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Welcome to Rebecca's Takes!
A newsletter about creative independence
Hi! I’m Rebecca. I’m going to use this space to explore technologies, products and trends that enable creative independence.
Creative independence is about being able to tell the stories you want to the people who need to hear them and being able to learn from and build with those people.
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I think we’re at an interesting moment for people who make stuff on the internet. It’s easier now than at any point in history to start making cool things (hi, Descript, Canva, Webflow, Shuffles) and finding people who care about whatever niche thing you care about (hey Tiktok, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter). But at the same time, that scale and ease comes with handcuffs. Creators are entirely at the mercy of their chosen platforms’ ranking changes, available monetization opportunities, and policy decisions. My focus here is on how creative people work within and around these constraints, what they use now, and what could be built to better support them in telling great stories and growing both audience and sustainable businesses. I’m especially interested in finding strategies to scale distribution (and monetization) in ways that are less dependent on social media’s walled gardens.
With that in mind, I think creative independence boils down to three things:
Freedom of speech: the ability to tell the story you want to tell, without unwanted restrictions
Tools that amplify creativity: the means to define and realize your story, without technical expertise
Sustainable business models: the ability to build a long-term living via creative pursuits
I’m planning to write about all of these areas here, approximately weekly. I’m hoping to try out a mix of formats (some product tear downs, some interviews, some thoughts on market trends) and see what you and I like most. So please tell me what you think along the way! You can also get a sense of what’s on my docket here. Read on to learn more about why I think this stuff matters.
I care about removing gate keepers for creative people.
When I started at Twitter in 2015, executives were still describing it as the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party’. But seven years and a pandemic have been a lifetime when it comes to speech rules in Big Tech. Today, freedom of speech is a certified lightning rod for both technology and media companies, with huge ramifications for creators. On one hand you have Substack and Netflix taking a stand for creative freedom by telling employees (and users) where they can shove their concerns about controversial content. On the other hand, you have basically every technology company, including, er, Substack asserting power over what kind of content can show up on their properties, both with hard lines (banning) and soft ones (ranking, monetization opportunities). In the case of gatekeeper platforms like Apple and Amazon, this isn’t just control over what shows up on their properties: they can prevent things from showing up on your phone—or, in the case of AWS, the internet—altogether.
As a creator, you sign up for the rules when you put your content on the platform. YouTube Kids, an interesting example given the unique hurdles associated with being both algorithmically ranked and kid-friendly, even gives creators a handy field guide to help them understand what they’re allowed to post. The challenge is that the rules change all. the. time. YouTube was a great place to learn about big scientific debates...until those debates started to be about about covid. It’s never been ok to call for violence against an ethnic group on Facebook...unless that ethnic group is Russians in the context of a war. You definitely can’t use Twitter to send controlled substances to people without prescriptions...unless you’re getting gender hormones to people who otherwise can’t access them.
I am decidedly not espousing a stance on any of the very contentious issues above. But the uncertainty around what a platform’s policies will be tomorrow creates a real conundrum for creators. Yes, creators can ‘just leave’ if they don’t like the rules of whatever platform they’re on, but when a platform is your hosting service, your distribution partner and your only connection to your audience, the switching cost is, in practice, impossibly high. This is why products like Substack, Patreon and Paragraph interest me: the more direct connection you have with your audience—and the more portable that connection is—the harder it is to get caught in the ever changing winds of the tech industry’s content moderation wars. I think there’s also interesting work to be done using blockchain technology to ensure access. More on this in future posts.
Beyond access to audience, creators also come to platforms because those platforms amplify new forms of creativity. Tiktok’s short-form, music-backed format, coupled with its novel approach to content recommendations amplified new types of highly-engaging videos that never could have been popular on other platforms. The constraints not only enable, but spur new creativity. I believe the same effect is in progress across the process of media creation. For many creators, there is a chasm between the inspiring idea they have in their heads and what they can produce with the means available to them. That gap takes the form of equipment, technical knowhow, specialized skills, even taste.
