The U.S. Census Bureau tallies for the federal government an extensive list of 22,607 American industries, recognizing those who work in such narrow fields as pickled onion manufacturing, adult bookstores and canoe repair.
But the index makes no mention of "social media," an oversight that misses one of the most monumental changes to have swept the United States' labor force in years.
Millions have ditched traditional career paths to work as online creators and content-makers, using their computers and phones to amass followers and build businesses whose influence now rivals the biggest names in entertainment, news and politics.
The creator economy, as it's known, is now a global industry valued at $250 billion, with tens of millions of workers, hundreds of millions of customers and its own trade association and work-credentialing programs.
In the United States, the video giant YouTube estimated that roughly 390,000 full-time jobs last year were supported by its creators' work - four times the number of people employed by General Motors, America's biggest automaker.
Once dismissed as a frivolous craze for tweens and teens, the creator class has reshaped American culture, transformed how we get information, rewritten the rules for modern fame and amassed huge levels of wealth and influence. Katherine Saras, a TikTok influencer, summed up the allure in a video earlier this year: "When someone tries to tell me social media is not a 'real job' but 1 TikTok can pay my entire rent."
Yet 25 years after this industry first emerged, the U.S. government still has no laws regulating how creators earn a living or flex their power. Without real oversight, the creator economy has ensnared the nation's attention without a broad understanding of its effects on American society.
The rise of creators has allowed anyone to gain an audience, elevating the otherwise voiceless and fueling a new style of inventive expression. But it also has let bad actors push out lies and misinformation, contributed to a fragmentation of public discourse into thousands of niches and microtrends, eroded traditional knowledge centers and allowed popular strangers and recommendation algorithms to rule the platforms where most people try to make sense of the world.
When big events happen, many Americans now learn about them from creators offering a mix of original reporting, repackaged analysis and, sometimes, misleading attention-bait - often with little clue which is which. And because any kind of online engagement can make money, many creators have pushed their content to the extreme, using challenges, lies and outrage to capture short attention spans, no matter the cost.
The growth of the creator economy has reoriented children's ambitions: "Influencer" is now ranked one of the most popular career aspirations for American youth, above professional athlete and astronaut. Some stores sell "Influencer" T-shirts for kids.
But the job is unsupervised, the pay is unpredictable, the workload is demanding and the competition is intense. Creators' incomes are determined by giant tech and advertising companies that can change the rules in an instant, and a single mistake can unravel their careers.
"Creators can go through this sort of whole life cycle of their career in six months," creator Hank Green said at an industry summit in Los Angeles this spring. The internet is insatiable, he added, and everyone can be replaced: "There is, as far as I can tell, an infinite number of 22-year-olds."
While Hollywood is a single place, social media's celebrity factory is worldwide, and the industry's top stars are millionaires. But most creators occupy a vast middle class that churns out new content from week to week without institutional support or guarantee of success. In a survey of 9,500 participants last year by the creator-focused start-up Linktree, only 12 percent of full-time creators said they made more than $50,000 a year, and 46 percent said they made less than $1,000.
You "work for the internet. And on the internet, you're allowed no sick days, no vacation," Drew Grant, managing editor of the creator guidebook Passionfruit, wrote in a recent newsletter. "The content maw still needs to be fed, 24/7, no holidays, and if you're not producing new material on schedule, you're gambling with your entire livelihood."
The most subtle consequence from this new industry, however, may be in how both creators and users now view their personalities and daily lives as in service of a marketable brand, said Angèle Christin, a Stanford University associate professor who researches the industry. Many now feel they have to open that commodity up for public consumption all the time.
"Writers write novels. Musicians make music. With influencers, you are the content," she said. "Day in and day out, they are on their own, and they have to come up with ideas and things to say about themselves: their feelings, their opinions, what they're going through, what difficulties they face. They are a one-person production company, presenting productions about themselves.
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'This makes no sense'
In the two decades since "mommy bloggers" first started running ads on posts about the messy reality of motherhood, the once-fringe idea of monetizing attention on one's personal life has become entirely mainstream.
More than 70 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they follow an influencer on social media, Pew Research found last year. This spring, analysts at Goldman Sachs said that 50 million people now work as creators around the world.
