Nadia Eghbal

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The creator economy

I’ve had some lingering thoughts over the past year about what it means to be a “creator,” further accelerated by a recent conversation with a friend, and I want to try to unpack those feelings here.

The “creator economy” popped into our vernacular with surprisingly little moral inquiry, a phrase that is further bleeding into web3 as creators explore new paradigms for ownership. Never before has it been so easy to build a life around making things, and to do so on one’s own terms. From this angle, it’s easy to see how the growth of creators might be a good thing.

Every human has felt a stirring in their soul to do something that defies rational logic. We intuitively know what it means to be creative. To be a “creator,” then, implies some sort of romantic entanglement with the spiritual, a reckoning with the ineffable holy spirit.

As we’ve pushed past the dawn of this so-called creator renaissance, however, and the sun starts to loom high in the sky, I’ve found myself wondering where it all goes. [1] I still think that the new models that have been, and continue to be, developed today can offer creators stability and financial freedom in a way that the gig life does not. But once we’ve addressed a creator’s financial needs, I find myself turning my attention to purpose and meaning.

There’s a saying in academia, which is a sort of centuries-old creator economy in itself: “Publish or perish.” As an academic, if you’re not publishing new papers, you’re running on borrowed social capital.

The endless pressure to publish in order to maintain social capital creates perverse incentives, which I’ve written about from the perspective of creators themselves. But I haven’t yet tried to articulate how t=∞ might adversely affect culture, from the consumer’s perspective.

When I was doing independent research, without a formal affiliation, I often considered (for my own sanity) the difference between “doing research” and “reading books all day.” The best articulation I’ve found is that research is about uncovering a problem, testing a hypothesis, trying to learn something that no one else has before. In other words, it’s purposeful. If you are successful, the world pushes forward a little bit more; civilization discovers something, however small, that it didn’t know before.

If you’re reading books to try to understand something that no one else understands yet, that’s research. But if you’re reading books without any goal in mind, that’s entertainment. (An enjoyable activity in itself! But not a primary aspiration to orient the world around, or else no one would be doing anything new.)

A similar example from the consumer’s side is reading the news. Keeping up with the news seems like an inherently valuable activity. But given the proliferation and minutiae of the news today, there’s a blurry line between “consuming news to be informed” and “consuming news as entertainment.” Too much news is fairly useless for the average citizen, and perhaps even actively bad for one’s personal development.

Is being a creator like research — directed towards some deeper aspiration — or is it like reading books all day: in other words, entertainment? If it’s the latter, what does it mean to glorify the indefinite pursuit of creation?

Imagine a nonprofit that was started to end homelessness. They need to fundraise, so they start applying for grants. The grantmaking process becomes so time-consuming that the nonprofit increasingly directs resources towards sustaining itself, rather than solving homelessness. Eventually, the nonprofit becomes disincentivized to solve for their mission, because ending homelessness (its ostensible mission) would mean putting the organization’s existence (its actual mission) at risk. This is also known as the nonprofit industrial complex: what starts out as a worthy endeavor eventually becomes about self-preservation of the ideal.

Similarly, I wonder whether the creator economy, as it matures, will resemble less of its original promise (a way for people to do the things they love), in favor of a “creator industrial complex.” Part of the problem is that creativity comes in fits and starts, and can’t always be tamed into a predictable routine. If you’re obligated to create something every day, rather than when it feels right, you’ll start putting things out there that aren’t very interesting in order to fill the space. Like the nonprofit, preserving the “creator” identity matters more than what is accomplished. [2]

The business and organizational tools for creators that are emerging today aren’t just unlocking ways for people to make a living writing blog posts or making videos. They also give people the freedom to tinker with ideas, try unexpected experiments that aren’t otherwise supported by the market, and collaborate on big lofty projects together. Content is a means to an end, but it shouldn’t be the end goal.

I have a growing fear that maybe we’re all just a little too overresourced and understimulated, taking part in the constant onslaught of more content and degenerate internet pranks, whether it’s making a video or blog post, or an NFT or a DAO. While media is an important, influential part of culture, I’d hate to see “being a creator” become synonymous with entertainment, where people are never intrinsically motivated to explore any of its potential beyond that.

Creators-as-entertainment doesn’t feel so different from the world of record labels and talent agencies that we’re leaving behind. Maybe creators have more agency now, but they’re using that platform to transmit the same messages as before. If Entertainment 2.0 is the best thing that comes out of the creator renaissance, that feels like an incremental improvement, not a paradigm shift.

I struggle to find meaning in the creator economy, in its current form. Without any deeper purpose in mind, aspiring to be a “creator,” as a career move, is almost tautologically devoid of cultural meaning and impact. [3]

When I imagine a cultural renaissance that inspires me, I think about working together to address unsolved questions, tugging on threads in conversations that need unraveling, creating enduring artifacts for generations to pore over and iterate upon. The “publish or perish” model that nudges people to rack up more followers is not the pinnacle of creative freedom; it’s indentured spiritual servitude.

Like nonprofits or the news, I think the reification of creators suffers from a rhetorical bait-and-switch. We believe on a surface level that “creating” is a divine form of self-expression that carries intrinsic public value. We should work harder to imbue it with something more.


Notes

Thanks to Toby Shorin.

  1. There are, I’m sure, apparent contradictions between what I’ve written in this post, and what I’ve written elsewhere. I’m aware of these contradictions. I’d interpret this post as me trying to wrestle with my own internal questions about what I do and what I care about, rather than trying to pass judgment on others. 

  2. A similar term I struggle with is “writer,” which I suppose is a subset of “creator.” I have never wanted to identify as a writer, although I’ve reluctantly used the term for legibility at cocktail parties and in speaker bios (it beats sputtering and stumbling over my words, trying to explain what I do, then staring shamefacedly into my drink). “Writer” implies that writing is a permanent, sustained way of life: it’s undirected and purposeless. “Writing” implies trying to get from point A to point B: it’s a verb, not an identity. I’d rather be known as “a person who sometimes writes in public to figure things out” than “a writer.” 

  3. The journalism industry epitomizes this outcome quite well. Wanting to be a journalist used to be an exciting career prospect; today, unless you’re one of the rare lucky ones, it’s associated with low wages, questionable moral sacrifice, and grinding away to meet deadlines on pieces you don’t really care about. Most importantly, its cultural impact has diminished; journalism — a field that ostensibly exists for the benefit of public society — is no longer viewed as a respected or trusted industry.