Commentary

Why Aren't More People Creating?

The Internets are abuzz with some new findings from Forrester Research suggesting that, while the number of people using social media may still be growing, the number of people who are actually creating original content has leveled off in the last few years. In fact, Forrester found that the proportion of "online creators" -- meaning, people who actively maintain a blog, upload videos and music, or write articles -- in the U.S. social media audience dipped from 24% to 23% from 2009-2010. Remembering that the total U.S. Internet population and social media audience both grew over the same period, it seems reasonable to conclude the actual number of people creating content remained about the same (Forrester found similar trends in most other countries on the Internet, with the exception of Japan, where the proportion engaged in content creation continued to increase).

The Forrester finding naturally raises the question "why?" It also throws new light on the evolving structure of the social media universe.

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I remember the early days of the first big social media wave, oh so long ago -- well, maybe five years ago -- when certain wild-eyed fanatics issued dramatic predictions, to the effect that user-generated content was going to replace professional content, and advertising too while we're at it. While this is an extreme version, there were some compelling arguments for the notion that user-generated content would take some of the traditional media pie. First of all, there is no production cost because people make it for free. Second, user-generated content would help meet the demand for niche content among fragmenting online audiences, making up for small audience size with higher levels of engagement.

If I had to boil it down to the essence, however, the user-generated content evangelists combined Internet triumphalism (the Web will render all traditional media advertising models obsolete) with traditional American populism, verging on Marxism (the people will overthrow big business, including traditional media, by taking control of the means of production).

And these predictions have come true, to some extent: traditional media, meaning print and broadcast, certainly seem to be feeling the squeeze from Internet competition, where advertising is both cheaper and more measurable. But that's just the first half of the proposition set forth in the previous paragraph. The second half hasn't quite come to pass -- at least, so far.

It's telling, for example, that 15 of the top 20 most-watched videos on YouTube are professionally-produced content, with the top spot going to "Baby" by Justin Bieber and Ludacris, and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" taking second place. Most of the user-generated content features cute babies doing funny things. As for the blogosphere, there's no question it produces an impressive amount of verbiage, but most of the posting and discussion still refers back to professional content, according to Pew, which found that 80% of all links connect to sites maintained by newspapers and broadcast networks. Although I wouldn't want to claim a statistical correlation, these figures do line up surprisingly well with Forrester's finding that only 23% of social media users were engaged in content creation.

So why is the number of online creators leveling off? It's probably impossible to know for sure, but I have some speculative suggestions. First, the number of people who wanted to become online creators of whatever type -- filmmakers, journalists, snarky commentators, etc. -- but found themselves stymied or overlooked in the days before user-generated content, was probably limited to begin with. It's not like the other 77% have never even dabbled in social media, of course; the vast majority of blogs are abandoned after a few updates, while 90% of Twitter users are "lurkers," who just like to read what other people post.

Unfortunately I don't have access to the breakdown of social media habits by age group, which I would expect to show big variations. However, we'll get an even better picture of social media creation habits will emerge in the next decade, as children who grew up with social media their whole lives become teens and then enter adulthood: if the proportion of creators remains steady at 23% in coming years, I think it's safe to assume that we're looking at something fundamental about human nature.

11 comments about "Why Aren't More People Creating?".
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  1. Steven Parker from Parker Communications, September 29, 2010 at 6:57 p.m.

    While the reasons for becoming a content creator have never been more numerous and compelling, the fact is, developing quality content is really hard work. When we're talking about the general public, we're looking at a group of people whose level of experience and expertise in creating content varies greatly. More than one cynic noted way back when that the complete replacement of professional media by UGC and amateur efforts was about as likely as the proverbial million monkeys typing out Shakespeare's complete works. Overkill maybe, but the point had some validity.

    I agree we'll probably never know the real cause (or more likely, causes). But the fact that the overall numbers might show a slight fade is hardly surprising ... given the indisputable fact that the vast majority of people trying to put out great content are getting neither rich nor famous doing it. As with any artistic or creative endeavor, it's a small minority of us who are sufficiently fueled by our passions to work really hard at something with no tangible reward except self-satisfaction. Finally, there is the quality issue, as you noted. Over the long term, professionals will always produce more and better content--provided they are given a sufficiently free reign to do their best work.

  2. Mike Brugman from supermedia, September 29, 2010 at 6:58 p.m.

    To your point Erik... it may be a simple as this... creating content is a lot of work. esp. if one is to do it regularly. The novelty surrounding the ability to create content is losing it's luster because it takes effort. Based on what we know about human nature, it is likely that these numbers will continue to decline.

