Esther Kezia-Thorpe

Esther Kezia-Thorpe: So what do you do, and what is a creator?

Kaya Yurieff: So I write a newsletter Monday through Thursday, basically on everything that’s happening in this industry. That includes startups raising funding to services for social media personalities in different ways, like providing credit cards, or tax and accounting help, to profiles of creators themselves, and how they make money and what platforms they’re on.

And I also am tracking how the major social media platforms are competing for online talent. I spend a lot of time talking to investors, startup founders, and executives from tech companies. And my focus is definitely on the newsletter. But I also occasionally am writing standalone stories.

I help with our events. We’re having our very first creator summit in October, so I’m helping with planning that. We also have this database that we launched with information about startups in the creator economy, so I’m updating that as well. So those are the different elements that go into it.

And as for what a creator is, that’s a great question. I look at it as someone who has an online presence, they’re making some sort of content that could be video, photo, or audio, and typically they’re making money from their audience and their fans, and they’re driving some sort of purchase or behaviour.

That could be to get people to travel to a certain destination, or subscribe to their newsletter, or buy a certain makeup brush. So there’s definitely a commerce element to it, which I think is why we were calling them influencers a lot too, at the beginning.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about the influencer terminology, because I think that always seems to be used a lot more than the term creator. Is there a difference between the two? Or do you say it’s just two terms for the same person?

To me, I use them interchangeably. I think influencer almost became this dirty word a little bit, of just them shoving ads in front of their audience. So I think creator has slowly started to become more popular, because there’s a lot that goes into it. They’re producing video, they’re editing video, they’re taking photos, or they’re producing a podcast. So I think creator has a little bit of maybe a nicer connotation.

And how do you go about covering an industry? That is, I mean, it’s a really new industry. And it’s sort of sprawling, there’s already lots of definitions about what creatives even are, what they do.


How do you go about defining that and uncovering that?

Yeah, what’s interesting is it’s new and it’s not new, right? Like YouTube has been paying creators since 2007 and sharing ad revenue with them. So I think creators really in the early days, were bloggers on the internet.

Straightaway, I just thought 2007 – not that long ago.

So I think this industry has been around for a while. But I think it’s matured to a point where people have been YouTube creators for years. And I think people are just paying more attention to it now. But I think it’s just a lot of sifting through the noise. I think the word creator economy has become very buzzy this year.

And I think a lot of companies are trying to associate themselves with that. I think especially on the startup side, it’s really vetting startups to make sure they have a product or maybe outside funding. It’s not this very early stage idea of someone in a basement, although lots of great companies started that way.

And I think, too, just figuring out what’s really unique and what space isn’t super crowded. I mean, there’s dozens of startups that are offering the same thing. So it’s about looking at who’s doing something unique and different.

Yeah. And for the Information, the Information is very sort of selective about the verticals it launches. How does this fit into what they’re trying to do as a wider company?

Yeah, I mean, I think it makes a lot of sense. We have a very business-focused audience. You know, my readers are venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, startup founders, people who work at social media companies, bankers, research analysts. So just looking at the numbers, there’s been a tonne of investor excitement around the Creator Academy.

We found from our database that in just the first six months of this year alone in the US, more than $2 billion was invested in creator economy startups. So it’s definitely an area that our readers are paying attention to and investors are paying attention to. And the same goes for social media companies. Creator announcements have been centre stage at developer conferences this year.

Mark Zuckerberg has done Instagram lives teasing tools for creators and trying to show it’s a top priority. So I think it’s an area of business that I think there’s a lot of interest in and I think there’s been a lot of really great cultural reporting about influencers.

But what’s sometimes ignored, or not well understood, is that creators are businesses in their own right and are some of the savviest entrepreneurs of our time and are launching real products. In 2019, a group of influencers including the Fat Jewish, who was one of the early Instagram influencers, launched this brand, Babe Wine, and it was bought by Anheuser-Busch. So they’re real entrepreneurs. It’s not just peddling ads on social media.

Yeah. It feels like there’s another side to this, I don’t want to diminish the work they do at all. But if you’re a serious business person, you’re looking at some of these people…I suppose, although it is maturing as an industry, we’re still at such an early stage in terms of influencers as a long-term thing.

I suppose you get people like Logan Paul that perhaps end up on the wrong side of where they should be. Is it quite difficult to sometimes convince people in companies that actually these solo people are worth the risk and the challenges around that, especially as we don’t know if they want to retire in five years. So that’s got to be quite challenging.

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s definitely a lot of creators that have gotten themselves in hot water, or there’s a lot of drama in the YouTube space. In particular, there’s been Instagram accounts that have popped up to chronicle the drama. So there definitely is, but I don’t think it’s any different than covering traditional celebrities, actors get in hot water all the time. And I don’t know that that taints the the broader industry, I mean, creators, I think probably have a little bit more to prove than traditional entertainment.

