Social media no longer belongs to you, your friends, that random guy from middle school who still lives in your hometown, or your weird cousin you muted but can’t unfollow, because, well, they’re still family. It’s now entirely the domain of influencers and creators who make content for a living.
There’s just no more room for regular people on social media.
“People are posting a lot less on public social media,” Sasha Kaletsky, cofounder and managing partner at Creator Ventures, said Monday at the Fortune Global Forum in Abu Dhabi. “And so your feed is no longer made up of your high school friends or your prom date from seven years ago. Now you’re just seeing people who are professionally entertaining you.”
The creator economy is such a big business that it has turned social media networks from a place of convivial camaraderie to a global distribution platform for the booming content business. By 2027 the creator economy is forecasted to be a $480 billion industry, almost double the sector’s current value of $250 billion, it’s currently worth, according to a report from Goldman Sachs.
The nature of the evolving creator economy is changing social media platforms as well. Creators have often been at the mercy of the algorithms of Big Tech. When those algorithms change, so does the nature of social media, forcing those who make a living on those platforms to adjust accordingly. Those algorithms, which are meant to drive engagement above all else, can sometimes harm user experiences, as some tech executives have argued.
Social media services are becoming “distribution platforms rather than follower platforms,” Kaletsky says. “All these original platforms, whether it’s Twitter [now known as X], Instagram, even Facebook back in the day, were things where you would follow certain creators alongside your own friends, and watch their content in your feeds. It’d be a friend, and it’d be a creator next to each other. That’s changing completely. In five years, that will have totally changed to the extent that you don’t bother with friends anymore.”
There have been upstart social media companies—BeReal and Dispo, for example—that have tried to revert back to the original friend-oriented version of social media, Kaletsky says. But none of them caught on. Poparazzi, another app that Kaletsky cited alongside BeReal and Dispo, shut down in May, just two years after topping the charts of Apple’s App Store. Despite the efforts to revive the old school of social media, today’s engagement-heavy version is dominated by incumbent tech giants like Meta, TikTok, and Alphabet, along with Snap and Twitter.
In the current landscape TikTok and YouTube Shorts, Alphabet’s TikTok copycat, will succeed, according to Caspar Lee, also a cofounder at Creator Ventures and an influencer in his own right. “X slightly less so because it’s hard with the fact that the content that is coming up on there doesn’t work for brands and creators thrive when brands are happy to pay them to create content on platforms they’re creating content on,” Lee says.
Content creators, and the advertisers that sponsor their content, find TikTok and YouTube Shorts appealing because of their big audiences. YouTube Shorts has 2 billion logged-in monthly users, according to Alphabet, and as of March, TikTok had roughly 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. They also, generally speaking, can reassure brands that their ads and sponsored content won’t appear next to controversial or offensive content, something that X has struggled with.
In the last week alone X suffered an exodus of major advertisers after its owner, Elon Musk, appeared to endorse an antisemitic post. Since then, blue chip companies like Apple, IBM, and Comcast—which owns NBCUniversal where current X CEO Linda Yaccarino previously led global ad sales—all said they would pause advertising on the platform. Under Musk, X has tried to court creators by implementing a new ad revenue sharing program in August meant to increase payments to creators who have popular content. Although the progress of those initiatives has been difficult to gauge, mostly because it’s been overshadowed by Musk’s brushes with antisemitism.
There is nothing ‘less authentic than an AI-generated character’
As influencers navigate the shifting strategies of social media platforms, they also have to contend with the rise of the world’s most talked-about new technology: AI. Both Lee and Kaletsky believe it will play a pivotal role in helping creators without replacing them entirely. AI will lead to new tools to help creators produce more content—already a cash cow for startups, established players, and investors alike. Kaletsky’s firm, Content Ventures, has, for example, invested in ElevenLabs, a startup valued at $1 billion, according to Pitchbook, that uses AI to replicate human voices.
Lee, who still makes content for his YouTube channel, said he just recently used ElevenLabs for one of his own videos when he couldn’t find someone to play a supporting role in a skit.
“Usually if I need another character in a video, I’d have to force my mom to be in it or my fiancé,” Lee says. “But this time they weren’t available. So I just used ElevenLabs and I was able to get a voice to be in the content and no one knew it was an AI generated voice.”
Lee adds that this was just a “random character” in one of his videos so it “didn’t matter so much.” But if using AI-generated voices became the norm, creators and platforms would have to find a way to let viewers know when it was being used.
AI has creeped into all facets of the creator economy in recent months. Some of the biggest social media companies like Meta have even begun experimenting with entirely AI-generated influencers. The effort has raised some eyebrows, from concerned parents and artists and creators who have seen a rise in digital imitations of their work. Those sorts of innovations represent a novel application of AI, and probably an appetizing cost cutting opportunity for platforms that wouldn’t have to pay a real creator. But Kaletsky thinks they’re unlikely to replace actual influencers.
“The reason people follow social media creators, the reason they bother is partly because of the authenticity,” Kaletsky says. “There’s nothing in the world that’s less authentic than an AI-generated character. So it sort of defeats the point in many ways.”
But Kaletsky hedged by saying AI-generated characters could make for a good investment. “It’d be very nice for us if that’s going to be huge, because we’re technology investors in the creator economy,” he says. “It’d be wonderful if that takes over. But I don’t think it’s going to.”
— FORTUNE (@FortuneMagazine) November 27, 2023