Taking Stock

Why the tech world calls workers “creators”

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Over the past decade, there have been numerous versions of the argument that creativity has stagnated, everything is recycled, and the genuine production of the “new” has become more or less impossible. Yet over the same stretch of time, the term “creator” has become inescapable, as any number of recent articles can attest to. It is as if the emergence of the “creator” as a cultural archetype, much like the similar use of “creative” as a noun, signifies nothing more than the end of creativity as an autonomous aesthetic possibility (if it has ever been one). Creativity is now understood first and foremost as a business resource, a component of an employee’s skill set, an ability to sell something, anything.  

A creator, then, is someone whom platforms can put to use. The emergence of creator as the preferred nomenclature for content producers stems from some of YouTube’s machinations in the early 2010s, as Taylor Lorenz has detailed, but it also echoes, probably unintentionally, the vogue for “co-creation” among marketers in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Co-creation” is when consumers contribute value to a company by suggesting ideas or providing feedback, as when fans help refine the plots and characters of their favorite shows or volunteer to “buzz market” their favorite products. In these arrangements, which emerged with the surveillance possibilities of the internet, consumers began to evolve into “prosumers”; that is, their consumption was understood as simultaneously a form of production that could be harnessed — or less euphemistically, a form of labor that could be exploited. Ideally, the prosumer wouldn’t understand their contributions as labor at all but experience it as affirming interactivity. With the new media technology, the labor of consumption was inseparable from the enjoyment one took in consuming: Consumer ideas and behavior could be “captured” as data as well as overtly elicited as “valued feedback” or as participation in enclosed fan communities.

A creator is someone whom platforms can put to use

Some marketers touted co-creation as liberatory, on the questionable basis that consumers were oppressed by top-down advertising and limited choices, and that the ability to customize or personalize goods was a concession that needed to be extracted from monolithic manufacturers. In reality, standardization of manufacturing processes and of consumer desires made narrow forms of customization easier to implement; they made a constrained form of “free choice” into its own streamlined product. The trick was to make sure consumers felt deeply invested in the possibilities offered to them within this horizon. In the co-creation model, “marketers presuppose, and in fact expect, the consumer subject to act, innovate, tinker and run free,” marketing professors Detlev Zwick, Samuel K. Bonsu, and Aron Darmody write in Putting Consumers to Work” (2008). “The marketing challenge posed by the co-creation model rests, of course, with establishing ambiences that program consumer freedom to evolve in ways that permit the harnessing of consumers’ newly liberated, productive capabilities.” In other words, consumers must be guided toward believing that doing unpaid work for companies was actually a form of open-ended self-expression, the natural direction of their inborn creativity. 

The initial piecemeal approaches to addressing that “challenge” were eventually consolidated into social media and content platforms. There the “ambiences” were propitious for programming consumer freedom; one might now say that there were good vibes. Within the emerging system, attention itself could be construed as a form of labor behind users’ backs: with consumption under more comprehensive surveillance and information about what people consume more readily recirculated, simply watching something could be seen as augmenting its value. The play counter on a YouTube clip is perhaps the most direct expression of this.

On platforms, users could not only boost the profile of content with views, likes, shares, and so on, they could freely promote brands and even interact with them as though they were peers, as brands had their own profiles that were often invested with their own active presence and personality. But it wasn’t just that brands acted like people; people began to act like brands in turn, encouraged by the same sort of metrics to understand their own trackable popularity as a kind of brand equity. 

This is the juncture at which consumers cease to be co-creators of established properties and can see themselves as “creators” in their own right. And just as social media platforms early on helped rationalize co-creation as self-expression, a new suite of apps and tools want to do the same for “the creator economy,” only now monetization opportunities (and not, it should be noted, guaranteed money) are a central part of the package. 

