Against the Term "Creator"
One of the most dispiriting trends in modern-day internet culture is that so many ambitious and talented young people have voluntarily adopted the drab, unimaginative label of “creator.”
The word—meaning, essentially, “people who make stuff on the internet”—has gone from nowhere to everywhere in under a decade. But it’s really a descendent of another piece of much older corporate-speak: “creative,” used as a noun. This unfortunate term emerged in the nineties to describe the type of person who, thirty years earlier, would have simply been called a sellout: someone with an artistic bent, inside a corporate environment, doing work that requires at least a little imagination.
The creative stands out as such only in contrast to the stark lack of creativity found in most of their coworkers. (I was once labeled as one for nothing more than my daring choice to wear an orange belt.) Their creativity is seen as a fungible business resource that is transferable to any task at hand, from coming up with new ad copy to thinking of a birthday gift for Susan in HR. It is also, much like money, infinitely multiplicable and divisible: hire twice as many creatives, and your company will have twice as much creativity.
“Creator,” like its predecessor “creative,” is notably agnostic as to what the things actually being created are. What does a creator create? They create content—that other gross word of this ilk that is almost comically generic, and whose metastasization over the past few years is a sign of something deeply troubling in our culture.
But while the creative exists within an organization, the creator is defined by their ostensible independence. Thus, the rise of the latter term—which really starts to take off around 2019—clearly parallels the growth of the internet platforms that make independent distribution (and, at least in theory, independent monetization) possible. A creator can be a TikTok star, a Substack writer, a Soundcloud musician, or an OnlyFans model. (The use of “influencer,” a related term, also begins around this time.)
“Creative,” though, is something your boss calls you, not a term of voluntary self-identification. And it’s almost exclusively corporations, not individuals, who describe their work as “content.” What makes “creator” so galling is that it has been deliberately adopted by an entire cohort of internet users. As a class, creators are defined by their independence, rebelling against corporate control of their work and using new platforms to reach their audiences directly. Yet they have unwittingly adopted one of the worst forms of corporate nonsense language to describe themselves. Steve Jobs was so insistent that the original Macintosh engineers see themselves as artists that he made them all sign their names on the inside of its case. Thirty years later, a whole generation of actual artists has given themselves a label that makes their work sound like the most boring kind of paint-by-numbers engineering.
Which is not to say that every creator is an artist, of course. Part of the appeal of the word is the way it can apply to a whole spectrum of generative activities: running a series of podcast interviews, say, or teaching an online course. (In fact, a disproportionate amount of the so-called “creator economy” seems to be made up of people who have become financially independent creators by selling courses that purport to tell other people how to become financially independent creators, a Ponzi-like cavalcade of hustle porn that’s creators all the way down.)
But—as the Steve Jobs example shows—there’s something powerful about adopting an aspirational label, even if it doesn’t fully apply to you. Your viral tweets may not technically be art, but they’re at least art-like, and the more you think of them that way, the better they’ll be. Wherever they may fall on the art spectrum, the things we make should be original and weird and in deep communion with the soul of the universe—all things that we are, at least subconsciously, positioning ourselves against when we label ourselves “creators.” (A similar logic explains why I so strongly dislike the popular strain of online writing advice that uses terms like “personal monopoly” and advises you to decide what to write about with the same kind of dispassionate analysis as a businessperson developing a product.)
Besides, more creators are artists than one might naively think. I don’t know how to define art any more than anybody else does, but if Duchamp’s Fountain counts, so does the distracted boyfriend meme.
As every remake, sequel, and cookie-cutter Marvel movie demonstrates, we live in a world where more and more of what used to be art is becoming mere content. Instead of throwing more content into this bottomless void, those of us who can should try to make what we do more like art, whether we see ourselves as “real artists” or not. The work of so-called “internet creators” is a bright spot in the culture—the least we can do is find a word for our work that doesn’t make it sound like it sucks.