Content dominates our social media feeds, while the process of making, sharing and critiquing it is central to many people’s work and personal lives. As a platform governance scholar specialising in the creator economy, a content creator and a culture enthusiast, content is both my job and a source of income, a hobby and a form of entertainment for me. So why am I tired of it? Inspired by Hannah Witton’s goodbye to ‘the content treadmill’, this post uses a blend of my research and personal life to reflect on my evolving relationship with content, tracing its ubiquity in the info war and multi-platform era, separating “content” from “#content” (more on that later) and wondering about what’s next. This will be my most SEO efficient post, because everything – including my keywords – will be content.
Hannah Witton and the ‘content treadmill’
At the beginning of December, Hannah Witton – one of the most high-profile YouTubers in the sex education space – announced that she will be taking “an indefinite sabbatical” from her online sex ed content creation from the end of 2023. “‘Indefinite sabbatical’ sounds much fancier than just ‘I quit,'” she wrote in her newsletter, “but yeah I’m quitting. What that means in practical terms is that I will no longer be posting on the Hannah Witton & Friends YouTube channel and this Deep Dives series is going to be the last series of Doing It Podcast.”
Hannah is one of those content creators who has been able to capture the moment: as she explains in her announcement video above, she got into YouTube when it was booming, growing with it, living the creator dream of quitting day jobs to pursue content creation full-time, and experiencing glamorous press trips and events. She has shared personal life moments and changes with her followers, who supported her through her disability journey and as she had a baby. She is also one of those creators that are so well-known, researchers like me end up including her in peer-reviewed studies – and in fact, chances are that if you have read a paper about the positive impact of online sex ed, it will have mentioned Hannah’s work. So, as you can imagine, Hannah’s announcement that she’s ‘quitting content’ on her main channels is pretty huge.
Aside from being huge in the sex ed / YouTube and creator world, Hannah’s decision finally gave me the kick up the ass to write an article I’d been meaning to write for a while, to reflect on what it means to be a content creator in an ever-so-crowded, ever-so-unstable industry and to express a general feeling of weariness that no doubt comes from being over-immersed in… well… content.
Something that really resonated with me in Hannah’s announcement video is that she said she constantly felt on a “content treadmill” where she had to create non-stop, where the output was always greater than the input. She didn’t have time to learn anymore, or to consume content for pleasure.
I felt that.
So this is where I lead you into considerations on what I view as content, and a quick history of the creator economy, before sharing my experience as a very weary content creator.
What is content and who controls it?
“CONTENT!” my fellow researchers and I would shout at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Philadelphia this year, and at the subsequent Microsoft Research New England workshop gathering content creator scholars to explore the challenges and opportunities posed to the industry by AI. As creator scholars, we study content; we create content; we critique content – in short, we live and breathe it – and we make content about the creator scholar’s life. It’s all very meta. Because of this, we are fully aware of the challenges content creation poses to those who work with it.
For the Cambridge dictionary, content can be understood as “the ideas that are contained in a piece of writing, a speech, or a film,” or “information, images, video, etc. that are included as part of something such as a website.”
It’s ironic that the same word (but with a different accent) describes a feeling of calm and happiness while for many people these days creating or consuming content results in anything but. This is probably because content creation isn’t an entirely independent endeavour, but one that relies on capricious intermediaries. For anything to be viewed as content, it needs to be contained into something – which brings me to the custodians of this content: social media platforms.
While before the internet any form of creative or even administrative content needed to be shown and stored somewhere physical (e.g. in museums, cinemas, or even just folders in cupboards), now there’s a new class of ‘storers’ or ‘gatekeepers’ of that content – and that class is largely made of private Big Tech corporations.
While these corporations arguably broadened the access to content and cultural production, giving a platform to previously unheard, unseen voices and creators, they are largely in charge of the rules of the game. A handful of private companies decide over the fate of content, about whether it performs well or not – and they are run for profit, meaning that they have an interest in being the main spaces to connect, and in having as many users as possible. This drive for growth affects which platforms we all want to be on, because as Tarleton Gillespie wrote in Custodians of The Internet: “If I want to say something, whether it is inspiring or reprehensible, I want to say it where others will hear me.”
So inevitably, creating content to reach various audiences requires creating a following on one or more platforms, who become arbiters of its success. This is true even outside of those working as influencers: if you are writing a book, for example, chances are that literary agents and book editors will decide to invest on you depending on the size of your platform.
Because of this dependence on numbers, or what Zoe Glatt calls “popularity metrics“, scholars such as Brooke Erin Duffy have often argued that content creation is an aspirational type of labour with no guarantee of success, a form of work that replicates and heightens the precarity of the creative industries, bringing it into a new realm: one governed by platforms and brands.
Through one of the most quoted paragraphs in his article The Politics of Platforms, Tarleton Gillespie problematises the choice of the word ‘platform,’ which allows social media companies to promote themselves as heralds of free expression while evading social and legal accountability:
“The idea of the ‘platform’, then, does quadruple duty. It fits neatly with the egalitarian and populist appeal to ordinary users and grassroots creativity, offering all of us a ‘raised, level surface’.