Where in the earlier dispensation, consumers were “fans” whose undeniable passion won them a voice in the production process, thereby “democratizing” it, now they are entrepreneurs of themselves, leveraging their various forms of human capital by using media platforms as much as possible. This shift helps recuperate the critique that was directed at co-creation and early social media: that it constituted a kind of uncompensated “free labor,” to use Tiziana Terranova’s term from this 2000 article. Rather than extricate the alienated labor from consumerism, and strengthen the expectation that work could be separated from leisure, the “creator” frame instead accepts that all leisure is work, but you too can profit!

The term creator aligns with the Web3 posturing about fixing the injustices of “surveillance capitalism” by giving people a direct stake in their media conduct. At the same time, it deflects attention from how that conduct has been shaped. Where convergence culture optimists saw a democratization of the culture industry, critics saw a culture industry internalizing and further directing the energies of consumers, which meant that the economic development of the internet was guided not by consumer empowerment but the further exploitation of the possibilities it afforded for labor capture under the guise of interactivity. As Terranova argued of the early internet, “The fruit of collective cultural labor has been not simply appropriated, but voluntarily channeled and controversially structured within capitalist business practices.” How we enjoyed media, and how the genres and tropes of media content evolved, were dictated mainly by those business practices.

It wasn’t just that brands acted like people; people began to act like brands, encouraged by the same metrics of their own trackable popularity

This principle has only intensified. “Creating” is now synonymous with making content in a form that tech companies can exploit; the possibility of acting creatively outside that framework has been almost entirely occluded. To “create” successfully means to go viral — that is, to optimize your content for the networks that have been developed to wring profit from it. And it is not as though some people opt to be creators and others don’t; participating in the system at all subjects one to the logic of the incentives built into it. Those who fail to build their reputation as “creators” at some level are at an increasing disadvantage in virtually every profession, each of which has its own promotional sphere in social media.   

In some respects, creator does the same sort of ideological work that critic Ben Davis ascribed to artist in 2013. In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, he argues that the reason many “continue to identify as artists despite the limited prospects of success” is to participate in what has been established socially as the “middle class form of labor”: having the freedom to set your own goals and make your own hours. As Davis puts it, claiming to be an artist affords people “the opportunity to make money doing something in which they are personally invested; freedom from the grind of an office job or more regimented forms of work; the belief that they have found a ‘calling’ that is uniquely their own” — a set of goals he draws from a Brookings Institution paper on how small businesses see themselves. 

“Creator economy” boosters and participants draw on the same sort of rhetoric. Rebecca Jennings notes in a recent Vox column how the vagueness of “creator” allows it to work as an inclusive umbrella term and a flexible alibi for the dubious business models associated with it. “The happy connotations of ‘creator,’’ she suggests, “distort the reality of the work” of “making your own digital self-performance and the industry around it your job.” Like “artist,” it is an aspirational term that connotes an independence that constitutes rather than compromises one’s economic viability. It is perhaps a slightly less triggering label to apply to oneself than “brand.” But as Jennings notes, rhetoric is little compensation for the economic insecurity and burnout that follows from continuous self-marketing. “Creator,” like “creativity,” is essentially a null term that signifies nothing about one’s activity but instead marks one’s limitless availability — a willingness to make anything at all in one’s life into content for sale.

The “middle class form of labor” could be understood as a euphemism for the required mode of subjectivity to be economically viable under the conditions of neoliberalism. As Michel Feher details in Rated Agency, neoliberalism has always aimed at convincing workers to see themselves as entrepreneurs rather than proletarians, and thereby side with capital and exit class struggle: 

Designed to help workers and employees embrace the mindset and behavior of entrepreneurs, neoliberal social engineering involved access to home ownership for as many people as possible; contractual, rather than socialized systems of protection against risks, such as funded pensions and private health care coverage; vouchers given directly to needy families instead of public investments in schools and low-income housing; and consolidation of all other types of public assistance into a negative income tax, set at a level low enough so as not to “incentivize laziness” among its beneficiaries.

The “creator economy” is an additional plank for this program. Do what you love, believe in yourself, never stop hustling, and the world is yours. The opportunities are right there on your phone. You don’t need any help from anyone, and neither should anyone else.

