It was 2011, and YouTube had a problem. The company, which was then a hub for low-quality cat videos and user-generated content, wanted to attract more premium advertisers and raise the quality of its programming. To that end, executives had been paying special attention to a growing class of users who were attracting large audiences of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of subscribers. These users were loosely referred to as “YouTube stars.”
But the term wasn’t a perfect fit, and it was just the beginning of a nearly decade-long saga over what to call people who got famous online. Over the years, there have been Viners on Vine, Musers on Musical.ly, Pinfluencers on Pinterest, and more. In the late aughts, YouTube branded its stars as “partners,” but the term was vague and ill-suited to their work. It wasn’t until 2011 that a series of corporate maneuvers and happenstance resulted in a name that stuck: creators.
Why YouTube’s power users are called creators has been the subject of debate for many years. When asked for comment, a YouTube spokesperson couldn’t even tell me the origin of the term. Some say the name evolved from “content creators” such as bloggers. A recent Wired article postured that men are more likely to self-identify as creators, while women more often call themselves influencers. This is not true. But there’s a reason why the term creator continues to be pervasive, and it’s the same reason that may ultimately lead to the title’s demise.
The provenance of the word creator is actually much more arbitrary than it might seem. Back in 2011, most top YouTube stars worked with two early multichannel networks (MCNs), Maker Studios and Next New Networks. These MCNs produced original content and acted like Hollywood producers, scouting YouTubers with potential and helping them distribute and monetize their videos.
Next New Networks in particular was an expert at making things go viral, before the concept of virality even went mainstream. Two of the most watched videos on YouTube in 2010 were from Next New Networks’ video talent: “Bed Intruder Song,” by the Gregory Brothers, and a Kesha parody video from a show called The Key of Awesome.
Seeking to bring some of Next New Networks’ secret sauce in-house, YouTube bought the company in 2011. The platform kept the founders of Next New Networks on staff, along with most of the company’s team, and created a new division within YouTube called YouTube Next. The purpose of this group was to “give certain partners access to a team of experts that can hopefully help them produce better content,” TechCrunch reported at the time.
YouTube had already launched its Partner Grants program in 2010, which gave 15,000 promising power users the option to receive an advance on future ad revenue, which they could then invest back into creating higher-quality videos. The number of partners making more than $1,000 a month shot up 300 percent in 2010. “We now have hundreds of partners making six figures a year,” the company announced via a blog post early the following year. “But frankly, ‘hundreds’ making a living on YouTube isn’t enough and in 2011 we know we can and should do more to help our partners grow.”
But if these “partners” were to become an integral part of YouTube, they needed a better name. And no one wanted to be called a “YouTube star.”
“These people were more than onscreen talent,” says Tim Shey, the co-founder of Next New Networks, who was by then working at YouTube. “They could write, edit, produce, do community management, and were entrepreneurs.” YouTube partners also had varied origin stories. Some had migrated from Hollywood, but many were native to the platform. The company needed a term for these people that was wide enough to encompass their many roles and backgrounds, but still unique enough to differentiate them from traditional Hollywood talent.
Before it was acquired, Next New Networks had developed a program that helped independent YouTube stars grow their audience and monetize. It was called the Next New Creators program. “I think I was the first to use the term creator,” Shey says. “Next New Creators was our way of branding that sort of group of people.”
When Shey and his co-founders joined YouTube in 2011, the language stuck. YouTube partners became known as creators, and the company quickly proceeded to build an entire infrastructure around them. YouTube opened a slew of creator hubs, studios where YouTubers could collaborate and produce content, in places such as London and Tokyo. The company began referring to partners as creators in press releases, and Shey and the former Next New Networks team founded what would eventually become YouTube’s Creator Academy, a program that helps train users to become professional YouTubers.
“The secret of it all is that creators was a really utilitarian term. You could say it to a Hollywood person, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he would identify that term,” Shey says. “Or you could call a new [YouTube star] coming up a creator and they would also identify with it.”
From 2011 to 2016, YouTube worked hard to promote creators. In 2015, the company launched a massive billboard and print ad campaign and splashed the faces of mostly female creators such as Rosanna Pansino, Michelle Phan, and Bethany Mota across New York City buses, subway stops in Los Angeles, and magazines such as People. These efforts paid off. The company began to produce more and more golden play buttons, the reward YouTube bestows on creators who top 1 million subscribers, and the word creator became mainstream.
YouTube was so successful at pushing the term creator that other platforms soon co-opted it. By 2015, Tumblr began referring to its top content producers as creators, and when it launched a system to pair power users with brands, it called the new division the Tumblr Creatrs Network. In 2017, WeWork introduced the WeWork Creator Awards, which distributes $20 million in grants to emerging small businesses across the globe. Shiva Rajaraman, WeWork’s chief technology officer, was formerly the director of product management for YouTube’s creator platform. Awards shows for YouTube talent such as the Streamy Awards also embraced the word creator, designating top YouTubers as Creator of the Year.
But after Vine shut down in December 2016, many in the online-content world had a wake-up call. Viners who had not successfully diversified their audience across several platforms lost their livelihood and access to fans almost overnight. Just months later, in February 2017, YouTube creators were struck by the platform’s first major “adpocalypse.” Revenue for elite YouTubers such as Philip DeFranco and PewDiePie plunged by as much as 80 percent when several top advertisers boycotted the platform after their ads ran against videos promoting hate speech and terrorism.
