USC Annenberg Professor and Media Industry Expert David Craig on the Rise and Impact of “Creator Culture”

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
May 30, 2023

In Ep. 82 of Earned, Conor sits down with David Craig, clinical professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, whose research focuses on “Social Media Entertainment” and the rise of “Creator Culture.” But academia isn’t David’s only claim to fame. He’s also enjoyed a storied career in the entertainment industry as a film and television producer. His projects have accrued over 75 Emmy nominations, while his excellence in the field saw him awarded as one of the inaugural Peabody Fellow Scholars.

Suffice it to say: when it comes to the media industry, David knows what he’s talking about.


To start the show, we learn how China’s creator economy, also known as Wanghong, differs from the U.S. creator economy, and David explains how more evolved social platforms and lucrative creator opportunities in China come alongside more government involvement. Next, we discuss the looming threat of a TikTok ban in the U.S., and David shares his thoughts on how the U.S. government can and should regulate social media platforms responsibly. We dive deeper into David’s area of expertise—Creator Culture—and he unpacks the driving forces behind the industry’s recent evolution. We explore the growing number of business models creators can use to earn revenue, as well as the growing number of job opportunities within the social media and creator landscape, leading to a thought-provoking discussion around how Creator Culture will shape the future of labor. Conor and David then share their own experiences and learnings from testing their power as creators on social platforms. To close the show, David gives us a look inside his research and writing process—and reveals what book he’s working on next!

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts!

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The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“The change is accelerated by the competition between the platforms, the threat of government intervention, and the many evolving business models that are available to creators”: David Craig on the Ever-Evolving Creator Culture

Conor Begley: Your books focus on the creator side of things. You talk a little bit about this position of being a creator: you're in the middle, you've got these platforms that you don't necessarily want to be beholden to, but that’s how you get discovered. You've got legacy media that's competing with you almost directly now. You've got your community that you want to manage, but they have their own preferences, and then through all of that, you've got your desire for monetization through advertising. How do you think about that balance as a creator, and then do you expect any of that to change moving forward?

David Craig: What really surprised me when I started this research eight years ago was how evolved and complex this environment had already become. We called it a media ecology—another fancy academic term. There were so many stakeholders and so many issues that creators were navigating, from multiple platforms to multiple business models to the very real prospect that they could, at any moment, say or do the wrong thing, and the community that they’ve built rejects them and walks away. 

There were countless examples over the last 15 years of these epic falls from grace by many of the mega-creators out there. We also now have numerous instances of creators suffering “midlife crises” at 18, right around the time they’re leaving home. It's been fascinating to see the speed with which their lives and their development as humans is expedited because they've built these empires through social media. 

It’s an ever-evolving and accelerating and increasingly complicated environment in which creators are all trying to create sustainable careers to support themselves long-term, including having families and making plans. Of course, the change is accelerated by the competition between platforms, the threat of government intervention, and the many, many evolving business models that are available to the creators—not just on the platforms but across the platforms, and as you've cited, even off platforms. 

The stronger the community that the creator builds, and the greater the fidelity of their community, the more viable creators are at exploring an almost infinite number of business models. We have a lot of evidence that suggests that the influencer marketing business model is no longer the preeminent model with which creators are able to secure revenue from the loyalty, faith, fandom, support, and strength of their community. You now have not only subscriber platforms, but licensing and merch deals that have become almost push-button and frictionless. For example, we see from the Chinese model the ability to engage in social commerce, which is different from influencer marketing. The ability to enter into long-term deals selling brands and products and services directly to their consumers and to their communities is pretty valuable. You've got creators in China who are bringing in millions of dollars from e-commerce in a single day. 

So the more platforms, the more business models, the more revenue streams, the more volatility in this space, the more important creator service organizations like CreatorIQ will become. I wrote an article four years ago about this concept of creator management, and that creators can no longer continue to expect to do this all themselves. It's just not possible. You can't do it within the eight-day week that creators are already operating. There’s so much value in professionals like you who enter into this space and help creators navigate the breadth of these challenges and complications. 