But there is a renaissance happening in creative tooling, one that is changing what it means to be a creator. The tooling to create great media is more accessible, to a less technical audience, than it ever has been. Look at mmhmm, which lets you make multi-media broadcasts with just your webcam and Webflow, which lets non-technical people create beautiful, complex website. Advancements in AI have also driving significant creative innovation. Up until a few months ago, I worked at one such company, Descript, an AI-driven audio and video editor. At Descript, we talked about our mission as ‘creating more creators’: we wanted to directly take on that gap between the creative people’s ideas and their production skills. Increasingly, tools like Descript and Grammarly (for writing) are capable of acting as the expert editor you can’t afford to pay and don’t have time to become. This trend is also rapidly transforming visual art and design. DALL-E’s breathtaking new update, Outpainting lets you create images you’ve never dreamed of—or, perhaps more excitingly from a creative perspective, ones that you did, but didn’t have the expertise to make. And when you do need to hire that expert editor, the widespread development of realtime collaboration features have made it much easier to actually work with them. Together these advancements have the potential to amplify creativity for millions, or maybe billions, of people who are not yet able to realize their creative vision. I, for one, am here for it.
But...how will all these newly-empowered creators make money? There will always be more hobbyists than career creators, but the lifeblood of good sustainable content is a good sustainable business model. This is where sustainable business models (and the tools to create and manage them) come into play. Successful writers and creators today make money through sponsorships, subscriptions, tips, merch...As one writer told me: the best monetization model is all of them. But managing all of these revenue streams while keeping up with the never ending hamster wheel of writing-filming-publishing-promoting and keeping your existing audience engaged is a tall order. Many of the writers and creators I’ve met are savvy business people. They don’t need an operator to come in and run the show. But, as with creativity, they need the tools to unlock and scale their ability to run their media businesses sustainably.
I believe there’s room for innovation across the funnel, from making it easier to generate ideas, to enabling new forms of collaboration and compensation for work with other creators, to engaging with existing audience to easing the process of finding sponsorships. Punctuated by the pandemic, the last few years have seen a dramatic rise in traditional media defectors—the Glenns, Katies and Allisons of the world—setting up successful one-person publications. I’m a huge fan of a lot of these publications, but like many people, I’m skeptical that completely unbundled, sole-operator outlets are the right solution for most writers and creators.
Writers need editors. Creators of all sorts need collaborators, not only to fill in the gaps in their own knowledge, but to push them to produce stronger better work. The interesting question is what does the re-bundling look like? Some people will undoubtedly go back to traditional traditional outlets, but I think there’s space for more novel, creator-led structures for pooling both risk and reward. Blockchain entities like CreatorDAO and Sigle and automatic revenue splitting services like Stir offer new takes on these old ideas. But it’s not at all clear what the future of creator and writer networks looks like.
Outside of the structures through which creators make money, there’s also a great deal of leverage to be had in how writers interact with, learn from and grow through their audiences. Super Follows (on Twitter), Close Friends (on Instagram) and the Notify bell (on YouTube) are all attempts to counteract the fundamental problem for creators with algorithmic feeds: you can never be sure who saw your posts. But the rise of creator-driven Discords, Slack Groups and email newsletters suggests that these platform-level bandaids are not enough. I think there’s a ton of cool stuff to explore here too.
Creators need direct connections to their communities, and this, I think, is The Point. It’s not only because these are the people they can make the most money though this is also true. Nor, looping back to editorial freedom, is it entirely about maintaining a connection to your audience if your distribution platform’s policies change, though this is crucial. The connection to audience is foundational because these dedicated fans give creators ideas, collaboration opportunities and, importantly, new members. As I said at the beginning, creative independence is about being able to tell the stories you want to tell to the people who need to hear them and to learn from, build with, and be sustained by those people. I’m fired up about it and I hope you are too!
Who am I?
If you are reading this, you probably know me. If you do not, here’s a quick intro: I’m a San Francisco-based product person, mom, and knitting enthusiast. I’ve worked at a bunch of different big companies and startups over the years, but most recently I led the product team at Descript. I left a couple months ago to explore this stuff. I like to kibbitz, especially with fellow writers and creators. Please say hi!
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