It positions YouTube as a facilitator that does not pick favorites, with no ulterior motive other than to make available this tidal wave of UGC. Yet the idea of the ‘platform’ not only elides the presence of advertisers and commercial media producers, it serves as a key term in seeking those businesses and making plain how YouTube can host their content too.
Whatever possible tension there is between being a ‘platform’ for empowering individual users and being a robust marketing ‘platform’ and being a ‘platform’ for major studio content is elided in the versatility of the term and the powerful appeal of the idea behind it. And the term is a valuable and persuasive token in legal environments, positing their service in a familiar metaphoric framework as merely the neutral provision of content, a vehicle for art rather than its producer or patron, where liability should fall to the users themselves.“Gillespie, T. (2010). The Politics of Platforms. new media & society, 12(3): p.58. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epdf/10.1177/1461444809342738
What this paragraph means is that if you are a content creator, your are producing, sharing and storing content in an environment that you have very little control of: your content is largely in the hands of private social media companies and brands, who ask a lot from you without providing the necessary protections that conventional labour structures would give. So how does this affect your inspiration and energy? My boss and I found that it makes people feel depressed and uninspired, but here’s a specific example from my life.
My experience from blogger to content creator
I began blogging in 2011, just ahead of starting my BA in Journalism in London. Unlike all my UK-based peers, I didn’t have access to internships – they weren’t a thing for high-schoolers in Sardinia – and didn’t wanna be left behind. Writing a blog in Italian about going to uni in London was something to put on my CV, and soon became something I enjoyed doing: it allowed me to get creative, to write about literally everything that came to mind, and it even began earning me some money via ads or some invites to eat out for free.
Soon, I learnt that if I wanted my blog to be read, I needed to network and build a social media presence. At the time, that meant Twitter and Facebook – check out some very skilled viral tweeting from November 2011!
Autunno a Londra http://t.co/KYH30SIV— Dr Carolina Are ?? bloggeronpole (@bloggeronpole) November 11, 2011
Then, when I assembled a couple of thousand followers on each platform, the game-changer launched: the then photo-sharing Instagram, where I would initially post some very badly filtered selfies, pictures of food and of London. YouTube was never my thing: due to my journalism course, I hated video and audio editing with a passion, I didn’t have a ‘journalism voice’ thanks to my obviously European but sometimes difficult to place accent, and I didn’t love being in front of the camera.
Looking back, I now realise that writing has always been my main medium. From journalism to my career in PR and social media, from academia to my content creation, you can easily see that, as my ex would say, I’d be stretching every medium to the limit with long captions – and you can still see long-ass text accompanying most of my IG post. I just have a lot to say, ok?
The thing is, nowadays, for every creator particularly for those in the ‘sexy’ space, one platform isn’t enough. I was perfectly content with Facebook, Twitter and IG (I have LinkedIn too but it’s been very cringe until recently) until my content creation, my writing, my life started to revolve around pole dancing. Suddenly, censorship was something I had to grapple with, and that changed the course of my academic career: from merely focusing on online harassment – something I had experienced and that blended my professional expertise with my interests – I shifted onto censorship and harassment, trying to hop onto any new platform opportunity to reach audiences in less puritan spaces (and to know what the kids are up to). This is how I ended up on TikTok, the platform that would give me both unexpected overnight virality and one of the most frustrating moderation experiences ever, my biggest platform to date.
Alongside the growth of my creator platforms, fuelled by the sharing of my research and activism campaigns but still necessary to promote my then full-time pole dance teaching, I began to work as a researcher, first independently, and then as part of my current research centre. With more (much-needed) economic stability came more content – this time, in the form of 10,000-word academic papers. As I blended my academic and pole dancer personae, my social media channels became a way to share my life and my findings, making them as accessible as possible to my audience and allowing me to fully be myself online.
Passed my viva with minor corrections today ?? I had decided this was going to be the day I brought Batman & Bruce Wayne together 😛 So I’m gonna close my academic-only Twitter & unify my presence under this account. Here’s why it's important to me to be both people at once. pic.twitter.com/XzEC5zzek4— Dr Carolina Are ?? bloggeronpole (@bloggeronpole) December 16, 2020
What’s weird when you have a mildly successful set of niches is that you feel you have to stick to one or the other to continue growing and improving your views and your brand partnerships, so experimentation, that creative time from the early days of building a platform, disappears, sometimes taking the will to create with it. At the same time, with the constant risk of censorship and de-platforming and the transient nature of platforms (now Facebook is for boomers and, thanks but no thanks to Elon, Twitter is a dumpster fire), comes the need to find new, more stable avenues to reach your most loyal followers: as a result, I started a newsletter to have one more way to reach people in a less fleeting format apart from this website, and I found myself setting up both a Mastodon and a BlueSky account as a Twitter alternative.
Can you see why I’m tired?
App fatigue is definitely a big part of it, but as I produce long-form content through work and enjoy mindfucks in the shape of articles and long reads, I sometimes feel I am outgrowing the immediate format of social media, where I prefer to share ‘life’ things and where the shadowbanning, precarity and growth churn is tiring me out. My interests for the blog are changing too: after seven years in the pole dance industry, a lot of content originating from it makes me eye-roll because old controversies seem to come back, and I became more interested in interviewing new voices or popular performers instead of writing the excited ‘pole life’ posts I used to come up with. I prefer to keep my practice and my enjoyment for it to myself, or to post a video instead of the meta commentary of the video.
