Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Nerd Economy Bubble

This blog post is going to be a bit strange. It had its origins as a response to a response to a I asked question, but then I thought it started getting long and convoluted so instead I decided to try something a little longer format.

I am a patron of a new podcast called The Mixed Six. The premise is really straightforward, two friends (and their producer) sit down to have a conversation on six different topics with six beers. What makes it special is that the hosts, in my opinion, are a wonderfully intelligent, sharp, funny, critical, and nerdy. I believe in one episode they switched from discussing comic book properties to a Marxist critique of gift cards. As a patron I can submit questions so I asked them if they thought the nerd economy was a bubble. I will do my best to summarize my question and their answers, but you can feel free to listen yourself at 52:15. If you choose to listen you can skip the next four paragraphs.

My question I posed was this (roughly), are we in the midst of a nerd economy bubble? All over the internet there are people trying to make money on YouTube, Twitch, Kickstarter, Patreon, etc. and I question the ability of the market to sustain them. There is also the aspect that young naive creators rush headlong into an industry that ruthlessly exploits them for little in return.  

Caleb Stokes admitted that he has feared there is a bubble. Producer Ross Payton made the point that this not a nerd specific phenomenon, ex. make-up tutorials and compared it to the shift from radio to TV, or sheet music to radio. How we consume media. He admitted that there is a lot of exploitation. However, he didn't believe it was a bubble, but a seismic shift. Patreon is a tool that empowers the creators (somewhat).

Caleb argued that if there was a bubble that popped it would be on the supply side. Most people who do these projects do them as a side project. A crash would hurt the platforms. While there are huge earners most people are scrapping by for a little extra money. If it goes away it will be because of how platforms treat their users/creators. Quality control is an issue.

Spencer added it does feel like a bubble because there is so much content for people even willing to pay a small amount. However, there is a quality question and a lot of what's out there is bad, so quality and content is the measure. Caleb said that the only other crash he can foresee is that if these things start supporting people's lives as a career and then they begin chasing the money, perhaps from dubious sources. But, the thing with a bubble... no one can see it.

Now my response to their response. Yes, I realize already that this is ridiculous.

First, Ross is absolutely right. It's not a nerd economy, though I think traditional nerdy areas are a significant portion of it. Consider that Twitch is a huge component of this new economy and almost exclusively, until recently, catered to video game streamers. Comedy channels, beauty channels, news, music, and other entertainment are a significant portion of the market out there.

Two things, I think, prompted me to ask this question. The first is the number of people/groups that have held out a tin cup and asked for me to chip in. At first it was semi-professional outfits so I could appreciate them seeking some financial compensation. However, a growing number of amateurs beginning with a Patreon page was a tad galling to me. Perhaps that is because I was introduced to it as a tool for fans to supplement income and not as a third-party subscription service. There does seem to be a growing number that feel this can be their meal ticket, and that concerns me from a rational and pragmatic point of view. Caleb is right, if you want a little spending money, great, but this isn't grounds for a career.

Decades past young people would dream of becoming actors or athletes. Now they want to be "YouTube famous." A surprising number of my students have their own YouTube channels. They talk to me about building their audiences and their subscriber counts. As most of us know various platforms offer only a pittance for advertising. I am also concerned about the pressures they might feel to gain eyeballs and the wisdom of the decisions chasing those metrics. In short, I worry about exploitation. Platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Instagram make incredible profits off of naive, young creators. The low barrier to entry is both a blessing and a curse. We have so much content, but it does look like "anyone can do it" which ignores the economic and personal costs in chasing these dreams. Sometimes it feels like creators are chasing the lowest common denominator in order to gain any kind of attention, which hardly seems healthy. 

Another aspect of this that I wonder about is the exploitation of a small amount of productive people by 'critics.' Whenever a television series becomes even modestly popular it spawns a bevy of podcasts, video casts and reviews. It starts to feel like an entirely false economy based on the machine of whatever movie sequel Disney pumps out. How many review channels/podcasts can the market sustain? 

I grew up, like most of us, in a free media environment. Television, radio, newspapers, and the internet was largely free on the basis that advertising would pay for the content. The audience wasn't the customer, it was the product. Trends seems to indicate that the audience will have to pay for anything resembling quality content with subscriptions. This is a seismic mental shift for many people; it certainly is for me. I feel vaguely guilty about the media that I enjoy that I don't support (ex. Canadaland). Still, if I donated to the 30+ podcasts I listen to and the dozen or so YouTube channels I watch on a semi-regular basis, plus Netflix, and on and on, we are talking about a pretty expensive media diet. As I'm economically limited it would mean a big change to my habits.

I wish that I could easily accept the position that this is a beautiful time. A thousand flowers bloom and creators can receive financial support for their work. It's a grand meritocracy! Except it isn't. A handful of giant corporations (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) control a huge stake in this developing industry. A few start ups and independents have significant sway, but if you look at the top YouTube channels that are increasingly dominated by corporate media. I've thought about starting my own YouTube channel, or podcast to reflect my interests, and I have been on podcasts in the past, so I understand the impulse to participate in this low risk, low cost field. Creators should be paid for their efforts, but I'm uncertain of our current arrangement. So the question is whether or not this is a permanent change or a bubble. I'm not sure I know which side I want to win out.

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