The Creator Economy Offers Promises and Perils
This new economy presents opportunities for wealth generation as well as dangers for those who enter
The video opens on a grainy wide-angle view of a man sitting at a table with several bottles of wine displayed in front of him. The camera zooms in and the microphone hisses as the man, wearing a collared shirt and pullover sweater, picks up the first bottle of wine to pour, taste and review.
It’s 2006, the very early days of a new website called YouTube. Gary Vaynerchuk has just started WineLibraryTV, a long-form video show that will release a new episode nearly daily for the next five years. His charismatic personality will soon attract an audience. Today, Vaynerchuk is the chairman of VaynerX and the CEO of VaynerMedia, named Adweek’s Media Agency of the Year in 2022. And it all started when he began promoting his personal brand online using his YouTube channel.
Vaynerchuk was one of the early entrants to the creator economy, also known as the influencer industry. Harnessing the power of social media and a strong online presence, he built and cultivated a personal brand that has grown into a business empire. He demonstrated the capacity of this new technology to create wealth for those savvy enough to understand how to harness it. And as his story shows, the opportunities for wealth generation and recognition are immense. Yet those who desire to reach influencer status should be prepared for the potentially destructive aspects of chasing these outcomes.
A New Creator Industry Emerges
Shortly after the launch of WineLibraryTV, the 2008 financial crash catapulted the United States into an era of economic uncertainty. In part symptom and in part response, a new industry emerged: the influencer industry. It offered fame and financial opportunity to creatives who could turn their talents and social capital into income by leveraging new technological tools the internet offered.
In these early days, “accidental influencers” became a phenomenon. These individuals started social media accounts or blogs purely as a creative outlet but saw them grow into something much bigger. These channels became an entry point for advertisement deals and monetization opportunities through the platforms themselves. Fame eventually led to book deals, merchandise and more, creating enormous wealth for these “overnight successes.”
The enduring Cinderella story of accidental influencers spread the belief that anyone could become wealthy and famous simply by doing what he or she loves. Many young people soon aspired to such a future.
Benefits and Pitfalls of the Creator Economy
The “accidental influencer” culture has left a lasting impression. It formed the creator economy, which has provided some profound opportunities for wealth creation and knowledge sharing. This environment has empowered entrepreneurs to reach more customers and stakeholders. The relationship-building capacity of social media is enormous: For the first time, innovators are able to connect with investors, collaborators and customers instantly. Entrepreneurs and business leaders are promoting their companies by building a strong personal brand online.
As a personal branding coach, I guide individuals toward elevating their reputation by skillfully using their online presence to reach their professional goals. I help leaders in the marketplace of ideas make a greater impact by getting their ideas into the hands of decision-makers. I see enormous potential for individuals in this space to expand their professional networks and opportunities by strategically using the tools at their fingertips.
In addition to recognizing the massive potential of the creator economy, however, I also observe clear dangers to society. We must learn how to mitigate harm that has come from the emergence of social media technologies and the rise of influencer culture. Society has already recognized some of these harms, as evidenced by the negative connotations now associated with the word “influencer”—and the ensuing shift to the more benign-sounding “creator.”
But some of these bad connotations should rightly carry weight. Major downsides to influencer culture include the false allure of easily obtained fame, pressures from online audiences to direct content creation and the dubious ethics of allowing minors to enter this world, often without their consent.
The False Allure of Influencer Success
Over time, as more social media platforms gained more users, the market became crowded. This crowding means it now takes greater efforts to achieve influencer-level fame. Thus, for the most part, gone are the days of the accidental influencers who made money from pursuing their passions.
The increasing effort it takes to reach influencer status means many will spin their wheels in futility. Instead of investing in channels that can develop and hone their skills, they may find themselves wasting time pursuing a career that will never pan out.
And like celebrity culture, the influencer lifestyle can be romanticized. Influencers are often selling their lifestyle as part of their brand. This attracts more and more social media users who wish to attain a similar lifestyle. But what is shown online is a polished lifestyle showing the influencer’s highlight reel, not his or her full life, which can be misleading for would-be influencers and set them up for disappointment.
Audience Impact on Creative Direction
On a more fundamental level, there is a concern that influencer culture encourages the commodification of humans as they increasingly try to look more like businesses. They exchange their privacy for money. Followers and likes become status symbols: The higher the count, the more “valuable” the influencer. Human nature urges us to “keep up with the Joneses,” but is our obsession with these metrics leading us on a path to a society dreamed up by “Black Mirror”?
Particularly concerning is when influencers feel pressured by their audience to create specific content. While early influencers’ channels were self-directed, there was free creative expression. In “Swipe Up for More!: Inside the Unfiltered Lives of Influencers,” reporter Stephanie McNeal interviews several influencers who recall the creative freedom they felt in the early days of their blogs and social media accounts. Some who were aspiring fashion editors felt as though their online accounts fulfilled their creative desires.
But almost all the influencers McNeal interviews describe how over time they felt pressure from their audience to create specific content. And as our political climate has changed, their audiences demand more and more that they weigh in on every issue. When large global events occur, I often see influencers scrambling to defend why they haven’t posted their stance yet or why they won’t discuss an issue. But even on their core content, the topics they became famous for, influencers are pressured to take specific creative directions.
While influencers of course have some fans who prop them up and discuss their lives and work, they also have their haters. Influencers receive hateful and toxic messages, and they are sometimes even the subject of forum threads on websites dedicated to tearing them down. And while many influencers are not afraid to call out some of the senders of hateful comments and messages, others suffer in silence.
The mental health load of the reality of this fame can wear on anyone. And these specific mental health concerns are only one of many as our attachment to our devices grows and we become more emotionally susceptible to feedback we receive on these platforms. Young people are particularly vulnerable: Research has found that adolescents who spend more than three hours on social media daily have a heightened risk of mental health problems.
Questions of Consent for Minors
Author Olivia Yallop carefully tallies the benefits and risks of influencer culture in her book, “Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence.” Yallop offers a fresh take on influencer culture because she examines it as both a former insider and a current outsider. Her own introduction to this world came from achieving minor internet fame on Tumblr, an early social media platform. While Yallop never fully cashed in on this fame, she saw many of her connections go on to increase their influence and achieve fame online. Eventually she left the influencer ranks and transitioned to a role in the advertising industry, where she analyzed online trends.
In her book, Yallop provides a balanced perspective, positioning herself somewhere between the hyperpositive Silicon Valley leaders and the more pessimistic regulatory advocates. In the process of researching for her book, she even attempted to reenter the influencer culture herself by personally testing methods of becoming internet famous.
What struck me the most was Yallop’s exploration of the role of minors in the influencer world. In a passage that’s simultaneously fascinating and alarming, Yallop describes how she attended an influencer bootcamp course aimed at tweens and young teens (about seven to 13 years old). One might expect to find such a course indoctrinating youth in the ways of manipulation. Instead, Yallop found these young people teaching their instructors. Today’s youth already know many of the strategies key to building a large following—after all, they’ve been steeped in these tactics their whole lives. They already have an intuitive sense of what makes an influencer famous.
While the minors who attended influencer bootcamp with Yallop had presumably enrolled willingly, other children do not have a choice. Some are simply born into the influencer life. With the rise of parenting and family channels, the entrepreneurs who build these channels have cashed in on sharing private moments with their families. Intimate moments of their children’s lives are filmed for the public to see. These children are contributing to their parents’ wealth—essentially, they are working. And they are often too young to consent to having their photos and videos posted publicly.
But even for those minors who presumably consent to displaying their personal lives on screen for the consumption of a mass audience, is this true consent? We don’t deem children capable of making other important, legally binding decisions, but the rapid development of technology has seemed to allow us to slowly get comfortable with minors sacrificing privacy to engage in this online culture. Have we been like a frog allowing the temperature of the pot to slowly heat? I suspect that there are deeper philosophical and policy questions to explore on this topic. And we are living the problem now, so we can no longer push these questions aside.
Where Does Responsibility Lie?
I ultimately believe that humans should self-direct their usage of social media. They should claim full responsibility for the time it takes and the rewards they receive. And time is and should be a concern, as the nature of social media platforms encourage us to be more and more attached to our screens. On average, social media users spend two hours and 24 minutes scrolling through social media daily. Influencers spend even greater amounts of time on their devices.
Many like to insert government into discussions like these—if social media is so bad for us, shouldn’t the state intervene? But as I’ve discussed previously, policy is a poor regulator of social media platforms and the resulting creator economy, as policy changes lag years behind technological changes, and they often prevent us from experiencing the benefits of innovation. We’ve seen similar harmful impacts in regulators trying to control the gig economy. My colleagues at Mercatus recently released a report showing the harmful impacts of one such regulation on flexible work arrangements and the workforce as a whole.
Yet there may be a place for government intervention in this discussion where minors are concerned. Government has historically done well at managing child labor and the exploitation of children in the entertainment industry. While typically I side with parents, some of the greatest exploiters of minors online are their parents. Just as with laws surrounding the income of child actors, some have proposed policies that will require adult influencers or the owners of family channels to ensure profits are retained for their children featured in content. This is an area where I believe policy could be beneficial.
But for adults, we are our own best self-regulators, so being aware of the potential pitfalls of the influencer lifestyle and greater creator economy is essential. A healthy use of this technology requires us to create boundaries and set limits on our social media use. We can learn from the successes and downfalls of the influencer culture. And we can take these insights and allow them to shape our own behaviors. We can share our creativity and gifts with the world without letting the process take over our lives. We have a say in the matter, and this sense of control is freeing.