How platforms like TikTok cause creator burnout

It can be jarring when a social media user with a small following suddenly experiences a huge influx of engagement.

Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking on this handy little button:

Let’s jump right into it…

How the social platforms cause creator whiplash

Taylor Lorenz wrote a great piece for The New York Times about creator burnout and how the pressure to produce new content every day slowly drains creators of any joy they had for their careers.

While there are several elements that trigger burnout, the one I’d like to call attention to in this newsletter you’re reading right now is the whiplash that can be caused when a social media platform plucks one of its users from obscurity and blasts their content out to millions of people. From the article:

“It almost feels like I’m getting a taste of celebrity, but it’s never consistent and as soon as you get it, it’s gone and you’re constantly trying to get it back,” said Lauren Stasyna, 22, a TikTok creator in Toronto. “It feels like I’m trying to capture this prize, but I don’t know what the prize even is.”

The volatility can be rattling. “When your views are down, it affects your financial stability and puts your career at risk,” said Luis Capecchi, a 23-year-old TikTok creator in Los Angeles. “It’s like getting demoted at a job with no warning.”

The people who work at major social platforms are constantly trying to find high quality work from obscure users and elevate it to a much larger audience. In some cases, they do this algorithmically, but often times a platform will actually employ human curators who have the power to blast a piece of content in front of millions of users.

For creators, this can be a jarring experience. One moment you’re toiling away in obscurity and then the next you look at your phone and see it blowing up as tens of thousands of people consume your content in real time. If this happens a few times in quick succession, it can feel like you’re building real momentum and heading toward a successful career as a creator.

But just as the platforms giveth, they taketh away. Often there’s some kind of major strategy shift that’s ordered down from on high, and suddenly the algorithms and/or curators aren’t spotlighting your content anymore, which results in a massive dropoff in views. It can feel to you that you’re doing something wrong, when in reality the shift had nothing to do with you and was all about some changing KPI that an engineer built into the recommendation algorithm.

This very scenario happened to me twice as a creator, both around the same time.

The first was with Medium. I was an early adopter of the platform and super excited about its idea of applying social media dynamics to longform writing. I started cross-posting my articles to it, and someone who works at Medium noticed. Suddenly, my articles started getting shared by an official staff account with over a million followers. I also got added to a recommended user list that resulted in me receiving a few hundred new followers each week. Within a year, I had over 10,000 followers on Medium.

But then came all of Medium’s various pivots. First, the company tried to lure already-existing outlets like Think Progress and Pacific Standard onto its CMS, which meant the algorithm suddenly favored those publications over the work of individual users. Then Medium rolled out its metered paywall and explicitly told users that its curators wouldn’t amplify any content that wasn’t placed behind the paywall.

During all this time, I continued to cross-post my articles to Medium, but despite being one of the most-followed users on the platform, traffic to my stuff was miniscule. Finally, I threw in the towel. I deleted a bunch of my longform articles and then published a piece explaining why I was leaving. Ironically, it was my most-viewed article in the last year.

The second platform that extended and then rescinded its support was LinkedIn. Back in 2014, it launched the ability for everyday users to publish native blog articles to their profiles. I immediately began experimenting with this feature, and within a few weeks, the editors noticed and began promoting my articles, generating upwards of 50,000 views on a single piece. LinkedIn also put me on a recommended user list, which grew my following to over 60,000 subscribers in about a year. This happened to be around the same time that Medium was heavily promoting my content, and for a short period of time I started to brainstorm ways I could leverage this audience to launch my career as an independent writer.

But then…LinkedIn found some new shiny objects to chase— it launched a video player, ripped off Snapchat Stories, and began to promote “broetry.” Traffic to my articles cratered; what used to attract over 10,000 views suddenly started generating only a few dozen. I stopped publishing articles natively to the platform, but I still enjoyed pretty good audience reach on my status updates, which I used to drive readers to articles published elsewhere.

Today, though, I don’t see any benefits from having over 60,000 followers on LinkedIn. It actually shows me view counts for my posts, and sometimes status updates will receives as few as 50 impressions. That means it’s showing my content to .08% of my followers. Pathetic.

These days, I publish almost all of my longform written content to Substack. The upside to this is that I “own” my audience, in the sense that I have unfettered access to my subscribers’ inboxes. The downside is that I don’t experience massive spikes in growth.

The tradeoff is worth it, though. My business grows slowly, but it’s more reliable. While instantaneous social media stardom can be nice in the moment, it’s not worth the distress caused by its sudden withdrawal.

My latest: How Blue Wire grew its network to over 150 sports podcasts

Kevin Jones grew his 49ers podcast to about 5,000 listeners, and then he leveraged his credibility in sports media to lure over 100 other podcasters into his network.

The creator economy has birthed a new breed of scam artists

Young social media creators keep getting lured to predatory "collab houses" that don’t deliver on what they promised. I wrote about why this keeps happening and what the industry can do about it over here.

The Apple tax comes for the creator economy

The Verge reports on a platform called Fanhouse and its efforts to avoid the 30% Apple tax on all in-app purchases:

Founders of Fanhouse — which is basically OnlyFans without the nudity — say the platform will be kicked out of the App Store in August if it doesn’t start forking over 30 percent of the fees people pay creators when purchases are made through the iPhone app. One of Fanhouse’s creators, the streamer Breadwitchery, says that cut would mean losing two months of rent from her earnings to date. The company doesn’t have a lot of options to push back, but it’s launching a campaign today to pressure Apple into easing its rules around payments to creators.

