Credit: Photo by Jenna Ueberberg
From influencers, vloggers, live streamers, to “Wanghong” (網紅) in China, the past decade saw the emergence of “creator culture” where “commercializing and professionalizing native social media users” generate and circulate original content “in close interaction and engagement with their communities” . These creators engage in content creation in pursuit of self-branding, creative autonomy, professional development, and community-building.
Creator culture speaks to more than just the creators and the content they created. The phenomenon reflects the emergence of a sociotechnical system that involves a wide array of people (e.g., creators, consumers, moderators), technologies (e.g., recommendation algorithms, performance metrics, behavioral data, user interface), and policies (business models, community guidelines, government regulations) that shape the practices surrounding content creation. Such a system reflects the social, economic, and organizational logic that increasingly typifies how people express themselves, work together, and foster relationships.
At the Social Media Collective, our summer interns studied creator culture across a wide array of domains. We investigated the practices of content creation from fashion, music, to gaming. Margot Hanley studied the professional values of fashion designers in ultrafast fashion as they navigate between big data and creativity; Stephen Yang explored how promoters and musicians in electronic dance music brand themselves as hip and underground to build communities; Colten Meisner looked into how marginalized streamers on Twitch respond to coordinated acts of harassment.
We also zoomed in on how the platform logic of visibility and moderation on TikTok shape the practices of content creation — Negin Alimohammadi examined how scientists balance between truthfulness and visibility for environmental activism; Dan Delmonaco studied how healthcare providers manage professional identity and sharing health information.
Lastly, we looked at the shifting boundaries of professional and personal lives for content creators. Christine Nyawaga studied how people express themselves on enterprise social media, and Karis Wilson investigated the motivations that drive individuals to engage in both enterprise employment and content creation.
In a non-exhaustive manner, we highlighted six themes of creator culture cutting across these research projects that most pertinently speak to the social, economic, and organizational logics of content creation:
Theme #1: Contested Boundaries of Creators
Despite the proliferation of the term “content creator” in popular media and academic writing, the boundaries of creators remain highly contested. For instance, are enterprise employees that generate social media content considered as content creators? Some posit that anyone who produces content is a content creator, while others define content creators as those who create content to express their personal identities. Rather than attempting to crystalize a single definition, our discussion highlights how the boundaries of content creators are contested along the spectrum of employment, freelance, and unpaid work.
In the corporate world, digital and social media professionals, whether in-house or in-agency, often assume the role of content creation in service of their employers. These professionals produce content in an effort to connect corporations with people. While such content is typically published through corporate accounts, these professionals can still leverage such content to build their personal brands and followings. For instance, these creators may appear in the content, tag their profiles in the content, and repost the content on their personal accounts.
Other than salaried employment, many individuals partake in content creation through freelancing endeavors. These creators build direct relationships with their audience and monetize such relationships through subscriptions, donations, merch, and sponsored content. Compared to content creation within corporations that are driven by organizational goals, freelance content creators centers their content around their personal identities and creative expressions. The themes of such content creation can range from the creators’ lives and experiences, hobbies and interests, to their professions and expertise.
Meanwhile, unpaid labor constitutes a considerable segment of content creation. This type of content creation is aspirational as creators hope that building relationships with their audience will eventually help them achieve creative autonomy, seek material changes, or elevate their social status . In theory, anyone can become a content creator, but not everyone can “make it”; few have the knowledge, resources, and privilege to succeed under the platform’s opaque logic of visibility  and moderation .
Across employment, freelance, and unpaid labor, the work of content creation speaks to the pursuit of building creator-audience relationships through consistent engagement. Such a pursuit reflects the duality of content creation. On one hand, creators work on short-term projects for specific engagement; on the other hand, creators dedicate long-term efforts to maintaining relationships with their audience. While many recognize the former as the work of content creation, the latter is often taken for granted. Currently, this infrastructural work of sustaining creator-audience relationships is done through an assemblage of employment, freelance, and unpaid labor.
Theme #2: Competing Logic of Promotion
The boundaries of content creation are further complicated by the complementary yet competing logic of personal and corporate branding. For instance, in the fashion industry, name brands often collaborate with individual creators for content creation. In this case, the collaboration is complementary to both the corporation and the creator as it brings visibility and recognition to their respective platforms. Nonetheless, such collaborations tend to be short-term. After the partnership, these creators’ personal brands would be in direct competition with the name brands for the same audience.
Meanwhile, content creators that are full-time or part-time employees must also grapple with this competing logic. As these creators grow their personal brands through their content creation for their employers, they often feel restricted by their employment and would contemplate quitting their jobs to focus on their personal brands. The frequent departures of high-profile content creators at Buzzfeed, an American digital media company, illustrate this tension . These scenarios shed light on the complementary yet competing dynamics between corporations and individual content creators.
Theme #3: Professional yet Authentic
Content creators express that their audience communities expect them to be credible and professional but also relatable and personable. Such expectations for relatability push creators to fumble with the lines between their professional and personal lives in an effort to present themselves as authentic. When people share on enterprise social media, they are often wary that talking about their personal lives may seem frivolous, yet they also feel pressured to share their life outside of work with their colleagues to foster team synergy. This conundrum of expectations leads such creators to share things they do or enjoy outside of work in ways that are shaped by their imaginaries of social surveillance from their colleagues .
