‘Creators’ and the End of Online Leisure

Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Image

The gift and curse of the internet is that it moves so fast that few aspects of society are able to keep pace with it. Technology moves faster than the law, social convention, and perhaps most importantly, language. We still don’t have an effective vocabulary for talking about a lot of what happens on the internet, and any terminology we do formulate (like “troll” or “meme”) accumulates so many definitions that it becomes almost useless. Among these catchall terms, easily my least favorite is “creator.”

You can’t go two virtual steps on the internet without getting smacked in the face by the word. Social media is filled with “creators,” a term that implies way more importance than it actually contains — YouTube supports creators, creators are extremely important to Facebook, Instagram is full of creators, and Vine spawned a significant number of them. Hell, even Fortnite has a legion of “creators” not just playing the game but turning it into content for digestion in other parts of the webspace. Content? That comes from the creators. Calling a user a “creator” evokes godlike majesty and importance  — when in reality it usually just means that they’re addicted to posting.

To a considerable extent, referring to users and posters as “creators” makes sense. For one thing, it implies more thought and intention than “user” or “poster.” But it also solves the problem of generalism; technology has allowed creative types to not just be filmmakers, or musicians, or graphic designers, or choreographers, or actors, but to play all of those roles and more. So: creator.

The downside of this is that by coining a role for users other than just “user,” it has made the act of posting seem like some sort of job. (It doesn’t help that economic uncertainty among younger generations has incentivized everyone to turn their leisure activities into a side hustle, despite the fact that it is next to impossible to earn a living wage off of social-media payouts alone.) The language we use to describe creators reflects this. Facebook’s tool, Creator Studio, “brings together all the tools you need to effectively post, manage, monetize, and track performance of your content, and take actions across all your Pages in a single place.” This is the language of productivity and product management used to describe, like, making funny videos for your friends. It’s depressing as hell.

Whatever happened to leisure on the internet? It’s no longer enough to just hang out on social media and shoot the shit. Now, you’re constantly creating, monetizing, and tracking engagement. Preteens who have never known a world without YouTube talk about building their brand. Calling people “creators” has recontextualized every mundane post as some sort of important act that both supports the creator’s livelihood and the audience’s enjoyment.

It is just for users to demand cut of the profits when platforms sell ads against their work, but it’s also tough to shake the feeling that the reframing of “having fun online” as “free labor for corporations” (which it absolutely is) has distorted the whole system. Just because everything can become a source of income doesn’t mean it has to be, especially when the end result of that tends to lead to burnout and not enough money to support oneself.

Even Byte, the successor to Vine that hasn’t launched yet, has a nebulous “creator program.” Its brief questionnaire asks for things like the user’s social-media handles and “how would you describe the size of your audience currently?”

Already, prospective Byte users are preparing their content. A recent forum thread titled “The Guide to Content Creating on Byte” advises Byters(?) that “when byte officially launches in the app store you will want to post as soon as possible. Posting early gives you a headstart on people viewing your content that’ll be the first thing they see.”

It goes on:

My last words of advice is create because you enjoy creating, create what you love. Post extra on the weekends as nobody is in school and most people are off from work, be consistent with your content try to get out at least 1 to 3 a day.

Do what you love, love what you do. Also, post at least once a day and more on weekends to maximize engagement.

What does it say that this app is still months from release and individual users are developing content strategies? I’ve come to associate the term “creator” with a disheartening type of social-media sabermetrics, one where everything is preplanned and calculated, instead of casual and spontaneous. To see it being discussed in regard to a platform that hasn’t even launched yet — a platform that is supposed to fill a void left by the death of Vine — fills me with skepticism and a little disappointment.

Yes, platforms should find a way to sustain themselves financially. (Vine sure didn’t.) Yes, they should compensate the people who fill them with content. (Again, a failing of Vine.) Yes, social networks should foster creativity and react effectively to community concerns. But I also wish the people posting on these platforms had the ability to see their role in these networks as something casual, for fun. Deeming users “creators” has turned posting online into an obligation when it used to just be recreation.

‘Creators’ and the End of Online Leisure