Why “the creator economy” sucks for creators

Everyone hates “the industry.” But at least it used to be made up of human beings. Now, the industry is an algorithm. Also: GameStop, Wall Street, left wing militias, & more.

This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby, comedianwriter, and the creator of Vooza. Sign up to get this newsletter (it's filled with essays, jokes, and videos) in your inbox weekly. 

The algorithm is gonna get ya

The mission of standup comedy (and other kinds of performing) seems to be shifting. It used to be about human beings gathering in a room. But now, it’s increasingly about conquering screens. It’s largely because of the pandemic, of course, but I’m starting to worry things won’t ever really bounce back. If people Zoom instead of go to an office, will they also watch TikTok vids instead of going to a comedy club? And what does that mean for standup as an artform?

Change or get left behind
It reminds me of when I worked as a web designer around the turn of the century. See, back then, people actually used web sites. Crazy, eh? There was no Squarespace so you hired a designer to make your site since it involved knowing HTML, Photoshop, and using invisible pixels to stretch table rows. Sites were limited functionally, but interesting graphically. Since I already enjoyed creating posters for my band, I gravitated to this new way to create visuals. Plus, the whole field was new so there was no “I’ve been doing this for X years” hierarchy nonsense. If you could figure it out, you could get work (even as a kid).

But slowly, web sites evolved; they stopped being pretty and started getting functional. It was less about making pretty pictures and more about making “effective interfaces.” My time in Illustrator and Photoshop decreased as I spent most of the day working in a coding app named BBEdit trying to master CSS and Javascript.

It all started to feel like homework. Did I fall out of love with web design? Kinda. But really, web design shifted under my feet and mutated into something different. After that, it was on me: Change with the times or get left behind.

Now, as a comedian, a similar feeling is surfacing. Change with the times or get left behind.

How to go viral
Carmen Lynch, a great standup, was just profiled in the NY Times because of her success on TikTok. Lynch went from all but ignoring doing jokes on social media to spending 8-10 hours a week making new videos. She’s learned lessons like:

  • captions in black draw more eyeballs for her than red ones

  • hashtagging doesn’t really work

  • it helps to erupt in mocking laughter (she took a class with a digital marketing consultant who said her laugh was key to making one video go viral because “it engaged people”)

Carmen is a super comic and I’m happy for her online success (and goodonya to other agile comics who are making similar moves). Still, I miss the days when comics could focus on writing great jokes and performing them in front of a live audience instead of fixating on caption colors and hashtags. Do we all have to become social media coordinators? Sigh.

In response to TikTok’s success, Instagram (owned by Facebook) began fighting back with Reels. (Remember how IG’s Stories ripped off Snapchat? Zuck’s motto: If you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em.) An IG rep revealed the secrets to hitting the b(IG) time on the platform to an artist recently. He told her she should post:

  • 4-7 Reels a week

  • 3 photos or videos a week to the main feed

  • 8-10 times a week to Instagram Stories (preferably at least two times a day

  • 1-3 videos to Instagram TV per week

  • Also: Consistency is key

Jeez, that sounds like a full time job. When is she supposed to, y’know, make her art? Or is all art supposed to be delivered through our phones now? Even if you only care about doing live shows, the first thing bookers look at nowadays is your social media numbers. There is no escape.

Following orders
It’s yet another way software is eating the world. The lame part now is how comedians and other artists are unwittingly being enlisted in this war between tech platforms. “Reels get more views and that helps you take down a competitor? Yessir, we’ll hop to and start making Reels.” Um, when did we all start working for these behemoths? It’s gross that Zuckerberg snaps his fingers and just like that an entire artform shifts directions simply because it helps IG do battle with TikTok.

As a performer, you have to keep up with the shifting taste of your audience. I get that. But this feels different, like we're merely pawns in Big Tech’s game and we have to adjust to constantly shifting rules which aren’t revealed to us and that we have no say over.

All that can’t be healthy for the artform. Comics have always loved to bitch about "the industry" (i.e. the stew of agents/managers/bookers/gatekeepers who can help you “make it”). But at least it was made up of human beings. Now the industry is an algorithm. And the algorithm is gonna get ya.

