'If you don't have a backup plan, you're done': How all the chaos in social media is hurting the most vulnerable content creators




POC influencer in an hourglass as it slowly fills up
POC influencer in an hourglass as it slowly fills up  

How the chaos in social media is hurting the most vulnerable content creators

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As tumult continues to sweep through the Big Tech sector, analysts have spent plenty of time opining about what the shake-up means for Silicon Valley: from predictions of another dot-com-bubble burst to the imminent death of social media.

The most obvious sign of this distress and most cited reason for the tolling of the social-media death knell has been the widespread layoffs. In the weeks since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the company has lost half of its salaried workforce; Meta, the parent company of Facebook, recently cut 13% of its staff. Snap Inc. slashed roughly 1,000 jobs this past summer.

Coverage of the Big Tech shake-up has tended to focus on full-time employees who are directly affected, but many less-visible workers are feeling the influence, too. Contract workers - including remote content moderators who toil in the hulking shadows of Silicon Valley's storied workplaces - have been fired en masse. Meanwhile, laborers who rely on social-media platforms for visibility, reputation burnishing, and income have been left reeling - from journalists and academics to freelancers and adult performers.

But above all, some of the biggest losers from the shake-up will be the content creators who have fashioned careers on social media - and who provide the lion's share of the content that attracts audiences (and make the platforms so profitable in the first place). Last month, Insider reported creators were already experiencing payment deferrals, while others have had "brand deals canceled entirely." Given that the creator economy is already rife with staggering inequities and markers of privilege, the influence of the shake-up is likely to have the greatest effect on marginalized voices.

As a self-described "fat, black, dark-skinned woman" influencer said in October of the uphill battle for social-media success, "The more 'marginalized' you are, the harder that you have it."

A career of uncertainty

I've spent more than a decade studying the working lives of digital cultural producers - from first-gen fashion bloggers and plucky creative aspirants to Instagram influencers and TikTok creators. And I have heard with numbing regularity how much the chaotic and constantly shifting nature of these platforms has shaped creators' professional and personal experiences.

In a study published last year, my collaborators and I argued that boom-and-bust media markets, fickle audience tastes, and one-off trends (remember the "Harlem Shake"?) had long injected instability into the working lives of cultural producers. Part of what it has traditionally meant to be a "creative" is withstanding the ebbs and flows of an unpredictable cultural marketplace. Given such volatility, creative workers have long been cautioned: "You're only as good as your last job."

On top of the market uncertainty, creative workers have been jerked around by the breakneck pace of the platforms' technological evolution. Arturo Arriagada and Francisco Ibáñez, sociologists at the Social Media Culture lab of Adolfo Ibáñez University in Chile, highlighted how the combination of "constantly changing technological, social, and commercial ecologies" could leave creators in the lurch. Several years ago, a creator explained to me why she maintained both a blog presence and an active Pinterest account - despite a primary reliance on Instagram for income. "When Instagram fails, you're done," she said, adding: "If you don't have a backup plan, then you're done. You're going to have to work at McDonald's, because you ain't got experience probably and all you're going to be able to say is, 'Oh, I had 500,000 followers.'"

A recently published survey from Patreon confirmed what we heard during one-on-one interviews: Creators' dependence on platforms is deeply fraught. The survey reported nearly 70% of participants described feeling "screwed" by the platforms. In an attempt to wrest back control, creators have diversified their income streams by churning out content for an array of platforms and formats (stories, reels, livestreams). In 2020, amid concerns that TikTok may be abruptly shuttered, the TikToker Carter Smith confessed that he was encouraging audiences to follow him on YouTube.

But this unpredictability has not always been felt equally, and as the social-media-industry turmoil accentuates the grueling nature of a career in the "new" creative economy, the effects of this downturn are likely to be similarly lopsided.

An unequal algorithm

Visibility is an organizing principle for creators, and among the greatest obstacles to visibility are the algorithms that govern the platforms - determining who or what gets seen by whom. Even casual users of Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are well aware that unannounced updates to "the algorithm" can be, at best, a source of mild frustration. But such changes can wreak havoc on the livelihoods of creators as they feel compelled to "fight the algorithm" in earnest. During a recent interview, an Instagrammer framed her artistic career as "very much at the mercy of algorithm changes or whatever changes that the platforms are going to make."