“Creator,” then, serves as an ideologically loaded term for “neoliberal subject,” which Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval define in The New Way of the World as someone who has internalized the reality of constant competition amid a society made up of individualized entrepreneurial selves. The novelty of neoliberalism in practice, they argue, 

consists in the molding whereby individuals are rendered more capable of tolerating the new conditions created for them — and this even though they help to make these conditions increasingly harsh and abiding through their own conduct. In a word, the novelty consists in triggering a chain reaction by producing enterprising subjects who in turn will reproduce, expand and reinforce competitive relations between themselves. In accordance with the logic of the self-fulfilling prophecy, this requires them to adapt subjectively to ever harsher conditions which they have themselves created.

The “creator economy” expresses this dynamic in that it largely consists of endless advertisements for itself. Much of the content produced is self-referential, in that it elaborates the value of living as a creator in a semblance of real time. The ratcheting competitiveness — ever harsher conditions which we ourselves create — comes out in the endless drama and pointless dunking that characterize the social media field.

Dardot and Laval concede that these “new techniques of ‘personal enterprise’ doubtless reach a peak of alienation in claiming to abolish any sense of alienation.” That is, a point is reached in which there is no distinction between creating for self-fulfillment and creating because one is compelled to compete, at least not any distinction worth investing the effort in maintaining. One does what one must to get through the days.

“Creator,” like “creativity,” is a null term that signifies nothing about one’s activity but instead marks one’s limitless availability

All this suggests that “creator,” despite its ubiquity and ideological efficacy, is a highly unstable term. Its power to enchant what amounts to nothing more than labor performed for speculative returns is prone to fade, to a degree that imperils the economy built on its entrepreneurial fantasies. This has precipitated a shift in its connotations, away from entrepreneurialism and toward an idea that “creating” is bound up with modes of financial investment. 

In Feher’s account, the promise and pleasure of being an entrepreneur has been inflected by the rampant financialization of the global economy. (In his view neoliberalization and financialization are distinct and oppositional developments.) Entrepreneurship implies an ability to deploy one’s store of human capital to opportunistically seek profit, but in a financialized world, one must instead commit to the “cultivation of their creditworthiness.” Feher writes:

Neoliberal reforms purported to fashion individuals who would rely on utilitarian calculus — rather than on collective bargaining and vested rights — to maximize their income. By contrast, the subjects of financialized capitalism tend to wager their prosperity on the continuously rated value of the assets — material and immaterial — that make up their capital.

This shift — from managing one’s human capital to wagering on oneself — is driving the drift of what it means to be a “creator.” It’s not as if being a good “creator” makes one independent from platforms — the actual means of production. It increases that dependency. As that has become inescapably clear, creators have been pushed to see themselves less as entrepreneurs than investors. Rather than make content, they should produce assets (as is most obvious in the case of NFTs). 

Framing communication as always capital (if not labor) and slapping metrics on everything encourages a sense that everything is “investing” rather than “consuming.” Under this model, prosumption is not a kind of (often unpaid) production or misrecognized consumption but an acknowledged form of investment, a way consumers can buy into content and turn their enjoyment into a kind of fiduciary due diligence. Attention is not work but investment capital. If a platform’s attention metrics are already proxies for value, shouldn’t that be convertible to actual money? Can’t crypto make that happen — allow us to break free from the platform’s fake currency (its company scrip) and embrace one that (theoretically) can’t be controlled by anyone? I invested in making this Twitter post, and the likes are my return—why shouldn’t I be able to literally sell it high?

Rather than reject the way metrics can incentivize the provision of free labor and fight to abolish that kind of surveillance, this line of thinking would have us demand that metrics be extended into actual literal speculative markets, with actual dollars always and everywhere in play. 

It takes more and more effort to resist financialization ideology, which wants us to think all the time not only about “creating” but about the opportunity costs involved with it, inviting us to become confused about the time scales of realizing gains, as well as the difference between consumption and investment, between investment and entertainment. Instead of the “social factory” we could have the social stock market, which, as many critics have pointed out, is nothing more than a universal casino. Who would like to co-create some bets with me?

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.