Of course, YouTube is in the mix too. Comedian Dan Bublitz Jr. wrote this in a Facebook comedian group:

Are you utilizing Youtube shorts? Since I've started posting 2 weeks ago I've gained 35 subs and this short has over 24k views. Most of the other videos I've posted have 500-1,000 views. This isn't me bragging, but rather encouraging people to get on it. Especially if you're already creating content for IG Reels and Tiktok. As long as your videos are formatted for vertical viewing and less than 60 sec you’re good to go. I've had the best luck with videos under 20 seconds.

If Don’s passion is to make videos under 20 seconds, then this is great. But more and more, it feels like artists are being told what to create by an algorithm instead of their internal compass. Big Tech puts an electric rabbit in front of us and we all gallop around the track chasing after it, knowing all the while who’s gonna profit most in the end.

Also booming in comedy right now: Podcasts. Many are monetizing those via Patreon and it’s great to see performers getting paid directly by their fans. (Viva cutting out the middlema– er, middlealgorithm!) However, it’s tough to actually be funny for hours per week. Instead, you become a personality.

That’s great for some, but what about folks who are about editing and creating a refined live act? I worry for them if the future is all about spitting out unlimited “good enough” content. When all the incentives steer us toward broadcasting hours of content per week, it puts the squeeze on craftsmen who refine, winnow, and edit. I like that Sade only puts out an album every 7 years instead of dropping a new single every couple of months. The world could use a few more Sades.

Newsletters vs. blogs
Another flashback to my web designer days: The other thing that was hot back then was blogging. I got to write frequently for 37signals’ Signal vs. Noise blog and it helped me hone my voice and figure out how to write. There was something really cool about consuming the individual voices/designs of blogs back then from folks like Kottke, Zeldman, Coudal, Mighty Girl, Jason Santa Maria, Swiss Miss, and many more. Even Gawker, helmed by Elizabeth Spiers, was a great read back then.

Sadly, most of those blogs have since faded away. In exchange, we got a neverending parade of memes, quips, pranks, and teens doing challenges (as if being a teenager isn’t challenging enough).

Now, newsletters are rising up, providing longform content similar to blogs. Robin Rendle just wrote an interesting essay (with a unique layout) about this transition that explains why he loves newsletters but still wonders, “Is this progress?”

It bothers me that writers can’t create audiences on their own websites, with their own archives, and their own formats. And they certainly can’t get paid in the process. (Although yes, there are exceptions)…Perhaps I feel this way because reading everything in my inbox is somewhat antiquated. It’s almost as if we’ve gone back to reading off parchment after we invented books. Books are so much better than parchment in the same way that websites are so much better than email.

How did we wind up here? Rendle explains:

Newsletters killed blogs because…

  1. They’re impossibly easy to publish.

  2. Your inbox is a notification stream.

  3. Writers can actually, ya know, get paid.

Alternatively, websites today…

  1. Are difficult to make.

  2. Can’t notify people of new work.

  3. Aren’t able to pay writers easily.

Sound about right. But why can't newsletters be turned into blogs? Why are the archive/search functions so retrograde on newsletters? Why can’t Substack just repurpose my previous newsletters into blog content? Let my emails go!

I’ll add in a couple more theories about the secret sauce of email newsletters: 1) You're reaching people who have jobs. Social media is filled with people who are doing nothing. People who use email are actually getting things done. That’s a different demo. 2) There is context. People who read you every week know you and your p.o.v. You’re not being judged on a single post by people who’ve never heard of you before. There’s a rapport there – and that’s liberating.

The next big thing
The new buzzy app is Clubhouse. I just got an invite this week and haven’t tried it yet. I know “getting in” on it is supposed to be exciting, but I’m never going to think being invited to use an app is cool. Apps are inherently lame. Just because you put up a velvet rope, it doesn’t mean your app is some pulsing nightclub filled with hotties. Once we get inside, we’re still gonna realize it’s a digital timesink filled with geeks. (Consider me the Fran Lebowitz of tech, okay?) Also, the absurd “cool guy” icon Clubhouse uses is already too much for me.

Clubhouse claims to be all about “the creator economy,” but guess what? So far, creators aren’t compensated for their work on the app. Shocking, eh? Hey tech world, it’s not an “economy” if you don’t pay for it; it’s just free labor.