All of these changes made creators nervous, and many began to seriously worry about being too reliant on YouTube. Creators such as Logan and Jake Paul, former Vine stars who had jumped ship to YouTube a year before Vine’s collapse, began aggressively courting audiences on other social networks, including Facebook. Other former Viners who had become successful YouTubers, such as Lele Pons and Amanda Cerny, pushed heavily into Instagram.
As YouTube creators scrambled to expand their empires, an entirely new generation of Instagram-native stars was rising behind them. These were people such as the Fat Jewish, who built his brand off memes; Caroline Calloway, who breathlessly overshared every aspect of her life as a University of Cambridge student; and the Eswein-Phillips family, who ran massive interest-based accounts with handles such as @food, @baking, @realestate, and @newyorkcity. At first, from 2014 to 2016, these people were referred to as Instagram stars or Instagrammers. But by early 2017, a new word started to take hold: influencer.
Influencer is a platform-agnostic term. It describes anyone who leverages social media to grow a following and exerts influence over that following in order to make money. An influencer might be the teenager who blows up on Instagram for viral makeup tutorials and starts selling beauty products via sponsored posts. Or the stay-at-home mom turned fashion vlogger who uses her following on YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest to shill her custom-clothing line. Or the middle-aged chef whose homemade cooking videos generate thousands of views on Instagram and Twitter and who uses that audience to promote his own cookbook.
Very quickly, a hierarchy developed. Influencers, because they came later, were stereotyped as less worthy than traditional YouTube creators, a class of people who had already spent years establishing themselves and whose existence and worth had been validated by YouTube itself, a much larger social network than Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.
Even today, the people who shy away from the term influencer mostly do so, they say, because they find the term a bit cringeworthy. It’s new, and still carries a stigma the way YouTube star used to. “Influencer is a slur old people use like a pejorative term,” says Chris Stokel-Walker, the author of the book YouTubers. The word influencer is also inherently tied to business and monetizing, especially through branded content.
“The word influencer means someone who is building a platform with the intention of being used by brands for marketing purposes,” says Natasha Hynes, a YouTuber who calls herself a creator. A creator, she argues, is in it for the self-expression. But, she adds, “I don’t think the claim that most women don’t identify as creators is factual.”
In fact, “many of YouTube’s early innovators were women and people of color,” Shey says. “The term creator was all about recognizing their unique skill sets as directors, writers, performers, editors, and communicators.”
The current distinction between creators and influencers has much more to do with what platform a person gains her fame on than her gender. For instance, Roshan Eshwave Uelese, a YouTuber, says she refers to herself as a creator because it’s a more accurate description of what she does: produce YouTube videos. “I don’t really think it necessarily has anything to do with gender,” says Brittany Sumner, a YouTuber who also calls herself a creator rather than an influencer. “Typically I see influencers on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, places that have heavy ties with brands and marketing … Creator seems to be reserved for content creators on YouTube.”
Young women such as Elle Mills, Liza Koshy, and Sara Dietschy, all of whom have gained followings on YouTube in recent years, identify as creators. But top women with followings on Instagram such as Julia Engel and Huda Kattan identify as influencers. Funnily enough, Instagram recently announced that high-profile influencers on its platform will soon be given special access to advanced features called Creator Accounts. The company wants to “create this space where we can now start to specialize the experience for the needs of creators,” Ashley Yuki, an Instagram product manager, said at the time.
Many self-described influencers monetize through sponsorship deals rather than direct monetization, which was traditionally available only on YouTube. But as Facebook and Instagram shift toward allowing more direct monetization through products such as Instagram shopping and Facebook fan subscriptions, they have embraced the term creator.
“If some creators bristle at being called influencers, I think it’s because of the transactional connotations of the term,” says Josh Cohen, the founder of Tubefilter, a website that covers the online-video world. “I’ve heard from creators that wholly own the term influencer, too. They know they have clout and can influence their fans. They’re proud of it.”
Age also plays a role. While older people might sneer at the term influencer, to teens, it’s an aspirational job title. An overwhelming majority of the young teens I met with last year at VidCon, an annual conference for online creators, called themselves influencers, despite the “creator” badges distributed by the conference that hung around their necks. This is partly because they produce content for myriad social platforms, not just YouTube. Teenagers looking to get into the business also often pitch themselves as influencers in an effort to secure brand deals. And brands themselves have been quick to adopt the term. Advertisers and agencies generally allocate money for “influencer marketing.”
“One of the tensions up-and-comers on social [media] have is, they’ve got to communicate who they are to fans, potential managers, agents, and advertisers,” says Greg Galant, the CEO of the Shorty Awards, a social- and digital-media awards show. “When you say creator sometimes on its own to people who don’t get the internet, they’re like, ‘What are you creating? Are you referring to God the Creator?’”
Still, the rise of the term creator, if nothing else, paved the way for our modern understanding of the word influencer. “It’s been interesting the past few years seeing the term influencer rise,” Shey says. “I don’t like the term as much … but it’s a way to say, ‘I’m not just on YouTube.’”