Let’s face it, being a creative is becoming a rougher and rougher ride lately, especially if you’re a creative who grew up on the internet. A lot has changed in just the last year. The downfall of Twitter, the rise of AI. For awhile there we had a golden age of social media platforms that could really help us build our audience and careers, only for that all to start evaporating seemingly overnight, leaving a lot of creators stranded and disoriented. Look on any site right now and you’ll find creators terrified of losing everything to AI, creators terrified of losing their audience if their main social media presence gets shut down or banned, creators completely unsure of how to navigate the industry with half their tools taken away.
But, at the same time, as quick as it feels, this has been a long time coming. The social media bubble has been primed to burst for awhile now. What made social media a great tool for creators in the beginning was its authenticity. Social media was social. You found people you liked, you followed them, and you saw what they posted in the order they posted it. There were no games. No tricks. Ads that were present were less intrusive, less targeted, and less frequent. People weren’t as determined to play numbers games with who could get the most followers, the most likes, the most most most. An independent creator or small studio might sell to you, but you knew there were people behind those products. You knew there was a person who cared, who just wanted to show you the neat thing they made, not drive up their metrics or try out all those Cool Tricks they learned in a business psychology class.
Then big companies said “hey, we want a piece of that pie too,” so they started hopping on to social media as well. But it didn’t work for them, not the way it did for independent creators, because it wasn’t authentic. It was marketing. There wasn’t a person who cared behind the screen, it was some kid hired fresh out of school and handed a brand standards packet and told to make it work. They didn’t care about really connecting with people, they cared about sales and sales alone.
The big companies didn’t like that it wasn’t working for them, oh no. People should be giving them attention too!!!1! So the shift began. Ads got more targeted and more frequent. Algorithms grew in size and scope, driving people towards content they never asked for or showed any real interest in, barely showing things that people had actually followed at all. Social media stopped being social. It became marketing media and, as a consequence, small creators got buried in the deluge. Some gave up, some did their best to trundle along doing what they could, and some tried to play the game under its new rules only to have their audience still evaporate because, without a huge marketing budget, the corporate method doesn’t work at all. A few got lucky and went viral, rising to the top without having to play by the rules, but many of those struggled to maintain it and crashed back down soon after.
Then there’s the homogenization. Facebook bought Instagram. TikTok exploded in popularity, so Youtube added Shorts and Instagram added Reels. Twitter added longer and longer content options, despite being a micro blogging site. Patreon took off, so everyone started adding paid content options. Social media sites were so terrified of someone doing better than them that they all became exactly the same. Before, you had an account on every site because they each did something different. They each had their own value. But now they’re all the same, so why bother having multiple accounts if you can accomplish the same thing on each one? These companies have shot themselves in the foot by no longer offering anything unique, then got mad that they were bleeding and blamed their users even though they were the ones holding the gun.
And, of course, Twitter is over there bleeding out on the floor. Plenty of social media sites have risen and fallen over the years—Myspace, DeviantART, to name a couple—but Twitter is the first one to be so maliciously and quickly taken out with a shot to the head. Almost overnight creators have lost a major source of connection to literary agents, art directors, job boards, and just a generally vibrant network of other creators and supporters. A few contenders tried to step into the ring to replace Twitter, but all seem to have fizzled out within a few months.
Amidst the social media meltdown, a new player stomped onto the scene: Artificial Intelligence. It swept in just as quickly as the demise of Twitter and at about the same time. Within just months it went from generating strange blobby horses with too many legs to almost perfectly replicating the styles of well known artists. Which, understandably, made everyone panic. As soon as it was on the scene we saw major publishers using it to create book covers (rather than hire an artist), news sites using it to create graphics (rather than hire an artist), people using it to pump out low quality books to put on Amazon (rather than learning to write themselves), and plenty more. We learned that the data sets these AI were trained on were all stolen art and writing. We watched everyone wave off our concerns and tell us we were overreacting, that this was just the “democratization of art.” Nevermind that a computer doesn’t need to pay rent, or fill the fridge, or pay medical bills.
The AI saga is still ongoing, and likely will be for a long time yet. But this article isn’t about AI in and of itself, so we’ll leave it there.
