In the world of media and tech, being up on the latest trending content on social media is a nonstarter. And, while viral content has been around for the last decade or so, since the emergence of platforms like early stage Vine, TikTok (and maybe Reels?) trends have taken on a whole life of their own. It’s not just creators getting in on the action either, companies like Duolingo and Chipotle are redefining what it means to a brand on a platform. I even worked with our social team at Clarity to riff off of Billy Eichner’s “Billy on the Street” bit for our company (check it out here).
In the ever changing creator economy, you can’t be a bystander. While some creators are influencers, the words aren’t synonymous anymore, but that doesn’t mean creators aren’t monetizing. To dissect the intricacies of the space, I sat down with Kelsey Weekman, a reporter from Buzzfeed News, who’s grown up in the creator economy and has been a catalyst shaping the way we view the industry, where she shared her thoughts on the creator economy and how it intersects with the world of technology and business.
(This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity)
WV: To get started, can you tell me a little bit about how you got into the creator economy space and how you ended up covering it?
KW: The internet has always been really fascinating to me, it’s where I spend all of my time. I just love being online and I started noticing certain trends that were really interesting to me that I wanted to talk more about and share them with readers. Then it became more than a hobby when I realized, ‘Oh, I could probably start talking about this professionally.’ I was working in media at the time doing audience development, and I just started looking for jobs covering internet culture. That was 2020 when I had my first internet culture reporting job, so I’ve been doing it for a full two years now.
WV: So, you started professionally covering the creator economy in 2020. We’re almost at the three year mark. What are things that you’ve seen that have changed since you started covering it?
KW: Well, I started in January 2020. And famously 2020 changed everything in general. I’ve seen things change wildly, especially short form video. I’ve also seen a lot of creators talking about burnout and how much work goes into being a creator. You might think being an influencer isn’t really that serious of a job but it is. I’ve seen a lot of the process of making this into a career and more than just a hobby or something to promote what you do. Actual content creation is a full career for a lot of really influential people.
WV: How do you think the professionalism of the “creator economy” has evolved and how has that changed how media companies and publishers think about covering it, like having reporters with the title of Social Media Reporter?
KW: It has always been part of the economy, but we’re just seeing it more and more. So I think one thing that’s really interesting is that more big creators are emerging. So as time passes, we are aware of more really popular people. There are always going to be micro influencers who make a little money here or there with a little account on the side. The middle class of the creator economy is definitely missing. We don’t see a lot of people who it’s their whole job and they’re not making a ton of money. It’s hard to leave your day job to pursue content full time, we just really don’t see it that much. But I think that as being a creator as a career is shaking out, people are starting to notice there are more similarities with other jobs.
KW: It’s basically a creative job where you’re creating things but it’s also a marketing job where you’re selling things. And when they get in trouble there’s more coverage that needs to be done. They speak out against platforms, platforms use them to advertise or to say things. Anyone who’s not paying attention to the Creator economy is missing out on a huge thing that makes the world go round right now in so many different ways; culturally, economically.
KW: It’s really rare that an entire new genre of reporters and study comes out but this was something that I think that you really can’t ignore. You can’t just push it into entertainment because there’s so much finance and tech involved. It’s not just tech because there are personalities involved, it’s not just finance because you have to be online to understand it. It’s kind of an intersection of so many different things that it becomes its own beast and needs specialized people to kind of figure it out.
WV: To cover this you have to almost be a jack of all trades, how has learning about the finance and tech side of the creator economy gone for you? Is it something that you’ve relied on other reporters to help you with and understand, can you tell me a little bit more about that?
KW: The internet culture beat, as it were, is pretty small. There’s only a handful of people and a handful of outlets that have dedicated, full time staffers and we all talk to each other, it’s a really close knit group. We’re friends, we work together, we discuss the stories that we cover. A lot of times it plays out on Twitter and you’ll see people talking amongst themselves like, ‘Oh, I love this angle.’ ‘I love this.’ There’s just not enough of us to cover everything that’s going on. Since we are navigating and trailblazing this new space, we’re figuring out in real time how to do it. We’ve all got really amazing editors and teams, helping guide us but you take something like West Elm Caleb, who’s this guy who was ghosting women all over Manhattan and someone posted about it on Tik Tok and other people posted on TikTok, and they ended up kind of exposing this guy but instead of just exposing him and the Manhattan dating scene, they made him a villain for the entire Internet.
KW: You take this thing that people are trying to figure out and realize you should probably explain this. Then you take a step back and say, ‘How is this going to affect this man’s life?’ This man who never intended to go viral. We spent a lot of time bracketing over what is going to happen if this person goes viral, what is going to be the next beat of the story, like three beats ahead in the storyWe are figuring out as we go along but it’s definitely really interesting seeing everything come together, seeing everybody figure out just how powerful the internet is, especially with TikTok’s ability to make someone go viral. TikTok’s algorithm really kind of picks out the stories for us. Sometimes we have to figure out how to handle it. I think that’s really unique.
