More than 50 million people worldwide now consider themselves content creators, a term that is at best utilitarian and arguably lazy, or even disingenuous.
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Rebecca Jennings is right when she attacks the phrase in Vox. “Why not ‘comedian’ or ‘competitive dancer’ or ‘aspiring actor?’” she asks. “Didn’t that sound more exciting than two of the most meaningless words in existence: ‘content’ and ‘creator?’”
This is the future of work, according to some. “No matter which industry you’re in, people are all going to be creators,” Li Jin, an analyst covering the creator economy, told The Information. “All of us will have to adopt some of the skill sets and behaviors of creators in order to be successful.”
READ MORE: Investor Li Jin Says We’ll All Be Creators in 10 Years (The Information)
Yet when content creator could mean anyone from Steven Spielberg to MrBeast (YouTube’s highest earner, who made $54 million in 2021) to a porn actor on Onlyfans as well as some nut from QAnon, the term needs unpacking.
“There are creators who exist to educate the public on deeply important topics and manage to do so in a nuanced, meaningful way,” says Jennings. “There are also creators who spout hatred, racism, and bigotry, but are creators nonetheless.”
She contrasts the term with that of “startup” which sprang up in the 1990s to describe the phenomenon of young people building internet companies in their own homes (or garages).
Jellysmack VP Hugo Amsellem suggested in a 2020 newsletter that whereas “startup” described an organization in search of a scalable business model, a creator is someone who “scales without permission.”
“Creators are less judged on their talent or passion and more on how good they are at being themselves,” Amsellem wrote. “Essentially, they’re one-person media empires, whatever medium that may be.”
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It was in fact YouTube which adopted the term “creator” a decade ago to describe the users that made up the platform a decade ago. That gave all user generated content “creators” on its site an attractive badge in a way that “gig” or “freelance” or “temp” or anything else isn’t, Jennings says.
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“And yet the only reason we use the term to describe this segment of workers is that one of the biggest companies in the world designed it that way.”
And that being the case, it disguises the treadwheel of online existence for all but a handful of actual “stars” and “influencers.”
“Everyone wants the job because it’s creative, freeing, not a 9-to-5. But ever since going full time [as a content creator], I realize I traded my 9-to-5 to work 24/7 instead,” explained Joshua Holmes, a TikToker with 1.5 million followers, in a recent video.
“Not a second goes by that I’m not thinking about creating content. Every day I ask myself, did I really choose freedom, or just a fancier cage? But at the same time, isn’t the fancier cage better than the regular one? Yeah, probably.”
And therein lies the reason why millions of people identify as creators. There’s the promise of earning a better living and doing so under your own steam. Jennings realizes that she’s fighting a losing battle to change perceptions about what the terms creator means. The kids have already voted.
“Isn’t it more elegant, after all, to call yourself a ‘creator’ as opposed to ‘part-time barista, part-time Uber driver, and part-time Instagram influencer,’ even if the latter might be more accurate?” she asks. “Young people already know this. Whenever I quote them in a story, I’ll ask how they’d like to be identified: high school student? Swim instructor? ‘No, “content creator.”’ Perhaps we all will, too, someday.”