A Brief Timeline of the Creator Economy

Franco Varriano
February 1, 2021
 min read

The Creator Economy has been emerging from the background of the internet for the past decade, and has really accelerated in the last two years. It's only now in retrospect that we can see these shifts and trends.

But we’re still in the early days.

Today, we recognize the incredible value that everyday users and "creators" played in shaping the early days of platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and more. None of these platforms would be what they are today if it weren't for those early users who shared their thoughts and creativity, slowly building a culture of user-created content.  

You can learn a lot by looking at how a movement originated. Understanding the timeline of the Creator Economy will help shed light on where the future of this space—and many related industries—are heading.

A short history of the Creator Economy

Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest are the foundations of the Creator Economy. The early success and popularity of these platforms depended not only on acquiring users, but also on giving them the tools and outlet to create and attract others.

This “creating” culture evolved to incorporate new mediums, and other generations of apps and platforms emerged to either push or capitalize on those trends.

Here is a (very) condensed timeline of what this looked like:

  • 2004-2010 - Several new social networks launch, including Facebook (2004),YouTube (2005), Tumblr (2007), Pinterest (2010), and Instagram (2010).
  • 2011 - YouTube acquires Next New Networks which has a program called “Next New Creators” to develop emerging talent. YouTube starts calling its users "creators" (replacing the previous terminology of partners).
  • 2011 - Snapchat launches as an ephemeral messaging app.
  • 2012 - A new short-form social video platform called Vine hits the market. Facebook acquires Instagram.
  • 2011-2016 - YouTube works hard to promote their creators, launching new support programs, co-working hubs, awards, and more.
  • 2016-2018 - Instagram launches Stories, live broadcasting, augmented reality (AR) filters, and IGTV
  • 2016-2018 - Two significant events take place that ultimately lead YouTube Creators (as well as others on the internet) to diversify their operations and expand their cross-platform brand.
  • 1) The first is "Adpocalype," the boycotting of YouTube by brands and their ad dollars. This is in response to hate speech and other malicious content that had begun to run rampant. This affects the earnings of many creators.
  • 2) The second is the shutting down of Vine (which had been acquired by Twitter). Many creators got their start on Vine, but for a variety of reasons, they weren't all able to "move" their followers to other platforms.
  • These two events send ripples through the ecosystem, driving both established and new creators to diversify their operations in order to secure their own "real" brands. Many moved to Instagram and other new social platforms.
  • 2017 - With creators diversifying their distribution and brands across several platforms, many begin to champion the term "influencer" as it is seen as platform agnostic.
  • These newly established influencer-brands need more resources to support the complexity of their operations. This coincides with a shift towards monetization.
  • There is a rise in influencer marketing, as evidenced by new influencer-focused marketing agencies and tools.
  • Many of these influencers monetize through sponsorship deals rather than direct monetization, which was traditionally available only on YouTube.
  • As platforms like Instagram enable more direct monetization options through features such as Instagram shopping and Facebook fan subscriptions. These influencers and entrepreneurs had begun to adopt the term creator (as they begun monetizing directly from their fans)
  • 2017 - Snap launches Lens Studio, an augmented reality developer tool.
  • 2017 - Bytedance acquires an app called Musical.ly. Several interesting things happen:
  • i) They rebrand as TikTok.
  • ii) They heavily (and I mean heavily) invest in paid ads to attract new users.
  • iii) They iterate rapidly on the creative toolset and core features of the app. This enables users to do more, such as add audio tracks, create side-by-side responses (Duet), and more.
  • 2019 - Li Jin, a member of the Andreessen Horowitz investment team, is studying the dynamics of several types of marketplaces. She writes an essay about her findings, detailing a rapidly-emerging mindset that seems to be the motivating factor behind a new class of user.
  • Li notes that Gig Economy platforms (standardized experiences, no ownership over the end-customer/user, such as Uber and Airbnb) are being replaced by Passion Economy platforms (those that empower individuality and full ownership over the end-customer/user, such as Teachable and Substack).
  • This new mindset is a direct evolution of the earlier shift from influencer to creator. Having built up their audience, these creators have a real opportunity for direct ownership and monetization.
  • 2019 - Instagram launches shopping and creator studio tools.
  • 2020-Present – The proliferation of sponsorship deals and direct monetization opportunities mean creators can become businesses. Starting in early 2020, there was the feeling of a sudden rush towards empowering creators - specifically empowering them with new tools, as well as enabling new monetization options or financial support programs. More on this in an upcoming post!

What comes next for the Creator Economy?

Over the last decade, the internet has enabled us to reconsider what it means to be a business. Platforms like Shopify have opened commerce to many more people.

We're living through a transformative time for social platforms. Their roles in our economy are constantly evolving and maturing, revealing a new wave of commerce and value creation. It’s the dawn of the Creator Economy, even though creators have been there all along.

This has been made possible because of the mindset shifts that Li Jin recognized— and the evolution of platforms and tools that support this shift towards direct monetization of fans.

While there's still a long way to go, growing a following and creating a business have gotten simpler (though not always easier). New opportunities lie in building more tools and capabilities into and around these evolving social platforms, as well as for this new class of creator.

A creator with the Passion Economy mindset not only wants to create—they also want to earn revenue in authentic ways.

The industry is already responding to this rise in Creator Economy businesses, offering several new platforms and tools that help with operational and monetization challenges.

Soon, creators will find themselves in need of product diversification. Evidence shows they will want efficient ways to combine their interests and style with authentic product experiences that resonate with their audience.

That’s where a product personalization platform like Creative Layer comes in.

Sign-up for early access to Creative Layer if you're interested in building for this future and empowering creators! You can also follow our journey on Twitter or LinkedIn.