot time on YouTube. But they had a serious question. How can influencers’ children protect themselves? They are too young to understand the ramifications of being a constant fixture on YouTube. McCarty and Emily Wicks, a Washington State Representative, collaborated to create a bill to compensate children for appearing 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. The Wall Street Journal reported that he intended to save the money for his children’s college expenses and charitable donations. Meanwhile, the family behind the “Charlie bit my finger” video made enough money to buy a new house.
A decade later, YouTube’s biggest stars are children. They are too young to grasp the life-changing responsibility that comes with being a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers. 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.
Is MrBeast actually worth $1.5 billion?
I’m fascinated with MrBeast, but in a “watching car crashes” kind of way. MrBeast is still cruising along the highway, but I worry a lot about the guy (…. I’m referring to. He’s doing well. 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 the snake eating its tail. No one is making as much money as him, but no one spends it like him. 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). If MrBeast’s business is truly a unicorn — and I would wager it is — then he will have two options. 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 continue pushing for more until there is nothing left?
Casey Neistat’s David Dobrik documentary explores what happens when creators cross the line
Speaking of David Dobrik, longtime YouTuber Casey Neistat debuted a documentary at SXSW this year about the 26-year-old YouTuber. Neistat began work on the documentary to capture Dobrik’s Vlog Squad, who were 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 an excellent job of capturing the creator’s fall from grace.
Television series like “Hype House” and “The D’Amelio Show” dedicate entire plotlines to creators’ fear of being “cancelled,” 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 most nine surgeries since his accident on Dobrik’s set.
” I believe that there is always a pursuit. It’s important for musicians – how can you keep your music interesting?” Neistat stated. David Dobrik is different because they aren’t looking for the next song or the next movie. Their quest is to be more sensationalist. This is a very, very dangerous pursuit. Once you have achieved something more sensational than the previous, you must then move on to .”
YouTube Shorts could steal TikTok’s thunder with a better deal for creators
The biggest secret in short-form video is that you don’t make it big on TikTok. Even the most popular creators only earn a small percentage of their income through the platform. TikTok has been a dominant player in short form video, but YouTube Shorts could challenge it next year. YouTube Shorts will be the first platform to share advertising 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? Who would get the revenue share if their video was directly before or after yours? Or would you give a cut to a creator whose video was directly before or after it?
OnlyFans CEO says adult content will still have a home on the site in 5 years
I interviewed OnlyFans CEO Amigan and Chief Strategy Officer Keily Blair about the future of the platform, particularly in relation 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 among the most successful and highest-earning in the business, but they are also the most vulnerable. Their business could be destroyed by changes in credit card company regulations or internet privacy laws. That’s what happened to OnlyFans last year. The company initially stated it would ban adult content but then reversed that decision. However, adult creators remain skeptical about how long they will be able to make a living on the platform. I asked Gan on our stage if onlyFans will still have adult content in five years. She agreed.
OnlyFans is working hard to transform its image from a subscription platform for adult content to a Patreon-like place for all creators. But it’s not moving away from them as users. Ami Gan, the CEO of the platform, confirmed today that adult content will continue to be available on the site in five more years and that those creators can still make a living from it.
The onlyFans relationship with adult creators has been rocky and the confirmation was made today at TechCrunch Disrupt. 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.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.