The analysts expect the industry's "total addressable market," an estimate of consumer demand, will jump from $250 billion this year to $480 billion by 2027. For comparison, the global revenue from video games, now at about $227 billion, is expected to climb to roughly $312 billion by 2027, analysts at the financial giant PwC estimated in June.
YouTube's report estimated that its creators contributed $35 billion to the country's gross domestic product last year, a figure that would rank the group's combined output ahead of U.S. furniture manufacturing but behind rail transportation, according to industry data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Even those figures may undercount the creator economy's real impact, said Erica Groshen, the former head of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. She compared it to another sector of nontraditional work often overlooked in the United States: the gig economy, whose Uber drivers and freelance laborers have carved out a work path that can be both precarious and a lifeline.
"A lot of people engage in it a little bit, and . . . it is often very important to them: It is helping tide them over while they're unemployed, helping them meet unexpected expenses, helping launch them in some way," she said. It plays a major role in "facilitating transitions that are important in our economy - for making ends meet."
Federal labor statistics, however, offer no reliable measurements for the creator class. The Census Bureau's industry index includes a category for "internet publishing," though few of its associated jobs, like "discount coupon book publishers," seem relevant to creator work. Two other listings, for "online video game playing" and "video and audio streaming," are categorized as "data processing" and "hosting" work.
The bureau, whose demographic surveys inform decisions on government spending and policy, runs another index of more than 31,000 job titles with only a couple of relevant positions, such as "social media specialist (Facebook Twitter Instagram Snapchat),"a job that is listed as a sub-discipline of marketing, similar to an analyst or strategist.
The same index, however, has specific jobs for "videotape duplicator," "canary raiser," "magician helper," "wharfinger" and "roller skate repairer." Twenty-three separate job titles are related just to cigarettes, an industry that employs only about 80,000 people nationwide.
An official with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tallies its own data, said creators would probably be classified as "public relations specialists" or "independent artists, writers and performers."
That statistical blindness has dovetailed with the country's failure to adopt meaningful industry rules. In August, Illinois became the first (and still only) state to pass a child labor law mandating that a portion of child influencers' earnings be saved into a trust account they can access once they turn 18; a similar bill in Washington state has stalled. The legislation is nearly identical to a measure for child actors in Hollywood, known as the Coogan Law, that passed in California in 1939.
Misty Heggeness, an associate professor of public affairs and economics at the University of Kansas, said the statistical dead zone may just reflect the backward-facing nature of federal measurement and the growing pains of a new workforce, including that creators may not report their earnings or self-identify as such in public surveys.
But she also suspects that some of the gaps may reflect officials' not treating the industry as legitimate work, perhaps because its output can seem frivolous or because many of its workers and customers are so young.
"Historically, as innovation has taken place and as society has modernized, you've seen the more traditional, cemented-in-space roles look at new roles and say: 'This makes no sense, it's not serious, it's not real,'" she said. "But it really hurts us as a society if we don't understand the health of this part of the economy."
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A new advertising landscape
In the '90s, the Milk Processor Education Program, the federally administered marketing giant of the American dairy industry, dominated TV commercials and magazine ads with its ubiquitous "Got Milk?" campaign.
In August, the group tried something more of the moment. It paid TikTok's second-most-followed creator, 19-year-old Charli D'Amelio, to record a milk-themed dance routine to the tune of a specially composed jingle called "Big Ole Glass." The group, which also runs its own Instagram, Threads, Twitch and YouTube accounts, said the sponsorship was "designed as a catchy way to bring milk to modern Gen Z media."
The creator economy has upended the advertising world, routing marketing dollars to creator sponsorships, known as brand deals, and away from the established media companies that have long counted on them to survive. Payments from advertisers to creators in the United States have more than doubled since 2019, to $5 billion, estimates from the market research firm Insider Intelligence show.
Beyond endorsement deals, many creators supplement their incomes by selling monthly paid subscriptions through websites like Patreon and OnlyFans; soliciting tips, gifts and donations from fans; and partnering with suppliers to sell branded merchandise and consumer product lines, such as snack bars (YouTube star Jimmy "MrBeast" Donaldson's Feastables), sweatpants (TikTok "big sister" Christina "Tinx" Najjar's Rich Mom Gear), alcoholic seltzers (the prank comedy team Nelk Boys' Happy Dad) and juice boxes (the kids' video game streamer Jessica "Aphmau" Bravura's JuiceBlox)
While some advertisers have tapped into the giant follower bases of big names, others have targeted the broader and cheaper pool of mid-level creators, paying to send them free products or to fly them out for "curated experiences" with the expectation that they'll fawn over the glamour of it all on their personal feeds. Even the platforms themselves, such as Reddit and TikTok, have begun handing out cash in hopes they'll keep the creators and their audiences coming back.