WV: So you mentioned that you all think about the guilt of reporters who are covering the creator economy. Is there a code of ethics you guys follow or is there like an unspoken rule or things you think about when potentially exposing the next West Elm Caleb, unintentionally?
KW: I wish that we had a code of conduct or ethics but I also think we don’t need it because a lot of us just know. I think that the people who cover the internet, since we have to know so many different genres of reporting, we’re familiar with the human side of things. And a lot of being a reporter also means unintentionally going viral yourself and getting harassed and having to fight back against people who don’t understand what you’re talking about. So I think that we all have that added element as well. But I couldn’t be more proud of the other reporters who work in the beat that I do, because everyone is empathetic and so smart and aware of the implications of what they do. I don’t think that there’s going to be another West Elm Caleb. This isn’t going to stop happening on TikTok anytime soon because people, unless they make it illegal to upload someone’s video without their consent, but that’s never gonna happen. We saw a woman who uploaded a video of a lady at a Harry Styles concert without their consent, and a lot of people ignored it. A lot of the comments on the post are saying don’t upload someone’s image without their consent. There’s this phenomenon when you’re talking about, especially young people on the Internet called eternal September, where there’s always going to be someone new, learning something for the first time, because they’re always new young people. We’re gonna have to keep going through this lesson of not ruining someone’s life with a viral video.
WV: Do you think there are going to be other platforms that you emerge or is TikTok just taking up too much of the mark?
KW: Definitely, there’ll be more new platforms that emerge. I think it’ll be a while. We’re still trying to figure out TikTok and why it’s so addictive. It knows us so well, that it’s so hard to escape, but it feels so nice to be known, but there’ll definitely be more platforms that emerge and in different ways. I wrote about Reels back in April, and I was like, this is boring. It’s a fun trend, but it’s really boring and it’s completely stuck around and it’s designed to not keep you on there for very long. And it doesn’t really have a way to make money right now. But it’s interesting and people keep going back to it. I think that in a couple years we’ll probably see another platform similar to TikTok and its personalization but I don’t know anything else about that.We’re gonna keep finding more ways to tap into human nature and get people hooked on stuff for sure. Do you remember how hard it was to log out of Facebook back in the day you’re like, my friends are on here; this is awesome. Then you’d be texting someone but also writing on their wall but then also like on an IM chat room, all at the same time. There was so much stuff to play with and so many ways to tap into the online dopamine reservoir that I can’t wait to see what the next platform is. I think in a few years, we’ll have one.
WV: What can tech companies do to empower the modern creator and the future of the creator economy?
KW: That’s a great question that I’m constantly trying to answer. The first thing is to take them seriously as human beings with jobs; not just a way to popularize your company. Take them seriously, that helps deal with misinformation, harassment and money. These are the three areas that I would really love to see improvements in, but it all comes down to just taking them seriously. It sounds easy enough, but it goes beyond trying to pinpoint who the next hot person is that you can have in an ad campaign.
WV: Has there ever been a trend that you thought to yourself, why is this trending? And then on the counterpoint. Has there ever been something that you thought would go viral, but didn’t?
KW: Well, first of all, I always see one thing go viral and I think ‘I hope this will become a trend’ but it won’t. I have a little brother who sends me a lot of TikToks and he’s 21 and his for-you-page is nuts, like it’s so weird. I never understand anything that’s going on and I never see any of that. I think that’s evidence that there’s a huge percentage of the internet that’s just not making it to the surface. We know about the things that we like and that are popular, but we don’t know about the things that are bad. Among demographics there are things that don’t surface to wider audiences, not just reporters. You see something on Twitter that’s from TikTok and suddenly everyone knows about it, but it’s been a trend for a really long time. My aim is to get you on some of the little weird, smaller but not non-existent communities. That’s what I wish would go more viral.
KW: What do I wish didn’t go viral? I don’t know. I usually have fun with whatever surfaces even if it’s for a short time like those Adam Levine DMs, people hate it immediately. I had a fun time for a few hours. so there’s this tweet that’s like he looks like he went into a tattoo shop and said give me tattoos. But I’m always really impressed by how good the internet is at making jokes about things. I wish I didn’t have to care about Game of Thrones again. That’s my take. But that’s not even like an internet trend. Yeah, I try to give them all a chance.
KW: I hope that people stop making random people go viral. I hope that everyone who goes viral has given consent to do so.
WV: Well, that was great, thank you so much for taking the time to chat, you can keep up with Kelsey’s work and what’s going on in the world of online culture and the creator economy at BuzzFeed News here.