“Where’s the money at?” one person asked during the first “Creators Roundtable Session,” a private meeting between company leadership and influencers that took place on Dec. 17. It was a sentiment shared by many in the room. Ticketing, tips and subscriptions were floated as possible sources of revenue.

“Where’s the money at?” It’s where it’s always been in Big Tech: in the hands of venture capitalists. Thanks for “floating” us some “tips” though.

Speaking of, comic Tim Dillon did a must-see roast of Clubhouse on the app this week:

WTF is this app? I’m performing for corporate criminals. Why are we letting tech people talk? You run the world, we’re all your slaves, just have the decency to do it quietly…I know you’re gonna take our freedom of speech, you’re gonna vaccinate us, just shut up about it.

Even the supposed winners in the creator economy wind up facing tough choices. Joe Rogan just cashed in, but what percent of his audience did he lose by going Spotify exclusive? Paywalls are a steep climb for an audience. Platform > Fandom. Sometimes, it feels like the reason they pay you all that money is so they can bury you. Luminary and Seeso did the same thing to comedians: big checks but limited audiences.

Years ago, I got a nice payday for a show that aired on Seeso (owned by NBC). Seeso collapsed shortly after and now I don’t even know if people can see that show anywhere. Also, my heart goes out to anyone who poured their heart and soul into making something for Quibi. At least we got to cash those checks though. Nonetheless, the whole system winds up feeling like catch and kill for creativity.

Mafia tactics
I first started a Facebook Page for my comedy over a decade ago. It was pitched as a great way to communicate with your fans. I drove people to follow me there. But after a while, I started noticing my engagement was dropping steadily until, eventually, my posts were hardly reaching anyone. It dawned on me the whole thing was a con to get me to pay for sponsored posts. Facebook was holding my fans hostage and I would have to pay up to reach them. Classic Don Fanucci move.

Later, I started my video company Vooza, which produced a show mocking the startup scene. We had a good run, but then our views and the market for video advertising collapsed. One big reason: Facebook’s lies about video engagement metrics that resulted in everyone pivot-to-video-ing.

Facebook egregiously overstated the success of videos posted to its social network for years, exaggerating the time spent watching them by as much as 900 percent, a new legal filing claims. Citing 80,000 pages of internal Facebook documents, aggrieved advertisers further allege that the company knew about the problem for at least a year and did nothing.

As a result, layoffs occurred at Upworthy, Thrillist, Mashable, etc. And video sites like SuperDeluxe, Funny or Die, CollegeHumor (and Vooza) all circled the drain.

Websites of all genres saw their ad-driven businesses crater as people stopped consuming content by visiting individual URLs in favor of reading and watching videos on the social web, especially YouTube and Facebook.

So now I’m supposed to think Facebook/Instagram has my best interests at heart? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me over and over for a decade, shame on me.

The direct connect

All the above is a big reason why I love publishing this newsletter. It’s me going directly to your inbox. No middleman. No permission slip from Zuck required. No algorithm sleuthing, hashtag hunting, or SEO keyword optimization. No trolls who take things out of context. Just me and you (ok, 15,000+ other people are joining us) getting together for a weekly adult conversation. Don’t like what I have to say? Hit reply or leave a comment and we can discuss it like grownups. How refreshing.

Still, I’ll keep gunning for social Likes (follow me on Instagram at @rubymatt to see funny vids like this “Soho Karen” one). I’ll upload my videos to YouTube. I’ll hunt for Retweets and thumbs up. I’m not a caveman.

But I can’t shake that memory of how being a designer slow faded on me; how I gradually put away my sketchbook in order to study books on coding instead. It felt like having a blanket slowly pulled away in the night. And lately, making comedy is feeling the same way. I used to spend hours working on bits from my notebook. Now I spend hours putting subtitles on videos and editing Reels.

Is this progress? It’s true that Reels let you reach way more people. But how does the quality of the experience compare for fans? Watching a funny Reel on your own can’t match the feeling you get when a group of people gather together in a room and unite in laughter. The rest of our lives may be slipping into virtual reality, but laughing alone is no match for laughing along.