That money has helped fund and elevate a new class of online "micro-influencers," including video game players, amateur comedians and other creators that Linktree's report refers to as "recreational" or "semi-pro." As Bethany Werth, a 20-year-old at a private Christian university in Minnesota, said in an August makeup video to her 75,000 TikTok followers: "My eyelashes are paying for my college tuition."
Mass distribution has pulled in advertisers seeking a more diversified approach. Panasonic, the century-old Japanese electronics giant, paid the gaming streamer Waylon "SushiBAE" Lam to promote its new SoundSlayer wearable speaker, the makeup and fashion creator Monica "MonicaStyleMuse" Veloz to review its electric shaver, and the "eco-rapper" Hila "Hila the Earth" Perry to record a music video about renewable energy.
Megan Pollock, a branding executive at Panasonic North America, said that the company now devotes about 10 percent of its marketing budget to creators and that she expects further increases amid a long-term shift away from traditional ad campaigns.
Young people "have grown up with marketing, so just having someone tell them to buy something doesn't work anymore," she said.
Such efforts, however, can backfire. When the creator Dani Carbonari took a trip sponsored by the fast-fashion conglomerate Shein to one of its Chinese factories and celebrated the working conditions she saw there in a TikTok video, viewers widely criticized her as a gullible propagandist. "Yass queen, throwing out your morals for a check," one TikTok commenter wrote under the now-deleted video.
Carbonari has defended the trip as a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity. Shein said in a statement: "We respect and stand by each influencer's perspective."
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Many creators still run as single-person shops, handling all of the video shoots, editing sessions and sponsorship deals on their own. But other creators have worked to pump up their revenue by running large operations with specialized divisions of labor, which some in the industry call "content machines."
Marques Brownlee, a 29-year-old tech reviewer whose videos have nearly 4 billion views on YouTube, employs producers, video editors, a researcher, a creative director and a cinematographer out of an office in New Jersey, according to the company's LinkedIn profile. (The studio has its own YouTube account, as well as a level in the game "Fortnite.")
Professional creators now often recruit and hire teams of specialists: managers, writers, editors, designers and camera operators to pump out content; agents, accountants, event coordinators and publicists to lock down appearances and revenue.
Some of the jobs are newly tailored to the industry, such as the YouTube channel managers who set up publishing calendars and boost subscriber counts. The designers of the clickable images for YouTube videos, known as thumbnail artists, often promote themselves as helping unlock virality: Jonathan Sippel, a former freelance photographer, tells clients his thumbnails are made to feel "photographic, yet simplified in a whimsical way."
Other creator jobs, though, mimic the support staffs of corporate America. Many creators pay for legal advisers and copyright specialists to negotiate ad deals and scan for content theft. Some creators, especially those in fitness and gaming, pay for trainers to help improve their performance, while others pay for therapists and life coaches to help them manage stress and burnout.
Reed Duchscher, a former NFL agent who now works as a talent manager for MrBeast and the Minecraft streamer Dream, said in a memo to clients in June that top creators had begun hiring chief operating officers and "obsessing over how to drive a thumbnail click" in response to a slump in YouTube ad rates. "They treat their operation like a production business, not just a YouTube or Twitch channel," he wrote.
The creator economy is deeply unbalanced toward its stars. On the live-streaming service Twitch, viewers last month watched more than 53 million hours of video a day, but 74 percent of that time was spent with the top 10,000 streamers - fewer than 1 percent of the 2 million streamers on Twitch with two or more viewers, according to data from the analytics firm StreamElements. Most small creators were barely watched at all.
Equipment companies nevertheless have seen boom times by selling professional grade cameras, microphones, tripods, lights, green screens and other gear to creators wanting to make it big. Some companies have marketed themselves to entry level creators, such as new parents wanting to capture their child's every waking move: Godox, a Chinese maker of ring lights and streaming equipment, earlier this year gave away wireless microphone kits to the winners of a "vlog challenge" looking for videos of the "most smiley baby."
