Is It Smart to Trust Meta, Google or ByteDance?

The creator economy is controlled by a handful of very powerful companies. What can you do about it? Here are a few steps you can take.

If I were a successful Youtube or TikTok creator right now, I’d be nervous.

Successful creators have built big audiences and incomes on these services, which is great. It takes a lot of creativity and persistence to succeed in these channels. When people love what you do, the rewards should follow.

The Information recently declared that a “chill” is falling on the creator economy.  As the overall economy slows down or shrinks, and advertisers get stingier, and tech stocks dip, the financial dynamics of getting paid as a Youtube or TikTok star are going to change too.

That’s normal. It’s a cycle, and they happen. Smart, creative people adjust.

But there’s something unusual about the creator economy right now. Something that puts individual creators at high risk, disempowers them and keeps them in the dark.

The creator economy is controlled by a small handful of very powerful companies. Google, ByteDance and Meta call the shots. They decide what and how content gets monetized, and they don’t feel obligated to explain the details. They built the audience, and they don’t feel obligated to share anything with creators about who they are.

They’re gatekeepers.

The original creators of the World Wide Web wanted to remove gatekeepers. They believed in giving people tools to do their own thing and cut out the middleman. Web 1.0 was about email and websites, mostly, and if you had a website or an email subscription list, you owned it.

Web 2.0 changed that. Intermediaries like Facebook and Google came along. In exchange for a much bigger audience and more powerful tools, the individual creator or organization gave up some control. It seemed like a fair trade, especially at first.

But over time, it’s not so clear. It’s one thing to have gatekeepers. It’s another to have unreliable gatekeepers.

Capricious gatekeepers.

In the early days of Web 2.0, I built a big audience on Facebook for my company. At that time, Facebook really wanted companies like ours. The deal was that companies should use Facebook to build an organic audience. Good content would draw more people to Facebook, and they could monetize that extra traffic with ads. Everybody wins.

So we built an extremely active audience of over 100,000 people. Our posts routinely got hundreds or even thousands of comments and shares. We were a poster child for companies using Facebook right.

But one day, we (and everybody else) got a message with some “exciting news.” From now on, instead of our posts going into the feeds of the people who’d signed up to get our posts, our posts would go to “select” people who’d signed up.

Select? And it would be Facebook that would be doing the selecting. In the end, they “selected” to put our posts in the feeds of about 5% of the people who’d signed up to hear from us.

But the good news was that we could pay Facebook to reach the rest. Or at least some of the rest. Sometimes. They wouldn’t say.

It turned out that the advertiser that was going to monetize the traffic we had created for Facebook was us.

Their game, their rules, right? Sure, but the value of Facebook collapsed for people like us. We were trying to create engaging content to build our audience and get new customers. Not long after, the value of Facebook went up dramatically for other kinds of advertisers, like the Russian government. They were trying to destabilize American democracy and create international chaos.

But what does that little story have to do with today? Simple. Nothing has changed, except that these gatekeepers have gotten much worse. They’re opaque and heavy-handed. They make decisions that affect creators all the time and offer no explanation at all. You may have generated major advertising dollars for them with your content, but you don’t even get to talk to a customer service drone when they demonetize or suspend you.

They’re capricious gatekeepers. Any overlap between their interests and yours is completely coincidental.

What can you do about it? I’m not suggesting you abandon these services.  You just need a hedge and a Plan B, because history suggests you might need them. Here are steps you can take to do that:

  • Start taking names. However you do it–with Patreon for example–make sure you’re collecting contact information on as much of your audience as you can. This is so you know who they are and know how to reach them on your own.
  • Create special content and charge for it. A small percentage of your audience will go for it, but that’s ok. If you’ve got a big audience, the money will add up. Quarterly memberships for special videos or other content that doesn’t appear on your main channels will appeal to your biggest fans. Little by little, you can reduce your reliance to monetization on those big channels.
  • Do live events. To make a big splash, do a live event. Make it hybrid so you can have an in-person audience and a paying online audience. Use a platform like Stellar and you can do all this in one place. And all the customer data is yours.

The last two or three years have been a boom time for the creator economy. Everyone’s nice during good times.

Maybe the capricious gatekeepers have been kind to you so far, and maybe they always will be. But then again, maybe not. Their track record doesn’t inspire confidence.

So while there’s still time, get ready! The worst-case scenario is you can fall back on all your new ways of connecting with and earning money from your fans. The best-case scenario is, you just have a lot more ways of connecting with and earning money from your fans!

Jim McCarthy

Founder - CEO

CEO and Co-founder Stellar and TEDxBroadway and author of Beyond the Back Row: The Breakthrough Potential of Digital Live Entertainment and Arts