Congratulations to Top Gun: Maverick for saving cinema last summer, crowbarring open moviegoers’ inflation-added wallets in monolithic fashion, to the tune of almost $1.5 billion in worldwide box office. However, the dirty little secret about the film industry right now is that it’s become a minor island in the vast ocean of creator content—by some estimates, a market that has reached $100 billion—where people spend much of their free time and a substantial chunk of their disposable income. Consumers may have come up for air, briefly, to watch Tom Cruise do his thing, but then they plunged right back into the welcoming waters of the creator economy, which is driving culture today more than any other industry.
The infrastructure and platforms that surface and thrive on these creators are currently evolving, and possibly contracting, as they are always in danger of doing. The thirst for fresh output from movers and shakers like those who make up Fast Company‘s Creator 25, though, is utterly insatiable—and so is the desire to be on the other side of it.
In the decade after LiveJournal came to life and “Chocolate Rain” struck YouTube lightning, it became ridiculously easier to share one’s work as a writer, artist, designer, photographer, or filmmaker. the words influencer and streamer had just entered the vernacular, along with new platforms that allowed people to monetize their work with ad revenue shares and #sponcon. A bumper crop of suits also emerged, in the form of influencer agencies and sponsorship marketplaces, alongside growth-oriented startups with names like Huddles and Koji. The most popular creators transcended their platforms, becoming businesses unto themselves and testing the boundaries of how “-preneur” can serve as a suffix.
For a long time, the creators, platforms, and business developers have all coexisted in a symbiotic ecosystem. Lately, though, there has been a sense that it’s all just a bubble, and it’s about to do what bubbles always do. Snap recently laid off 20% of its workforce and discontinued at least six of its products, video shout-out service Cameo has come down from its 2020 high, Substack has scaled way back on its recruitment of—and incentives for—non-superstar writers , and Meta has abandoned its competing newsletter offering. Investor interest in startups that serve creators appears to be on the wane. Most people are no longer stuck at home in COVID isolation, and pretty much everyone is tightening their belts in one way or another; some pessimism about the creator economy was probably inevitable.
If there is indeed a bubble on the cusp of bursting, though, it might just be the one made up of people and platforms who wish to buy creators like commodities or extract all their value for themselves. What pessimists miss when they wring their hands about the future of the creator economy is the supreme power of the creators themselves.
Remember being bored? Having time to kill and nothing in the way of weaponry? It’s almost quaint when it happens now. Something has to go slightly wrong—an uncharged smartphone, forgotten earbuds, a denial-of-service cyberattack. Imagine going back to the 1990s somehow, and telling Web 1.0-ers, probably through an AOL chat room, that they will one day be so overloaded with entertaining, informative, and addictively distracting content from a talented cadre of creators that boredom would effectively be eradicated like a weak computer virus.
“May you live in interesting times” is both a blessing and a curse, but it is also an apt description of life with the entire internet in one’s pocket at all times. Everything is always on and everyone is going off. Build a new megaphone and creators will lure an audience with it. Build a new medium and they will supersize it. Platforms are always changing—Instagram now wants to be more like BeReal, while TikTok now wants to be more like Instagram—but what’s here to stay are the interconnected desires for unfettered self-expression and constant consumption.
Possibilities now exist that nobody ever imagined and creators are taking full advantage. a Fortnite streamer can build a clothing line that sells at PacSun. A TikTok-er can take Paris Fashion Week by storm. Creator 25 Big Shot Mr. Beast, the highest-earning YouTuber of all time, just turned his thriving food brand, MrBeast Burger, into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in New Jersey, and thousands camped out for the grand opening.
People who engage with creators on a regular basis feel a connection with them that very few Maverick stans likely feel with Tom Cruise, arguably the only star left who can open a major movie and wouldn’t be caught dead on an Apple TV+ series. The proof is in how willing fans are to support their favorite creators directly. After Patreon pioneered the premium content model, inspiring platforms like Twitch and YouTube to create subscription tiers, and paving the way for OnlyFans, consumers quickly got used to the idea of paying creators whose work they once enjoyed for free. The practice became so common that many social platforms started offering tip jars. According to a recent study from talent agency UTA, which admittedly has a dog in this fight, 40% of US consumers now directly pay creators for interactions through fan clubs and platforms, and nearly half of those people spend at least $25 each month to do so. (The growing ubiquity of direct patronage may have had a contributing effect on Patreon’s relative fortunes, with reports surfacing in early October that the company slashed its private valuation and delayed an IPO, further evidence of the current state of the creator economy’s investment appeal while the larger movement barrels ahead.)
Forging a level of audience loyalty that can sustain a career seems more possible than ever now, which might be why so many people are inspired to try it. A recent study by Adobe claims that in the past two years, 34 million people joined the global creator economy in America alone. Fans used to idolize movie stars and rock gods; now they relate to creators. Bedroom authors used to dream of Hollywood success; now they strategically plan for internet ubiquity. And it’s not just the kids who came of age in this environment either (though a survey from HigherVisibilty claims that one in four Zoomers explicitly want to be social media influencers).
Millions of millennials and Gen-Xers are making midcareer pivots into the creator economy, not just because they want to make stuff and express themselves and have meaningful relationships with an engaged audience that spans the globe, but because they want to be their own bosses and make their own hours and work remotely forever. These folks have been quiet quitting while loudly launching themselves as creators—in a quest for fulfillment, not just fame.
Not all of them are going to make it, though. In fact, many are in for a rude awakening. As eminently attainable as a career in the creator economy now seems, the barrier to entry is still high. Of the billion-plus Instagram accounts, roughly 500,000 have more than 100,000 followers. The number of TikTokers to reach that same milestone fell by 38% last month over the same time the previous year. Just as having the ability to catch a football doesn’t ensure a career in the NFL, having the dynamic tools to make and distribute content at your fingertips is just as expected and thus unremarkable. It takes something extra to cut through the clutter.
The Big Shots and On the Rise stars who make up the Creator 25 have carved out paths for themselves through sheer force of talent, drive, savvy, and persistence. The Investors, Suits, and Supporting Acts on the list make it possible for them to execute their vision. The latter group may be currently keeping the train on the tracks, but make no mistake: it’s the creators who are fueling the engine—and who will take the creator economy wherever it’s headed.