Existing credentials of expertise and success are fundamental to bringing visibility and validity to people’s content creation. Such credentialing strategies often come in the form of institutional affiliations, profiling of expertise, and being connected to other established creators . For healthcare professionals on TikTok, they would highlight their affiliation with medical institutions, their professional certificates (e.g., OB/GYN status for doctors who specialize in women’s health ), and their connections with other professionals in the same space. These credentialing strategies allow content creators to establish themselves as experts in the field.
Theme #4: Validation or Vulnerability
In the world of content creation, many think of visibility as an asset for monetization. Advertising revenues and brand sponsorships are some of the more obvious ways creators monetize their visibility. Beyond direct monetization, visibility can also serve as a source of positive externalities. For instance, professionals can use their visibility on social media as leverage for career advancement. In this case, their visibility serves as testimonies of their public impact and the audience they built.
However, for those who occupy a position of marginality (e.g., women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community), visibility can also be a source of vulnerability . For these content creators, their marginality is often integral to their brand. While the visibility of their marginality is effective in connecting with their audience, it also renders them vulnerable to harassment. When streamers on Twitch use “identity tags” to highlight their marginalized identities to their potential audience, the use of identity tags also makes them easy targets for coordinated acts of harassment. As visibility can bring in both recognition and harassment, audience engagement becomes a source of both validation and vulnerability.
Theme #5: From Audience to Community
Going beyond building an audience, creators now focus on building communities by fostering active participation from their audience members. For instance, fans of gamers would volunteer to moderate the chat for live streaming or to work on post-production for the recordings. In another case, participants of underground electronic dance music scenes would volunteer to work door shifts or create promotional materials. In both cases, the audience’s active participation can be seen as a “labor of love” performed to express their shared sense of belonging. When such active participation is captured through audience analytics, the metrics serve as testimonies of the value of the creators’ brand. Creators are reliant on such metrics to validate the value of their platforms to clients and collaborators.
Platforms and creators alike embrace the language of community to describe creator-audience relationships. When they speak of communities, they are speaking of not only connections between creators and their audience but also connections among the audience themselves. The tools and functions on social media platforms are largely designed to support the many-to-many relationships of community-building. The possibilities of connecting with others with shared interests, beliefs, tastes, and identities are the primary motivator that drives people to participate in a myriad of creator communities.
Theme #6: Online but Local
As the practices of content creation are native to social media platforms, they are often associated with online engagement. However, decisions for content creation are mutually shaped by the offline experiences and local contexts of content creators and their audience. For instance, a creator would circulate content about their participation in Burning Man to attract those who are attending or are interested in attending the event . (Burning Man is an annual, nine-day gathering in the Nevada desert with spontaneous musical performances, dancing, and art to celebrate artistic self-expression and the building of self-sufficient communities.)
On the other hand, such localized content based on offline experience also opens doors for potential collaboration with other creators in the local area. In the case of events like Burning Man, it is common to see creators collaborate with one another for broader reach and cross-promotion. In this context, creators often strive to build a community with other creators and their audience that are local to their physical presence. One prominent example is the emergence of collab houses where content creators live together and produce content with one another .
When creating content about local events, creators would do so at three stages of content creation – the promotion of the events (e.g., records from past events, connotative materials for upcoming events), the streaming of the events (e.g., real-time capturing of the events), and the recordings of the events (e.g., clips, highlights). For instance, disk jockeys (DJs) may use clips from their previous shows as promotional materials for their upcoming shows, stream their performances online, and repeatedly post recordings from their performances to maintain their relationships with their fans. Such practices reflect how content creators would publicize (and potentially monetize) both the process of creation and the products of creation. In sum, these locative aspects of creators’ work highlight the centrality of offline experience in creator culture despite the seemingly online nature of content creation.
Closing: What Can We Learn from Creator Culture?
These themes of practices in creator culture highlight how the social, economic, and organizational logics of content creation are reshaping how people express themselves, work together, and foster relationships in the age of content creation. We synthesized six open challenges for creators, corporations, and researchers to consider at a time when content creation has become constitutive of contemporary social, economic, and collective life:
- Content creation is the never-ending work of relating. Beyond the ad-hoc assemblage of employment, freelance, and unpaid work, it is crucial to reimagine the work structure of content creation to support the long-term pursuit of relationship-building.
- We should recognize the labor of relationship-building as work. Community-building requires creators to constantly maintain their relationships with disparate audiences, yet people other than the creators themselves often overlook the critical role of such labor in sustaining long-term relationships.
- The competing logic of personal and corporate branding persists. Creators and organizations need to reconsider the labor relations and work structure of content creation to achieve co-prosperity.
- Values of deep connections are critical to human flourishing. Such values may be overlooked when social media platforms’ logic of visibility and reach increasingly define the meaning of success.
- Authentic self-expression is only possible in an inclusive environment. Without such an environment, expectations for relatability can lead to emotional burdens and burnout, particularly for those with marginalized identities.
- Communities are maintained through online content and offline experience. When thinking of community-building, creators, corporations, and researchers should consider how communities are maintained through both the online circulation of content and the offline participation of experiences.
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