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Tech’d Up: Bezos, Robinhood, and finance bros

1) Bezos. I wrote a huge thing about Bezos/Amazon/being a Prime addict a few weeks ago so 1) yes, I am omniscient and 2) no, I won’t rehash it all here now that Jeff’s moving to “executive chair” (pretty sure that’s a diamond-studded Herman Miller Aeron with spinning hubcaps that you can only purchase if you’re a Platinum VIP at Design Within Reach). Read the piece to know why I think it’s okay to have mixed emotions about him – and why he’s probably letting the AWS guy take over because AWS is the real moneymaker there.

2) GameStop. My tip for hedge fund managers: Cut out your daily visit to Starbucks, save that $5 a day you normally spend, and you'll make back that $2.5 billion in just 500 million years. (Alternatively, cut back on avocado toast.)

Also, my first reaction to viewing that Robin Hood CEO: We've put the fate of the world in the hands of men who don't know how to get a decent haircut…

3) Who's worse: Finance bros or tech dudes? It's a tough call. At least finance bros admit they're evil. Tech dudes always gotta act like they're saving the universe. Anyway, here’s my tirade about Wall Street mooks. Warning: It cuts deep.

Plugs: That clip is from my “Feels Like Matt Ruby” album/special. Check it out if you want some funny. And sports fans, here’s me doing press conferences as Kyrie Irving and new Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell.

Hell & Wellness ep 8: Michael Pollan & Headspace

The new episode of our Hell & Wellness podcast is a solid listen if you dig organic food, psychedelics, and/or meditation.

Ep 8 // Michael Pollan & Headspace
Matt and Rob go for a deep dive into the work of author Michael Pollan and the impact he’s had on how America eats and views psychedelics. They focus on two of Pollan’s seminal books: ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and ‘How to Change Your Mind.’ They then debate each other on the efficacy and use of the Headspace guided meditation app. Is it a good way to onboard folks into meditation or does it represent everything that can go wrong when capitalism meets mindfulness?

Politicked off: The bonfire of his vanity

"Cancel culture has gone too far."
-People trying to hang Mike Pence

I keep thinking how close America came to the edge. If Trump had just told people to wear a mask, he woulda won. It was a free and easy way to keep Covid numbers down and open up the economy. Zero effort required so he coulda handled it and still played golf 4 days a week. Alas, he didn't think masks were manly. Vanity was his ultimate downfall. Live by the hair plugs, die by the spray tan.

You gotta hand it to these right wing militias fighting for him though: They’re surprisingly good at branding for a bunch of dudes who constantly wear camo cargo shorts. They’re surprisingly aesthetically minded with all their logos, patches, matching outfits, and quirky names like The Proud Boys/Oath Keepers/Three Percenters. (Btw, don’t get me started on these Boogaloo Boys who supposedly hate people of color yet wear Hawaiian shirts and use a name stolen from a breakdancing movie. That’s like if the Nazis wore airbrushed Tupac t-shirts and called themselves the Woody Allen Boys.)

It’s got me thinking we need far left militias with good branding too. Fight fire with fire, ya know? Some ideas:

A militia filled with Brooklyn vegans who only drink oat milk called The Oat Keepers.

Another in Berkeley that’s all about non-pasteurized lowfat milk and they're called The Two Percenters.

And then a group of climate change militants that stan for Greta called the Cloud Boys.

Worried about the Boogaloo Boys? They’re no match for the left wing organic fruit co-op called the Honeydew Boys.

Will these various groups get along? Of course! One thing they have in common: They're totally against WHITE FLOUR.

(C’mon, who else is bringing you quality militia humor like this? 😁)

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Contact me: mattruby@hey.com

About the Rubesletter: Weekly musings from a standup comedian and startup veteran. If you like my comedy or writing; if you dig tech, politics, art, wellness, & pop culture; if you enjoy smart/nuanced takes & hate BS; if you’d like me to turn you on to other people making cool stuff: Sign up.

Social media: Find me on Twitter (@mattruby) or Instagram (@rubymatt).

My latest standup special is free on YouTube. And you can stream my standup albums “Feels Like Matt Ruby” and “Hot Flashes” too.