But I think there’s been enough examples and enough people are paying attention now that I don’t know that it will have a negative impact on the broader industry. But then you see that there are effects. David Dobrik, was a co-founder of a photo sharing app. And after some allegations came out in Business Insider about his friend group, one of their lead investors pulled their investment, and he stepped down from the board. So there are definitely real consequences for negative actions.

Yeah, I suppose it’s challenging if you’ve got a company that ends up in hot water that sort of quietly swap out their leadership to forge a path forward. Whereas if it’s all on one person, and they do something or decide to step back, there’s a lot of investment that just ends up not going.

Yeah. And Dispo, the company, that’s what they did. David Dobrik stepped down and they have a different leadership team, and they raised funding again, and they’re forging forward. So it’s not indifferent to a traditional company. Yeah.

And what I found interesting is that there’s a number of big companies like Disney that are launching their own creative programmes. And I’m curious about how does this differentiate them from hiring talented employees? Like what makes the difference between somebody you hire into the company and launching a programme like this to bring talent in that way?

Yeah, I think what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to tap into younger audiences. So some of the creators that they’re working with, they’re either training them to become creators for Disney, or some of the other programmes like AAA, they’re asking them for their ideas. And they’re getting compensated for that. But I’m sure that it’s at a much lower rate than hiring a branding expert or a social media expert.

So I think they’re really trying to tap into trends, what their fans think, and trying to tap into their talent. And it’s probably a cheaper way to do it than hiring them as employees, unfortunately for the creators.

Yeah. So what are these funds that people like Facebook launched? What are they trying to do with that?

Yeah, so there’s a number of funds. I mean, it’s crazy. If we were talking about this three years ago, none of these funds basically would have existed, but Facebook has pledged a billion dollars. Same for TikTok. YouTube has a fund for people creating short-form video for its new feature shorts, and they’ve pledged $100 million to that.

So the majority of these funds are rewarding people based on engagement. So if their videos get a lot of views, they get a certain amount of money, Snapchat for a period of time was giving away a pool of a million dollars a day, to the creators making the most entertaining videos, they’ve scaled that back to millions per month, but it’s still a lot of money. So it’s this monetary incentive. And they’re also trying to position this as you don’t have to be a big creator to earn, you could have a video, do well and you could still get paid.

This is sounding familiar, it seems to be a little bit of a trap that a lot of publishers fell into sort of 10 years ago that they were being incentivized to chase clicks, chase views and all that sort of thing. Is that likely to have an impact on perhaps the the quality of what the creators produce? If they start chasing outrage and misinformation? Is that a risk or are they a bit more savvy than that these days?

I think they’re a little savvier. I mean, I think there are definitely influencers who are peddling anti-vaccine and COVID misinformation.

Yeah, there’s a huge amount on TikTok earlier in the year.

Yeah, absolutely, so there definitely is. But I think the broader influencer population is not doing that. I think they are chasing views and viral videos, but in different ways, and they’d be doing pranks or stunts. And that’s also gotten people into hot water. I mean, I see these trends all the time, like the milk cart challenge and all these things that are hugely dangerous, or the Benadryl challenge, or Tide Pods, if we think back to a few years ago.

But I think the bigger downside of these programmes is, you know, some creators have said they haven’t made more than $15 or $20 a month from some of these funds, because if they’re not hitting a certain amount of views, they’re not going to be getting a big paycheck from it.

So I think it just puts a lot of pressure to keep churning out content and trying to make viral hits in order to make money and I think that leads to burnout. So I think the way a lot of these funds are set up, it’s just purely paying on views and engagement. I think that’s the bigger concern for creators, it’s burnout.

And how do you see the creative economy changing over the next few years? I’m thinking these people are going to, especially for a lot of the younger ones that do the viral stunts, they’re going to get to a stage where maybe they hit their 30s, their audience is in their 30s, and they’re not up for the pranks.

Yeah, I think they have to evolve their content. We’ve seen it. I mean, I’ve spoken with YouTubers who have been on YouTube since 2006. And they started doing music videos, and they’ve just kept evolving with their audience. I think not everyone will be able to successfully do that, some people have stepped away. They don’t want to do this anymore.

But I think we’re going to continue to see this area grow. As I said, this industry is nothing new. I think we’ve just gotten to a point where people are taking it a little bit more seriously and weighing it as a possible career path. I know, during the pandemic, a lot of people kind of reevaluated what they wanted to be doing with their lives.

I talked to lots of creators who were laid off or furloughed from corporate jobs and just started playing around on TikTok, and then suddenly have this big following and are trying to make a business, they’re not going back to a corporation. So I think there is definitely some draw there for people to be able to have their own hours and do something creative.

I think probably some of the investor excitement will probably fade a little bit. I’ve already seen at least one of these startups shut down. There are hundreds of them, I think we’re probably gonna see some consolidation. There’s a lot of startups that are doing similar things, but I don’t think this industry is going to go away.

Yeah. Do you think it’ll be some consolidation, the platforms that have sprung up to help creators? I know you posted a chart the other day that showed that there were. I think, seven or eight that had these billion dollar valuations?