The mechanics of such "changes" are opaque or "black-boxed," so "folk theories" about how the algorithms work run rampant across Facebook Groups, subreddits, and Discord channels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a vibrant cottage industry of what the social-media scholar Sophie Bishop describes as self-styled "algorithmic experts" peddling their insider know-how - at least until the latest update is rolled out and their "expertise" is rendered obsolete.

While creators of various stripes remain in the thrall of algorithmic systems, the struggle for visibility is particularly acute for marginalized creators, many of whom report a pervasive fear that they will be rendered "invisible" or otherwise face "punishments" from the platforms. These punitive measures - as Colten Meisner and I explain in a recently published article in the journal Media, Culture & Society - vary from erroneously flagging content for violating the platforms' rules to randomly and incorrectly stripping a creator of the ability to make money from posts to shadowbans. According to our interviews, the enforcement of such punishments is profoundly lopsided, which confirms what the researchers Robyn Caplan and Tarleton Gillespie describe as social media's system of "tiered governance."

I've interviewed creators of color who had their content "suppressed," plus-size women who were censored by faulty skin-detection tools, and members of the trans community who have said they've had to "walk on eggshells because the chances of it getting taken down are so high." One Asian American woman told me she didn't refer to her identity in hashtags because fellow creators told her those hashtags were "often shadowbanned." More recently, a plus-size Instagrammer said her "content wouldn't get out to people" because of algorithmic tools that discriminated against "larger bodies."

Platform companies consistently deny the use of (in)visibility as a punitive measure. However, Kelley Cotter, a Penn State assistant professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, describes this as a rhetorical move akin to "blackbox gaslighting." Based on my and others' research, platforms are, in fact, applying different standards to nonnormative creators.

Last month, a plus-size creator told me how self-censorship becomes a risk-reduction strategy for marginalized creators. They said they knew of many accounts that would get flagged so often that "they have to change the kind of content they produce because they don't want to lose their accounts and their livelihood."

In 2021, the comedian Ziggy Tyler revealed how this system of discrimination and bias played out among creators. In a video that went viral, he showed how the term "white supremacy" was allowed in the TikTok's Creator Marketplace, while the terms "Black Lives Matter" and "Black people" were blocked. TikTok later issued a mea culpa for the "error."

In our research, Meisner and I have found that when faced with algorithmic systems that threaten to render their content or accounts invisible, creators develop clever workarounds. For instance, the hashtag #seggs was swapped in for "#sex," and "#g@y" replaced "#gay." As the journalist Paul Gallant argued, queer content creators face a continuous struggle to avoid "the wrath that comes from violating ever-changing and poorly explained terms of service."

While today's social-media platforms aim to be imminently "brand-friendly" (read: risk-averse), the conversative bent of commercial media was not born of the digital age. Rather, "controversial" voices have long faced a series of gauntlets in the quest for visibility. A case in point: Hollywood's long-standing reliance on the Motion Picture Association's guidelines, which for decades used a largely opaque decision-making process that has been denigrated as sexist and homophobic.

Similarly, platforms' enforcement of community guidelines has, according to one body-positivity influencer, "nothing to do with the terms and conditions." They added, "If it did, then there would be a set of rules that everyone would have to follow, but there isn't because privileged people have been breaking the rules without repercussions, and marginalized people have been following the rules and still being punished." To this end, I've heard consistently that those best positioned to succeed in the seemingly "meritocratic" digital economy come from privileged positions: white, straight, cisgendered, and thin.

The divide likely to grow

While platform companies (including Twitter) are publicly flaunting their commitment to social-media creators, their efforts to entice them belie the economic realities of platform labor with its staggering gender- and race-based pay gaps and oft-deferred promise of "exposure." Amid the shake-up, it seems unlikely that resource-starved platform companies will abandon their top talent, and an economic slowdown is bound to make advertisers more - rather than less - risk-averse. So the most likely scenario is one where the chasm between "tiers" of creators only widens.

With the recent turmoil, many are speculating on the next moves of the famous, the rich, and the powerful: Can Musk save Twitter? Will Donald Trump be let back on the platform? Is Mark Zuckerberg cratering his company? Even coverage of the influence on social-media creators has been more tuned in to those with the biggest followings. But the real pain from this tug-of-war for the future of social media will be felt by those who have long faced the greatest hurdles: marginalized creators.

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Brooke Erin Duffy is an associate professor at Cornell University and the author of "(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work."

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