The Internet is a Trap for Online Creators
Anybody can be a creator. Beyond Instagram cosplayers, DIY makers, or content creators, digital media grandly promises to connect people through individuals’ personal creations. Through these connections, creators are told they can build an audience, which may one day lead to financial support.
Such freedom is central to the internet’s ethos — everyone has equal opportunity to do anything, and an equal opportunity to succeed at it. It is the digital dream for creators of all forms, whether they be small-scale manufacturers or Twitch streamers, to be able to sustain themselves doing whatever they want. That dream has led to the removal of nearly all online content restrictions, but has also erected invisible barriers-to-entry for budding creators, who must reach people through increasingly fewer avenues.
As online media is centralized around specific platforms, creators are being limited in their ability to connect with potential audiences. Creators can only build an audience as well as they can conform to preexisting norms on their platform of choice, whether that be YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, Medium, or any other.
For the most part creators need only prove their dedication to their craft by practicing it for a little while without the expectation of compensation for it; much like any budding career, it starts in one’s free time away from retail stores and restaurants, where most aspiring creators are employed.
For example, Rooster Teeth, the now-media empire, began during the creators’ off-time from their call-center jobs. With the liberating lack of restriction in the then-new online media environment, the company managed to rise out of the early-internet chaos by producing gaming-and-geek-related content. Burnie Burns, a founder of the company, recently referenced such opportunity for success in Rooster Teeth’s podcast (start at 38:58). The myth goes that if they can build a successful company off a thinly-veiled allusion to oral sex, anyone can build something out of anything off the internet.
Yet, the company had one distinct advantage that contributed to its success — it was made by and for geeks, and geek culture is necessarily consumerist. By developing ideals and identities around manufactured content and goods, one can connect to people with remarkable ease and thereby enjoy an expansive, if not deep, professional and personal life. The geek identity is one developed solely through shared consumption with others. By producing for geeks and building off other brands like Halo and video games in general, Rooster Teeth guaranteed themselves an audience due to its sheer consumptive nature.
Geek culture rose to predominance online alongside the realization of the internet’s potential: profit. Businesses were the first to adopt contemporary technology because of its potential to increase production; while the mid-to-late 1990s saw the creation of Amazon and eBay, it also saw smaller businesses adopt computers into the office environment. Widespread internet use was first to make profit and produce things people would consume.
It only makes sense that the most consumptive kinds of people would be the internet’s first adopters outside the professional space. While the internet revved up production, it encouraged more consumption, which culminated in a massive geek culture that occupied most online spaces. Entertainment products became the consumption of choice for geeks, since they are easier to consume compared to tangible products.
It became impossible to create, sell, and build audiences around original content due to the sheer demand of entertainment goods as geek culture began its domination over online social spaces. It is harder to enjoy something new compared to another Marvel movie or another Halo game, since the latter have a preexisting audience to share those experiences with.
Since producers seek to minimize risk when trying to profit off their creations, it was feasible and advantageous to create new things from previously established brands, since they guaranteed a consumptive audience. Rooster Teeth’s RvB series is successful in no small part because it was built directly off the back of the Halo series, and the latter had built a large following already.
Making a show from the Halo franchise is easier than creating an altogether new show when trying to match geek culture’s high demand, which comes as a result of the internet’s natural ability to dramatically increase production. Geek culture naturally reigns over digital media as a result of the context in which the internet was used, and because it provides the easiest medium through which people can connect with one another: consumption.
Now, rather than build off the backs of specific brands and franchises, creators produce off the backs of geek culture itself. Twitch was successful specifically due to its appeal to gamers, and YouTube is focusing increasingly on its appeal to geeks by recruiting popular geek channels for its original content.
Average creators are expected to have an extensive knowledge of geek culture before ever producing anything original. To reach an audience, people must be geeks in the contemporary digital environment.
This means that to create, people must consume on an extraordinary scale — matching and exceeding geek culture in general. For companies like Rooster Teeth and individuals attempting to create and build an audience, consumption is itself a form of creation.
This prevents people many people from building audiences, since it can simply be unaffordable to consume at such a high rate. In order to relate to people and build audiences at the scale at which people can sustain themselves through their craft, creators must constantly consume a seemingly impossible amount; from movies to video games and books to memes, digital media content creators especially feel the brunt of this prerequisite.
The upfront financial cost to purchase so many video games and see so many movies is only the initial barrier to entry for content creators. While $60 for a new game or $10 for a movie ticket may be unaffordable to some, it can be managed by many. The higher cost comes out of a person’s time, which may largely be spent working in an attempt to not only financially afford food and rent, but also to fund their creations.
The working poor simply cannot afford the time to consume the sheer volume of media needed to build an audience around similarly shallow, yet resonating things. Consumption comes at a twofold cost — a person’s time, and a person’s bank account. While the working poor may be able to financially afford to be geeks, they may simply have not enough time to fully invest in the community.
It is difficult to see the latest Marvel film or get through another game when someone has another nine-hour shift at Walmart before working at a fast food job through the night, and no matter how much a person may want to create as a career, more pressing responsibilities cost them their ability to create. In the few days in which they may be able to produce something original, these people will not be able to build an audience because they will be unable to relate to the digitally dominant culture — geekdom.
This also explains the lack of minorities in positions of authority in geek culture. Recent E3 crowds, where creators in the video game industry end up after spending an adequate amount of time reporting or making games (those poor souls…), noticeably lacked people of color. The same can be said of most Twitch streams, or even YouTube personalities.
The lack of organic minority representation in positions of authority in geek culture is driven by the high rate of poverty in minority groups, which consumes their time (and money, of course) and renders it impossible for these groups to consume enough content to make relatable content of their own.
To be a successful creator in the contemporary digital age entails not only high start-up costs, due to the equipment needed for any field, but also an incredibly high time-investment to consume enough media and cultural goods to then produce things relatable to broad swaths of people and thus build an audience. A career as a creator is a career of consumption and reproduction due to the very nature of the culture one would work in — impossible for some and untenable for others.
While the internet has almost completely removed restrictions on creators, it has allowed the construction of invisible barriers-to-entry to the very fields it allures people to — promising success if only budding creators persevere through the first stages of a career, which never ends without the ability to build a large-scale audience.
Some companies have found profit in this sham promise; namely Twitch as it preys on streamers dreaming of finding an audience while being duped into generating free content for the company.
Contemporary online culture, which has become inextricable from geek culture, demands an insurmountable amount of consumption for people to truly succeed in it, despite the supposed freedom of the Internet. It has the makings of a trap for those who dare to dream of supporting themselves by doing what they love.