Is "Creator Washing" the New Greenwashing?

How companies are still taking advantage of creators, and how you can recognize it.

To all of the passionate and inspiring creators of the world,

Not everyone who claims they have good intentions is telling the truth.

For decades, we've witnessed companies claim they are doing more to protect the environment than they actually are. This act of misleading customers is called greenwashing.

Today in the creator economy, I suspect we are experiencing a similar phenomenon.

Creator washing is the act of exploiting creators by misleading them to believe your product or service prioritizes creators more than it actually does.

Let me explain.

Right now, 50 million people are striving to monetize their passions as creators. So far this year, over 438 companies have reached out to creators with a helping hand, a 50% increase from last year.

As the creator economy continues to skyrocket in growth, venture capitalists and founders are taking notice. Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, has already led 12 investment rounds totaling $500 million since January. Established tech companies are acting on FOMO, too. Facebook, Spotify, Snap, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, among others, have launched new tools and funds for creators.

Why, all of a sudden, do these tech and investment giants care so much about helping creators?

Short answer: they probably don't.

Exploiting creators for their content - whether that be music, art, videos, writings, or live streams - has been a common theme throughout history. Just look at how the music industry has misled artists since the dawn of music recording.

In the last few years, this exploitation has continued, but has been more nuanced. Nuance is what makes these companies more dangerous now than they've ever been.

They are creator washing.

For example, Spotify markets their platform to creators with hopes of providing "a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art". Last year, it was revealed that 98.6% of their creators average $12 per month in revenue. Spotify has provided hope to creative artists for over a decade, and only 43,000 of their 3 million artists have earned enough to live off their art.

This week, Spotify launched their live audio app Greenroom while boldly marketing their desire to "support and reward creators". So far, none of the features in Greenroom offer monetization. Additionally, the terms and prerequisites of their Creator Fund are vague and exclude all creators outside of the US.

Is Spotify truly supporting better opportunities for creators, or are they trying to attract creators away from their competitors with misleading marketing?

Meanwhile, Instagram recently launched a variety of new tools and a new affiliate program for creators. On the surface, encouraging collaboration, educating new creators, and reducing the barrier to entry for commissions are all signs of an ethical creator-first initiative. Once you dig deeper, you learn that brands can set their own commission rates for creators, enabling any brand to potentially exploit creators without regulation. And again, only creators from the US qualify.

Concurrently, in an attempt to attract creators from TikTok and Snap Spotlight, Instagram is now offering 55% of ad revenue to IGTV content creators, the same share YouTube has offered its creators for years, and the same share that has put 97.5% of revenue-earning YouTube creators below the US poverty line.

Whether these offerings are intentionally misleading or are a result of uneducated decision-making is not clear. Considering Facebook has taken huge steps toward promoting equitable opportunities for underrepresented creators, I want to remain optimistic, but mistakes like Instagram's slip-up while developing their NFT marketplace are hard to forgive.

Please note: As I poke holes in these companies' plans to advance their positioning in the creator economy, my intention is not to demonize them or invalidate their future plans. Yes, some of these companies may be on the creator washing spectrum, but only because they now see how much power creators have. As creators, you are now better positioned than you've ever been. You have the power to decide where you house your communities. You have the power to decide how you monetize your content. I want you all to have the power to discern for yourselves who to trust, and I advise you to never put all of your eggs in one basket.

Where do we go from here?

Truly ethical creator platforms offer models that promote creator equity, diversity, mental health, and economic sustainability. They prioritize long-term creator success over short-term profits. While there are many ways a creator platform can develop these models, few commit to this creator-first approach.

One of those few has been TikTok. Between TikTok's $200M Creator Fund, their commitments to empowering valuable, yet less popular niches of creators, and their easy-to-learn mobile content creation tools, TikTok has single-handedly lowered the barrier to entry for creators worldwide. So far, they've checked most of the boxes, but the future of TikTok looks murky.

One of TikTok's greatest strengths for community building has been their suggestion algorithm. Each time a creator produces content on TikTok, they are given an equal opportunity to find new fans, regardless of their previous popularity. But now, TikTok is testing a new feature that will allow creators to use their paid virtual good, TikTok Coins, to boost their own content. While community members could help less successful creators promote their content by tipping them with TikTok Coins, this feature will most likely result in a disruption of TikTok's creator middle class if not carefully designed and regulated.

Despite their long history of being unsustainable for creators, YouTube has taken huge steps over the past few years toward a true creator-first model. Though these initiatives suspiciously align with TikTok's growth, who just dethroned YouTube from VidCon, they do promote three of the "big four" (creator equity, diversity, and economic sustainability, but not mental health). For example, YouTube has taken a page from the Twitch playbook and introduced community-driven monetization tools like paid memberships, tips via Super Chat and Super Stickers, and ongoing support from creator partnerships. They have also empowered underrepresented creators through funds like their YouTubeBlack Black Voices Fund, which supports 100+ Black creators across eight countries each year.

YouTube still has a long way to go, but your demands as creators have encouraged them in the right direction. Each time you influence a platform to prioritize creators and call out creator washing when you see it, we all take one step closer toward an economy that values creators over content.

Before I conclude, I need to mention one cornerstone of an ethical creator platform that has been missing from nearly everyone's model: support for mental health. As creators, the performance expectations put on you by your fans, yourselves, and some content platform algorithms can be emotionally debilitating. Thousands of you have shed light on this issue, yet none of these companies have taken responsibility. Yes, YouTube has videos from their Creator Academy that talk about mental health, but their model does not support the advice they give.

You deserve better in so many ways.

Together - all 50 million of you creators - you can continue driving change. You all deserve to make a healthy living doing what you love.

The first step is awareness. Our next step is action.

When have you experienced creator washing? I want to share your stories. Tag me on Twitter @alexfinden with #CreatorWashing or, if you'd rather keep private, DM me on Twitter or Discord (Alex Finden#9828).

My opinions do not necessary reflect their own, but I'd like to credit the people who empowered me to write this article. Thank you to Li Jin, Jen @BackSeatVC, Josh Constine, Matt Zuvella, Taylor Lorenz, and Olle Pridiuksson (most of whom have their own newsletters, hint hint).

Thumbnail photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash