Erin McGoff has 3 million followers on social media, but with the money she gets from Instagram and TikTok, she wouldn’t be able to pay for the plate of mozzarella sticks we’re sharing in a Baltimore bar.
“On Instagram, I’ll have a video hit 900,000 views and make six dollars,” McGoff said. “It’s insulting.”
Like most content creators, McGoff makes her living from brand deals, sponsorships and subscription products, rather than from the platforms themselves. But that reality is emblematic of the conundrum creators find themselves in: they’re propelling social platforms to new heights, but those same platforms can betray them at any second with one small algorithm change or unfounded suspension.
Creators deal with the same stresses of any self-employed business owner, but at the same time, they’re wholly dependent on the whims of massive social platforms, which don’t pay them enough, or at all, for creating enormous value. And when it comes to brand deals and partnerships, there’s no standard to make sure creators are being compensated fairly.
“TikTok and Instagram are making so much money off of ads, and they’re not sharing that with creators,” McGoff told TechCrunch.
The creator economy has a sustainability problem. According to Matt Koval, an early creator who then worked for a decade as YouTube’s first creator liaison, a creator’s career span usually lasts between five and seven years.
“If creators don’t capitalize on their flash of fame and turn it into some kind of sustainable business, they can find themselves in a really hard place of, ‘Well, what do I do now?’” he said in a YouTube video.
Since starting her social media accounts in 2021, McGoff has made more and more money each year, but she’s still worried that her job could disappear at any moment. What if her TikTok account gets taken down? What if her followers get bored of her? With the exception of a small elite group, there’s really no blueprint for what a career as a content creator looks like ten, twenty or thirty years down the road.
“You have to act like your influencer money could go away tomorrow,” she said. “A lot of creators just think, ‘I’m gonna make videos online and make a bunch of money,’ and that’s unfortunately not sustainable. You have to have a business mindset and understand how to make money work for you.”
These anxieties aren’t unique, nor are they’re not unfounded. While creators try to build their multifaceted businesses, they’re also beginning to wonder if they can work together to advocate for more transparency with platforms and brands, which might help make their careers more tenable.
Last year, creators watched as Hollywood’s writers and actors unions picketed incessantly under the unforgiving Los Angeles sun, eventually winning contractual changes with studios that will help them secure better treatment and pay. Some creators even pledged not to cross picket lines during the strikes. Gen Z has come of age in an era when workers at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, Trader Joe’s, Home Depot, UPS and so many more are waging high-profile strikes and union drives to fight for better working conditions. And this generation – which spends a whole lot of time on social media – is the most pro-union generation alive.
Is now the time for content creators to get their due?
A lack of transparency
As a creator making videos and resources around career advice, it makes sense that McGoff is thinking so intently about her career trajectory. The same goes for Hannah Williams, the founder of Salary Transparent Street (STS), which has amassed over 2 million followers across platforms.
In her videos, Williams asks people on the street to share their salary as a means of promoting pay transparency – since she started her TikTok account in 2022, STS has grown into a broader resource hub to help people get paid fairly.
“I created a personal TikTok in 2022, and I just talked about how much money I made at every single job I had, because I was like, this is my only way to fight back,” Williams told TechCrunch. At the time, she had recently discovered she was being underpaid as a data analyst in Washington, D.C. “I had a video go viral on TikTok with all my salaries, and so I realized salary transparency is really a thing, and people are interested in this. So I just had this idea to go out on the street and ask random people their salaries.”
Williams is living a content creator’s dream. Her business earned over $1 million in gross revenue in 2023, more than double what it made in 2022, and she pays herself a salary of $125,000. But as Williams helps people in other industries achieve greater salary transparency, she’s been reflecting on the issues in her own professional world.
“We definitely need a union, because we need standardized rates,” Williams said. “We need something that all the companies abide by. We need help. We need advocacy. We need people that stick up for us.”
Since the film and TV industries in the United States are unionized, workers on all sides of a production are insured a number of workplace protections and pay minimums.
“If we look at it from the perspective of SAG and studios, studios for creators are social media platforms. They’re the people that host our content. We make them money,” Williams said.
And without any industry oversight, brands can pay creators anything – or nothing – for their work.
Some advocates are trying to change that. After being burned many times by underpaid brand deals, Lindsey Lee Lurgin founded Fuck You Pay Me (FYPM), a database where creators can share what brands they work with, and how much those brands have paid them for certain deliverables.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Thanks to your website, I made rent this month, and it’s because I was going to take a free t-shirt from this brand, but I joined FYPM and saw that I could charge them two grand,’” Lurgin told TechCrunch.
Creators also want more transparency from social platforms themselves. Since so much of a creator’s business is mediated through these platforms, any arbitrary algorithm change, disciplinary action or update can mean a loss of income.
“One time on TikTok, I reported somebody’s comment for being homophobic, and I responded to him and said ‘ew,’” Williams said. “My account got restricted for 48 hours, and I appealed it and nothing happened… That hurt me as a creator because I couldn’t interact or engage with my audience.”
In the worst cases, a suspension or account hack can have tangible impacts on a creator’s business. Let’s say a creator is getting paid $5,000 from a brand for a promotional Instagram post; if the creator can’t access their account to make that post, they’re not going to get paid. These concerns are so prevalent that startups have sprung up offering creators insurance in case their accounts get hacked.
“Instagram has no customer service at all, so if there’s an issue with your account, you have no one to help, unless you know somebody,” McGoff said.
According to Williams, these platforms aren’t doing enough to stop reposts, either.
“There’s not enough regulation of people that copy your content — they’ll full on download your video and repost it and make money on that,” she said. “There’s no way I can report it and get them to take it down. Instagram’s happy because they’re making money, but I’m not happy as a creator, because what am I going to do, not post on Instagram? My hands are tied.”
Could content creators unionize?
Over the years, several leaders in the creator economy have floated the idea of a creators’ union. In 2016, longtime YouTuber Hank Green tried building the Internet Creators Guild, but the idea came perhaps too early; the project lacked the funding and momentum to keep it running, so it shut down in 2019. Since then, with the rise of TikTok and the boom in social media usage during the pandemic, more and more people are making a living on the internet.
Now, Ezra Cooperstein, a veteran in the industry, is working on a project called creators.org, which is a non-profit aiming to act as a unified voice for creators. A similar group, the Creators Guild of America, launched in August. And in 2021, SAG-AFTRA opened up membership to creators, but the union won’t negotiate with brands; rather, this special agreement allows creators to qualify for benefits from the union, like health insurance. But none of these organizations has become popular enough to attract a big enough community of creators – at least not yet.
“It’s difficult to find common ground with everyone because everyone wants different things,” Williams said. “Depending on the type of creator you are, you might have different priorities.”
In the meantime, platforms can still make changes to better support their creators.
“I think what we could be doing is giving creators a voice on the platforms, like having a say in how the algorithm changes, and more legal protections to recognize this work as legit work,” Lurgin said. “The people who are making the rules at the top, they’re so disconnected from it. It’s like deleting someone’s job if your page gets stolen.”