What's really odd is that for a hundred years, we've had this illusion that even the biggest Hollywood movie comes down to one person who's directing the movie, but we then sit through the end credits and we see 10 minutes of rolling credits. We're not getting those on creator content, we're not getting that playing across a TikTok video, but it takes a village. It really does. 

I've been teaching Creator Culture for four years at USC, and it's pretty clear that the students coming into my classroom aren't here to become the next creator, but they are interested in what role they might play in facilitating the growth of the Creator Economy and Creator Culture. They do this not just because they want to have a sustainable, viable career option when they graduate, but also because they've lived in that Creator Culture their whole lives. Wherever they come from in my classroom, and I have a really amazing international group of students, they're all fluent in Creator Culture. They've all understood that they gain more meaningful knowledge about themselves and the world from the time spent with creators online than they necessarily do from watching enormously expensive Hollywood movie franchises. Both of those bring tremendous reward to them, but one of them has taken on much more of a meaningful role in how they understand and make meaning in the world, and that's something they'd like to continue to help monetize and make viable. They see themselves represented in Creator Culture in ways they've never been in Hollywood films or television. They're eager to find a way to play a role in this social media ecology.

How Governments Can and Should Manage Social Media Platforms

Conor Begley: In your opinion, what role should the U.S. government be playing in managing these social networking platforms? 

David Craig: We have a hundred years of evidence of how the government has typically managed the media, and it has mixed results. They have often taken a hands-off approach around certain things, but you’re still not allowed to say or do some things in U.S. media. We can go back to Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl to recall the uproar around that. There are certain words and certain activities you're still forbidden from doing. Social media has, of course, created a whole new breathtaking set of complications around the way that any and all governments ought to regulate what we do. To be fair, the U.S. is one of the few western liberal democracies to even have a constitution, much less a bill of rights that declares free speech as a guarantee. We have something that's unique to even what other western liberal democracies have around this concept of free speech. 

But to be clear, we're not talking about free media. We're talking about media that is run and controlled by corporations. Corporations have their own set of interests that are, of course, about making sure that they continue to succeed at growing revenue and scaling up, but that also involves making sure that they keep governments happy, and if possible, keep governments from intervening. So we have a very mixed, complicated, fragmented, and not particularly enlightened way of dealing with media in our own country, and that's true of every country. The E.U. passing countless regulations about social media, while often much better intentioned, is more often than not designed around trying to thwart the threat of American influence on European society, which they've witnessed in great detail from the way American media used to dominate, and continues to dominate, around streaming services in Europe. 

Within the U.S., governance around media typically takes a more harms-based approach. “Look what damage it's doing, look what harm it's having, look how it's influencing and affecting our kids.” That's one role that the government can and should play in terms of regulating social media, and they have great evidence and examples to look at, ironically from China, which has introduced a number of regulations like not allowing children to use platforms below a certain age, or limiting the number of hours children can use social media or gaming platforms per week. 

Now these are obviously very onerous and challenging kinds of harms-based effects, but we already have similar things here in the U.S. That's why YouTube went to all that trouble to launch their own kids platform, because of numerous regulations we've already introduced around COPA laws and so forth. So we already have a number of those laws in place, not in a particularly profound or sophisticated way. You have the FTC coming in and trying to regulate what influencers do around influencer marketing and transparency, and making sure everyone knows they're being sold a good or a product. 

We have great examples from outside the U.S. of how governments could also be key to helping advocate for better use of platforms, for greater literacy around the way the platforms work, and to help us use these platforms in more responsible ways. I'm getting really historical and political here, but when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fractured, in Eastern Europe they introduced media literacy in the schools from kindergarten till the end of high school. This was because they were aware that they were dramatically shifting away from a top-down, state-run media system to now a corporate-run, advertising-driven media system, and that this would have a profound impact on the way that their societies work and what their kids understood about what they were watching and hearing and seeing. 

We might want to consider whether or not that sort of media literacy is something we ought to be requiring and providing students throughout our education system, as opposed to just simply looking at it through the lens of a harms-based peril around the threat of media and social media. It might be useful if we also engaged with how social media has the possibility to produce a better society—a more viable, equitable society. That would be great.

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