In 2022, the pressure to post content – and polished pole dance content at that – became such a source of worry that it contributed to my decision to stop teaching regularly: as I wrote in my goodbye post, time is a finite resource, and having to work my research job while constantly creating online pole dance content to teach and promote my classes left me drained and uninspired. I needed to quit producing for others to find joy in my own pole dancing again.
Just like life, content creation shifts and goes through phases. Hannah’s quitting post didn’t just make me stop to think about my relationship with content creation, but also about what the ‘content treadmill’ she mentioned means for certain practices and niches, and about what’s next for the content creation world.
Content vs #content
Content is inescapable. Everything, right now, is content.
As Patrick (H) Willems discusses in the video below, the immediacy of social media platforms has sometimes resulted in a devaluation the creation of art and content – he cites the recent case of the Hollywood strikes as an example that film executives view artists’ work as disposable now that it can be replaced with cheaper or automated workforces.
While it is true that having material readily available online can devalue the artist’s work, I have seen incredible creativity in the shape of social media content. What’s interesting to me however is that, despite the precarity, overwork and transience of content creation, people still find it glamorous and want to partake in ‘content culture,’ perhaps as a blend of access to previously inaccessible ways to showcase their creativity and as a form of achievable celebrity culture. Although professional content creators find the ‘content treadmill’ and the precarity of the industry a turn-off for their inspiration, content permeates the daily lives of social media users – especially if it isn’t their full-time job.
In a previous post, for instance, I shared frustrations voiced by pole dance instructors about finding that some students only engage with in-class teaching if it can help them create a cute video for social media, complaining or reverting back to what they know (or to tricks that weren’t taught in class) when challenged with new moves. Other instructors felt under pressure to update their social media accounts to reflect their current skill level: they found that students could ask them to teach moves they couldn’t do anymore if they didn’t keep their profiles up to date.
On a personal level, I even find myself getting frustrated at meeting friends in and outside pole who want to see me to “shoot content” – which usually results in me asking to go out for food and a proper catch-up instead. This, to me, is the difference between “content” – something we create and consume as a form of entertainment, something to enjoy, a memory that doesn’t necessarily have to leave our camera roll – and “#content” – aka something we want to share with the world not just because we like it, but also for clout, for status, with a business or reputational agenda. Sometimes, the two can blend. But I am finding myself incredibly frustrated with the idea of meeting someone for #content and not for connection or enjoyment. Some of my best nights out, or training sessions, are the ones I don’t share.
This is where I out myself as someone who often does not even consume #content. I don’t listen to podcasts. I don’t watch long-form videos. I just doomscroll, and prefer reading content, because I find long video or audio content draining. I rely on formats that I know I like – which is also probably the reason why I would rather watch Buffy 100 times than get into a new series everyone is telling me to watch.
Hannah’s goodbye video mentioned the challenge of constantly producing outputs without learning or consuming new inputs. This is very relatable: when bombarded with content, I retreat into my comfort blanket shows, or into ‘old’ content formats aka books.
So, now that I’ve outed myself as ‘content weary’ or almost as a ‘contentphobe’, where do I go next?
What’s next in content?
I am not sure I have an answer about my own content production rather than I am becoming better at managing my workload. During the early days of my PhD, when I was still a lower intermediate pole dancer discovering the industry and vocalising those learning points through blog posts, I blogged three times a week. Now that I have less to say, I focus on news and personal experience more, meaning I blog once or twice a month and connect my writing to the different stages of life I find myself in.
While a few months ago I would explore all the Twitter alternatives, I have now stopped bothering and will only go with the ones that my respective communities find useful. I don’t need to be on top of all platforms.
Initially, reviews were at the centre of my writing – something I loved doing, and that I initially did for free but that became increasingly lucrative. As my social media viewership becomes bigger than my blog’s one though, I mainly focus on paid for reviews on my channels, and stick to enjoying products, restaurants, places, events without having to write about them.
And when it comes to the writing I do for pleasure – the newsletter, the blog – I am trying to shorten them to make them easier to stick to for me, and more digestible for readers.
As you can see from all the above, these are the strategies of someone who’s overwhelmed by content and by the precarity of its ecosystem… but I’d like to leave you with a more interesting opinion than mine. Where does fresh out of quitting content queen Hannah Witton see content going? She told me:
“I’ve no idea about predicting the future, but what I hope to see is that the industry continues to grow and professionalise.
I hope that even with the natural churns of creators and the content treadmill – which I don’t think are going anywhere – there will be more structures, support and blueprints for how to build a sustainable career as a creator. Sustainable financially, mentally, emotionally, creatively that accounts for Life Stuff happening. I think the DCA (Digital Creators Association) is an interesting new development – looking forward to seeing where that goes and how it can support creators.
And I’m excited to still be in the industry, I want to be a part of helping other creators navigate what is very much sometimes still a Wild West.”@hannahwitton