In the latest development of the social media bubble burst, the RESTRICT act got thrown into the pile. Falsely dubbed the “TikTok Ban,” the RESTRICT act is a vastly overreaching bill that would decimate the internet as we know it. It actually doesn’t mention TikTok at all within the text of the bill, TikTok is just the Trojan horse being used to try and push the bill through. It has, however, garnered vehement disagreement from both sides of the aisle so who knows what will happen there.
That’s where we stand right now. Many social media sites are dying, AI is stealing work, and the government is trying to destroy the internet as we know it. Good times. Good times. So what the hell are us creators supposed to do? Well, there’s a few ways to go about it and a few good ways to protect yourself.
Firstly: remember that you are unique. AI is not actually intelligent, it cannot actually learn, it can just cobble together data with zero actual understanding of what that data means. Only you can come up with your characters, your stories, your designs. Even an AI trained exclusively on your work cannot create the things you will create in the future. An AI can’t know why it’s important to draw seams on clothing to give the shapes more form, it can’t know why it’s important to show not tell in a story, it can’t understand the importance of proper kerning in a logo. Do you think Good Omens (both the book and the show) would have the nuanced characterization it does if there weren’t real people with real experiences behind its creation? Your creations are yours, you learned the things you needed to to bring them to life, you cobbled together dozens of tiny, seemingly inconsequential experiences from your own life to create them, and that is why they will always have value.
Secondly: be authentic. Be excited about your own work. Be a person. Don’t just push your content and shop and sales all the time. Relax. Geek out about a fandom. Share a meme. Get in a lengthy friendly debate about ancient copper merchants. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, overshare your personal life, but you can and should still be a person. You are not a corporation and trying to act like one, trying to keep pace with what they do, will just hinder you. Being authentic will build trust between you and your audience, and that is key to creating a stable environment. An extension of this: don’t beg. Your audience does not owe you attention. Give them a reason to care and they will, even if it takes awhile.
Thirdly: own your audience. Have your own website, even if it is a simple single page business card website to point people to other places. Make it your hub so that people—fans, art directors, agents, etc.—will be able to find you and reach out to you even if your social media sites go down. Have a newsletter that people can sign up for, and back that data up frequently. Don’t rely on any social media website to hold your following for you, because it can vanish overnight and suddenly you’ll be back at square one. But a CSV of emails backed up onto a couple of hard drives? That’s YOURS. Substack died? Oh well, you backed up the CSV a couple days ago and now you can just upload it to a different newsletter platform and pick up right where you left off.
Fourthly: figure out what kind of creative you want to be. Yeah, some work is going to be lost to AI. Yeah, you’re going to miss out on some jobs because you can’t chat with art directors on Twitter anymore. But there will always be work out there for creatives, even if it is different than you used to imagine. Maybe you won’t be able to get into concept art with a huge gaming company the way you dreamed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a great indie studio to work with. Maybe you won’t be able to get a traditional publishing deal because you don’t like their values anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run a great self-publishing campaign on Kickstarter.
Fifthly: support other creators. Share their work. Point art directors their way if you don’t have time for a particular job. Introduce them to your own audience. Boost their commission info posts. Build your network.
Lastly, ask yourself this: are you going to stop consuming content from your favorite creators just because AI exists? Just because Twitter died? Are you going to shelve all your favorite books because AI is out there? Stop looking at art that isn’t made by an AI? No. You’re not. You’re going to keep consuming the things you love, and so will everyone else. Maybe not in the same ways, maybe not in the same amounts, but they will.
One final note: do you know what happened when photography started to become widely available and affordable? Illustrators panicked. If newspapers could just snap a quick photo of the latest news, they wouldn’t need to hire illustrators. If catalogues could photograph their products, they wouldn’t need to hire illustrators. It was a huge shift in the entire industry, and illustrators did lose work. But you know what? A century later, we’re still here. We still have value. We still get work. We still create amazing things that can’t be done any other way. Our ancestors have weathered this storm before, and we will weather it this time, even if we get a little banged up in the process.
If you enjoyed this content, tips are very much appreciated! (But 100% not required!)