The new market of wannabe influencers has led some companies to rethink their clientele. The audio electronics firm Shure - whose renown from building the SM7 microphone used to record Michael Jackson's "Thriller" made it a staple of professional sound engineers - started organizing its studio gear into what it called a "content-creator portfolio" after seeing a surge of business in recent years from podcasters, streamers and others with "differing levels of audio knowledge," said Eduardo Valdes, an associate vice president with the firm. The creator portfolio's sales more than doubled during the pandemic.
"For creators, it's becoming more like a job or a secondary occupation than just a hobby," he said. "We want them to feel confident in the technology, like it's a source of pride - that they are serious, that they're buying a tool and not a toy."
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'Everyone has to keep raising the bar'
Creator culture has increasingly become mainstream culture, expanding to fill every possible genre and interest. There are influencers for gambling, fragrances, lawn mowing, cop-watching, acting like a video game background character and documenting the mundanity of daily life.
And their prominence has only grown as social media platforms, once forged as places for everyday people to connect with friends and family, have instead begun amplifying the most popular memes and videos to strengthen their grasp on users' attention.
The industry has begun copying how conventional companies interact with American society. MrBeast, one of YouTube's biggest creators, has partnered with East Carolina University on a work-credentialing program for the creator industry. At the University of Miami, the TikTok star Alix Earle recently endowed a scholarship.
Such efforts are increasingly international. South East Technological University, a public university in Ireland, recently announced that it would offer students a four-year bachelor's degree in "content creation and social media" starting next year that would include courses on video editing, marketing, data analysis, crisis management and social psychology. (The school last year ran a summer session focused on similar skills called "Digital Hustle.")
The industry has its own awards show, the Streamys, hosted in Los Angeles, where in August, Michelle Khare, a former BuzzFeed producer who has gained millions of YouTube followers for videos like her "Challenge Accepted" series ("I Tried Delivering a Baby," "I Tried the Army"), won show of the year.
Creators have even gained political clout. The White House now staffs a 20-person team for securing creator promotional partnerships and has briefed YouTubers on the benefits of vaccination and TikTok creators on the war in Ukraine. At the industry convention VidCon in Baltimore last month, Christian Tom, director of the White House's digital strategy office, said the Biden administration's creator work "has the most upside and potential of all the communications methods we employ." His keynote presentation noted that President Biden's social media accounts have 93 million followers and post 1,160 "pieces of content" per month on a slide that stated, "@POTUS is actually a creator, too."
Creators with extreme views also have flourished, using mainstream platforms with few rules - such as X, formerly Twitter - as well as a network of fringe sites including Rumble and DLive. Some of the Jan. 6, 2021, rioters were live-streaming video as they stormed inside the U.S. Capitol.
Even less outwardly political creators have used their massive audiences to spread political propaganda, promote oil conglomerates and boost food lobbyists' questionable nutrition advice. Their power to summon a real-life crowd has brought mass chaos: In August, the 21-year-old Twitch star Kai Cenat was charged with inciting a riot after thousands of his fans stormed a Manhattan park hoping to win a PlayStation 5. (A few weeks later, he won a Streamy for streamer of the year.)
Jay Alto, a creator strategy consultant who's worked with stars such as MrBeast and Ryan Trahan, said in a video this summer that YouTube was in its "sensational era, defined by ridiculous ideas, views at all costs and algorithm-optimized content."
"To compete, everyone has to keep raising the bar," he added. "I'm surprised no one's died yet."
Neither Congress nor the states have made much effort to help creators bargain for better pay or working conditions or unify behind a shared set of rules. And the vast range of creators' goals and strategies, coupled with the volatility of the job market, has undermined efforts for creators to build collective positions of their own.
Matt Navarra, a social media industry analyst, said the lack of a safety net has left most creators to fend for themselves. To succeed, they must not only adapt to shifts in culture and tastes and open their personal lives to potential harassment or attack; they must also do so on platforms where the rules can be changed at any time.
Self-employment has always been tough, he said, but "the issue has never been that your business stopped making money because a giant tech company changed the algorithm this week."
Still, these are the stars of a new generation, Navarra said. For his 13-year-old daughter, "the majority of celebrities she knows are creators. And the lines will only continue to blur."
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About this story
Reporting by Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell. Additional reporting by Andrew Van Dam and Chris Velazco.