Yeah. It’s absolutely crazy. I mean, we’ve seen Patreon has been around for a long time since 2013. And now we’re seeing lots of competing membership services pop up. OnlyFans obviously had huge success during the pandemic. And there’s a number of OnlyFans copycats that are either going the more explicit route or going a safer route with less explicit content. I don’t think all of these companies are going to survive.

But as we’ve seen, I mean, there are really interesting areas of the creator economy that I think people don’t think about. One of the highly valued startups in this space is Kajabi, which is an online course provider. A lot of creators now are shifting their business to teaching other people how to how to build a following online and doing online courses. So we’re just seeing the industry continue to evolve.

What did you make the only fans controversy a couple of weeks ago, when they decided they were going to completely remove porn? And it was like, well, that’s your entire business model.

Oh, my gosh, I made it my whole newsletter, basically, that week was devoted to all the developments. I think in some ways, it was a really successful PR campaign for OnlyFans. I was in the car, and every single radio station talk show was talking about it. I looked at some Google data that Google had provided to me and some of the top queries were ‘what is OnlyFans’, so I think it got them a lot of attention of what the platform is. I think sometimes, especially, who’s so focused on the space, I assume everyone knows it.

So I think ultimately, it caused a lot of chaos for creators who really have to be on OnlyFans and have built this business around them. And to pull that out, I think was a struggle. And just a reminder that, creators, no matter what platform you’re on, you don’t own that platform or your audience. So I think it was a big wake up call for the broader industry of figuring out: ‘maybe I need a personal website, or my own mailing list, or a better way to be in touch with my fans, because platforms can make major changes like that overnight’.

Do you see this sort of level of influence that these creators have on the industry as sustainable? Or is it going to be one of these bubbles that sort of pops in a couple of years?

I think we’ve seen it continue and just strengthen. I think creators are so important to the social platforms, they drive a lot of the trends and engagement. So I was in an NYU class last night speaking and the majority of students in the class followed at least 10 creators, if not more, maybe 20.

I think there is a lot of interest and I think especially during the pandemic, with the rise of TikTok, we’ve formed these stronger bonds with creators because they spend so much more time online. And I think even as we return, hopefully to normal eventually, I don’t think that’s going to go away. I mean, we were following creators before the pandemic too, but I think we’ve become a little bit more invested too.

There seems to be more of a willingness as well to pay for content. You’ve seen Patreon and Cameo and all these platforms where we’re tipping. Virtually every social platform has rolled out tipping and obviously it’s early stages, and I think the superfans are going to be the ones doing that.

But there definitely has been a shift in data that I’ve seen too from various information. marketing agencies, and talent agencies where people are willing to pay creators directly, which is a big shift from past years. I think their influence is definitely strengthening.

Yeah. Is the burnout, a concern to the business side?

Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Every single creator I talked to, I asked about burnout. And pretty much every single person says, yeah, I’m burned out. I mean, you don’t have the support of when you work at a corporation, you don’t have paid time off, you don’t have health care benefits. There’s a lot lacking in the infrastructure. And I think just the way some of these platforms are set up, they’re rewarding you for posting.

So if you take a break for a week, you can totally drop off from the algorithm recommendation, it can be hard to build that back up. There is a risk that people will forget about you or unfollow you. So I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure and it will cause people to seek other paths because you’re on this hamster wheel sometimes, where you feel like you really can’t get off.

Yeah, I suppose that’s the pro to a company is that you can take your week’s holiday, and hopefully it won’t all fall to pieces while you’re away.


I suppose your role is probably one that wouldn’t have existed 5 or 10 years ago. So how do you see your own role as a reporter evolving, as I suppose the creator economy matures and changes?

Yeah, I mean, I think that this really isn’t a job for one person at one outlet. I think, just like we have multiple tech reporters or multiple retail reporters at an outlet, we’re going to have multiple creator economy reporters I love doing the newsletter everyday because it really helps me stay on top of trends.

I think, eventually, probably I will expand to doing more stories and features as well and continue tracking what’s happening and how things are changing. But I think newsrooms are really thinking about this now. And not just as ‘oh, this is kind of a fun internet culture area’, this is a real business story.

You see many other creative economy reporters being hired by other outlets. Are you still a bit of an outlier?

I’m still a bit of an outlier. Taylor Lorenz at the New York Times has really been a pioneer of this be and has been covering this for a long time. There’s a lot of really great reporters at Business Insider, and I’m seeing more reporters focus more on the creative economy and do more of those stories. But it’s not a big cohort.

I suppose there’s quite a lot of overlap with platforms in the tech space, isn’t there?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

And your main outlet for reporting is the newsletter? I was just trying to get a sense of how this worked, ecause the Information’s renowned for having everything’s very, very paywalled. Is the newsletter something anybody can access and subscribe to, or is that part of the Information subscription?

So it’s part of the Information subscription. But if you don’t have a subscription, you can sign up and receive the newsletter for free for a trial period, which has been ongoing. So the idea is to bring more people in and to get more people to subscribe, but the newsletters are not paywalled to start, so it’s a little bit more accessible.

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