  3. Jen Knoedl from JenChicago, September 29, 2010 at 7:29 p.m.

    Great conversation. All of you hit it on the mark, I think. It is really hard to produce so much content all the time and few bloggers/content producers have figured out a way to monetize in a way that pays the bills. I'm in that boat.

  4. Mark Burrell from Tongal, September 29, 2010 at 8:12 p.m.

    They are creating on Tongal:)

  5. Maryanne Conlin from RedRopes Digital/4GreenPs, September 29, 2010 at 8:27 p.m.

    Great article and I agree with the comments too..but no one has mentioned the big one for many would-be content creators...spending hours creating free content takes away time from getting paid to do something else.

    And, especially as so many out-of-work journalists, film makers, etc. are now creating content...the competition has gotten stiff. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds!

  6. Blair Currie from Transformers Global, September 29, 2010 at 8:43 p.m.

    It seems we're moving another stage in the life cycle of Social Media where Blogging and Tweeting are growing up. As is argued well above social media takes a lot of time and crowds out work that generates more income. Times are tougher now and income is more precious.

    The novelty of social media may also be wearing off and people are waiting for the next big thing. Personally I think we're about to see a big wave of mobile and location based solutions will usher in a new era for the internet.

  7. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., September 30, 2010 at 4:39 a.m.

    Worth reading Jaron Lanier's recent book, 'You Are Not a Gadget,' which deconstructs quite lucidly (in between the rants and digressions) this exact problem: that cybernetic totalism and the lure of "free" have indeed disrupted working business models, but also failed to replace them with much of anything -- in the process, exposing the sad fact that much of the good "free" stuff amounts to pointers into a diminishing pile of the old-school paid stuff.

    Philosophico-economically, one thing that's fascinating about this is how the result emerged as an organic collaboration between (as you note) collectivists, on the one hand, and capital on the other. Marx must be rolling in his grave.

  8. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, September 30, 2010 at 6:53 a.m.

    Sorry, but that 'technographic' study is such a stilted, mid-aughts way of trying to understand what people do, why they do it and who they are. It is almost like the Forrester authors who birthed it stopped using social media themselves right after they drew it up.

    Way back then (counting by interwebs years) the way most people pictured "creating" was creating blogs. Blogs?! Facebook killed blogs, it's in all the papers... Way back then, there was no such thing as a retweet. "Checking in" hadn't yet entered the social behavior lexicon. The list writes itself.

    I can only hope Forrester either rethinks and re-imagines what sort of thoughtful piece of longitudinal research might be the fresh heir to this ossified study or some other shop comes up with something more 2011-ish.

    The object of the game would be to develop a truly insightful and actionable piece of rigorous research to aid & abet marketers and brands trying to figure out their place in this constantly morphing, fluid world.

    A post-digital world, btw, which clearly looks very little like what Forrester thought it looked like back when this stab at a durable study was first imagined.

    @tkennon | bigevidence.blogspot.com

  9. Max Kilger from simmons, September 30, 2010 at 10:13 a.m.

    Some pretty good discussions here about what it might all mean. The wild-eyed theory of the media proletariat rising up and replacing the established media bourgeoisie was never really a realistic one. What social media and self-publishing has done is punch some holes in the boundary layer fabric separating the two dialectical forces and allowing some of the most talented proletariat to migrate into the realm of the established media bourgeoisie. Karl is still going to have to wait in his grave for his anticipated revolutionary endgame.

    As for the observation that the percentage of content creators leveling off, I think this is a reasonably believable outcome. Not everyone is going to have the inclination to create on the web and most of them are going to suck at it and eventually fall by the wayside in disinterest, to be replaced by more media-maker cannon fodder. The observation that creating great content is alot of work is an accurate one I think. In addition, as the novelty of social media begins to fade a bit we will probably see that percentage wane even a bit more.

    Is the media world a better place given this march of the talented media proletariat into the territory of the media bourgeoisie? I think so and I look forward to see what develops next.

  10. Andrew Ward from Trust FX, September 30, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    I don't find this surprising at all. First, it's much easier to consume content than it is to create it. Theoretically everyone can consume any single piece of content but there are limits on the creation side. For instance, how many ways can you peel a cucumber? After the big ideas are expressed, subsequent iterations tend to have less uniqueness, less value and thus less interesting which translates into diminishing returns on the creation side.

  11. Sandy Miller from Success Communications, September 30, 2010 at 3 p.m.

    This is the same story that happens all the time with new technology. Websites were another example. Who would ever pay for someone to do a website when you can do it yourself. Or even why need ad agencies if you can do your own photoshop.
    Eventually everyone realizes that it does take some skill, effort and talent to do these things well and if you want the best then you have to pay.

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