Depending on who you talk to, there’s never been a better time to be a content creator on the Internet. Many have described this current moment of constant content creation as a Creator Renaissance, likening this period to the shift from the Middle Ages to modernity in which there was massive social change and artistic innovation. Teenagers, when surveyed on their career aspirations, point to the digital realm — many want to be professional YouTubers, bloggers, or vloggers.
Over the last decade, the monetization of digital content creation has made these teenagers’ aspirations possible (though, harshly, not probable). Alongside the creator economy, a financial system emerged, first in the form of external sites like PayPal, Vimeo, and most notably for creators, Patreon, but also from platforms themselves. As creators began to profit off of their digital content through third-party sites, the platforms that host the content jumped into the mix with things like the YouTube Partner Program, TikTok’s Creator Fund, and Twitch Partners. These external sites, monetization funds, and advertising revenue plans fund certain creators in varying ways, proving that influencer marketing is not the only way of making money on social media.
However, as someone who has studied Internet video cultures, creators, viewers, and their labor for the better part of the last decade, I take great issue with terms like “patronage” and “Creator Renaissance” to describe this moment. First, patronage is much too narrow of a term to describe the way money exchanges (virtual) hands in the creator economy, nor does it account for the mitigating or aggravating actions of platforms hosting the content. This is what leads me to take umbrage with the term “Creator Renaissance” — such a phrase assumes all creators are treated equally, which is a stark farce.
Many describe fan and viewer interactions with their favorite creators as patronage. This idea suggests that fans and viewers pay their favorite creators in exchange for content, which harkens back to the idea of patronage in the art world. Rich, wealthy benefactors would subsidize creators for their work, but in doing so, the patron exercised immense creative control over the content. This historical attribute is often overlooked in using the term “patron” to describe the creator/viewer relationship. As I argue in my research on ASMR creators and viewers, while patronage is still possible in the creator economy, we are now in a moment the blurs classic patronage with something Art Sociologist Janet Wolff describes as the “dealer-critic system.” The dealer-critic system was a byproduct of history’s artistic Renaissance, in which artists now didn’t just have to respond to the demands of a patron, but the institutions that arose in modernity to mitigate art — such as dealers and critics. Art dealers brokered sales, critics wrote about pieces in newfangled newspapers.
I’ve argued that in general, the creator economy landscape is a hybrid patronage/dealer-critic system. Individuals may still request specific types of content, either in video comments or in more formalized manners like on Patreon, but in this case, the hosting platform itself acts as the dealer-critic. Through community standards guidelines, content moderation, platform dynamics, and in choosing what types of content is allowed on the site and what types can even be monetized, social media platforms exercise a fair degree of control and influence over the possibilities for income for creators.
To be sure, direct patronage in the creator economy still exists. Individuals can support their favorite creators through varying tiered memberships on Patreon, and in exchange, they may get individually tailored content. It is also worth remembering, however, the Patreon also is a dealer-critic. It can choose what funds to allow or disallow, and despite touting itself as a way for creators to earn money for their craft, creators still struggle to pay their rent as Patreon was recently valued at $4 billion.
Second, the term Creator Renaissance implies that this moment is jovial, fair, and equal for all creators. This is simply not true. This is a Creator Renaissance for some creators. As I argue in my research, rising tides in the creator economy do not lift all boats. This is most of because of one, platforms not understanding the types of content being shared on their sites, or two, the fact much of the creator economy has actually replicated the Legacy Media hierarchies and inequalities they claim to leave behind. Let me unpack these.
As I found in my research on ASMR creators and viewers, as well as pet influencers (aspiring and professional), platforms often do not understand the content that is being shared. This means the content may be unfairly demonetized, or denied profits and funds from the platform. This was particularly common in the ASMR community, as YouTube often demonetized ASMR content for being “sexual” (while sexual ASMR exists, there is nothing fundamentally or inherently sexual about ASMR). For a brief time in 2018, even third-party monetization sites like PayPal denied the transfer of funds for anything pertaining to ASMR, citing similar reasons.
The current creator economy also replicates traditional Legacy Media hierarchies and inequalities more often than it rebukes them. What I mean by this is that there is often a belief that social media and digital content creation are inherently more democratic than their legacy predecessors of film, broadcast news, and television. While technically, anyone can access a potential platform in the creator economy, access does not equal attention or guarantee an equal playing field.
Creators in this economy often fall into the very trappings of Legacy Media — gatekeeping, a hierarchical structure in which certain creators are valued more than others, and identity inequalities. Gatekeeping and hierarchical structure often go hand-in-hand. When creators position themselves as an authority on a subject or the creator economy in general, they relegate others to lower positions than them.
Perhaps more insidious is the way the Creator Economy is racist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, and disability-phobic. This has become particularly apparent on TikTok, as the platform faces constant criticism for censoring certain bodies. Plus-size women, trans creators, and creators with disabilities have long documented how TikTok removes their content or bans their accounts when nothing seemingly violated their terms of service — except for TikTok doesn’t want to promote these types of people and their bodies. TikTok has also faced backlash for who it does promote, and this bleeds over into Legacy Media institutions as well. Jimmy Fallon recently faced criticism for inviting TikTok star Addison Rae onto his show to perform popular TikTok dances. Rae, a young, cisgender white woman, performed dances that had actually been created by majority Black dancers Mya Nicole Johnson, Chris Cotter, Dorien Scott, Fur-Quan Powell, Camyra Franklin, Adam Snyder, Nate Nale, Greg Dahl, and Keara Wilson. Instead of choosing to showcase the actual creators, Fallon (and even TikTok) promoted the white woman who took the others’ content.
The problem of “patronage” and “Creator Renaissance” go hand-in-hand: Both ignore the role platforms play in mediating content, as well as how this seeps into traditional Legacy Media, like Fallon’s show. This is far from a utopian moment for content creators. This is not an inherently equalizing moment. This is a moment that involves tough conversations for creators, viewers, platforms, and third-party payment sites like Patreon, as most users struggle to make ends meet on platforms that are worth billions of dollars. Content creators are just that — they create content, and not just for their fans, but for the platforms that make billions off of them. We also tend to historically romanticize the Renaissance, while ignoring its horrific inequalities and overlooking the problems it ushered in for us today. We don’t need a Renaissance in the creator economy — for creators to actually make fair livings, they may need a revolt.