The first generation of content subscription platforms were built mostly on the open web, meaning they haven’t been subjected to the App Store tax. If you’re consuming content on Substack or Patreon, for instance, chances are it’s not on one of their owned and operated apps.

But now that all the major social platforms are adding subscription functionality, the situation is more tricky. Think about the math for a moment; if the social platform is taking 10% of your subscription revenue and Apple is taking 30%, then that’s 40% of your hard-earned money out the door. I don’t mind giving 10% of my income to Substack because it’s providing valuable functionality I don’t feel like building on my own, but what the hell is Apple doing to earn that 30%? To me, it seems just as absurd as it would be if Chrome suddenly decided tomorrow that it’s taking 30% of every purchase made through its browser.

So content creators need to start weighing several factors when deciding how to drive subscriptions. Do you use the in-app feature with the knowledge that it’ll make it easier to scale your audience? If so, you’ll have to factor the Apple tax into your pricing.

Or do you go with an open web platform like Patreon or Substack? In that case, you limit your reach, but you take a greater cut of your subscription revenue.

Personally, I think it’s insane to force a creator to pay 30% just for using what’s now considered the standard infrastructure of the mobile internet. Kevin Kelly’s original “1,000 true fans” theory rested on the idea of a creator finding just 1,000 people to pay $100 a year for their work. What he didn’t anticipate was that $30 of that money would go straight out the door to pay a monopolist tech company.

NPR is getting serious about growing its podcast advertising revenue

WAN-IFRA reports:

Back in 2005, the [NPR] team used dynamic inventory for pre-rolls and post-rolls. In 2015, they started using them in the mid-rolls too. [Bryan Moffet, COO at National Public Media] said this has been a huge driver of growth because it gives sponsors the ability to target specific audience groups based on criteria such as geography, age, gender or household income.

“We have proven through our attribution tools that those campaigns actually perform better, and they have higher conversion rates. We see an average 1.7 percent conversion rate for content targeting, but when you add on a gender and age target on top of that content targeting it increases to 2 percent. The higher conversions we can drive, the more renewals we’ll get,” he said.

Podcast attribution for sponsors is a relatively new feature introduced by the team about a year and a half ago.

“We basically put a pixel into the podcast ad, so that when it’s downloaded we can get a sense of how many people heard the ad and then there’s a pixel on the advertiser’s website and they can get a sense of how many of those people who heard the ad actually ended up at their website,” Moffet explained.

Apple’s podcast app continues to attract bad press

It hasn’t been a good year for the folks who work on the Apple Podcast app. Spotify has been eating into its market share and is set to surpass it this year. It announced new paid subscription features to great fanfare only to be publicly trashed by the podcaster community for persistent glitches. Now podcast listeners are complaining about what sounds like a disastrous redesign. A Fast Company piece with the headline “It’s not just you—the Apple podcast app is a disaster” contains this devastating line:

This new update makes it always seem as though you have borrowed someone else’s phone to listen to a podcast on it. I truly cannot remember any other instance when an update made an app’s user experience this incomprehensibly terrible.

I posted this article to my private Facebook group, and podcaster Jer Staes chimed in:

[I’ve had] a steady stream of listeners asking for recommendations for new apps or what to do, or wondering if we were still posting. Somehow their subscribe didn't migrate to a follow, etc. Super buggy …

… I'm literally right now in another window making a plan starting this week to send emails, social, etc. to try and reach those people as much as I can. It's not huge, but it's enough to notice and from my conversations with those who did reach out they're honestly bewildered. On the other side, my Spotify podcast notifications have been *on point* where they used to be irregular. It's like they're watching Apple drive into a wall and trying to pick up the pieces.

Will publishers trust an AI to distribute their content?

The Globe & Mail developed a content recommendation engine it calls Sophie. It’s guided by machine learning, and it seems to be generating measurable results in terms of subscriber conversion. Digiday reports:

Globe and Mail’s chief executive, Phillip Crawley, credits Sophi with driving much of the news publisher’s recent subscriber success — the paper now generates 70% of its revenues from subscriptions, and it has set a target of 350,000 total subscribers by 2023, up from around 270,000 today …

… Though Sophi has only been available commercially for about a year and a half, it has been in development for close to a decade, when the paper began hiring artificial intelligence experts to help innovate around the paper’s paywall. Sophi now employs around 50 people, 10 of whom have PhD-level degrees in fields such as artificial intelligence and data science, Edall said.

It'll be exciting to see this tool spread to other news sites.

Why are publishers investing in kids content?

Digiday published an article titled “Why legacy publishers are focusing on growing their offerings for kids,” and I found this line to be a little curious:

In an industry built on relationships, if you can establish a habit-forming affinity for the brand at a young age, well then, they’ll be hooked for life.

Is that true? My consumption habits at age 12 were much different than they are now.

Streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+ invest heavily in children’s programming because parents are constantly on the lookout for kid-friendly content so they can plop their offspring in front of it. My guess is that there’s a similar dynamic in play for news content, especially since parents feel guilty about the fact that they let their kids watch so much TV and want to offer them a more balanced media diet.

ICYMI: How a blogger sold $72,000 in ebooks over a 3-day period

Alexis Grant bundles dozens of ebooks published by other writers and sells the bundle at a steep discount.

Do you like this newsletter?

Then you should subscribe here:

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.