SAN FRANCISCO – For the past 18 months, Facebook’s top product manager, Chris Cox, watched in surprise as Instagram came to life in ways he had never seen before.
As young people searched for ways to express themselves digitally in the pandemic, Mr. Cox became captivated by the content of creators like Oumi Janta. The Senegalese roller skater, who lives in Berlin, became famous when she posted videos on her Instagram account in which she skated to techno music. Her viral success – and that of others – made Facebook, which owns Instagram, realize it had to do more for dish creators, Mr. Cox said.
The problem was that Facebook was late. Many YouTubers who create and benefit from meme-like content online have already flocked to competing platforms like YouTube and TikTok, which invested in digital tools for influencers and given them opportunities to make money from their viral videos much earlier.
So Facebook started catching up. To attract the next generation of viral stars, the company began pelting millions of dollars at top influencers to use their products. It tweaked its biggest apps to emulate its competitors. Last month it held a “Creator Week” to celebrate influencers. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, also said he wants to “build the best platform for millions of YouTubers to make a living”.
“Covid was a turning point,” said Cox in an interview, “when the industry and creatives in general became more of a creative economy.”
Facebook is trying to overcome its slow start with the creators as it tries to stay culturally relevant. The social network once regularly posted memes like Chewbacca Mom (featuring a woman who laughs hysterically while wearing a Star Wars character mask) and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (where people poured ice water over their heads to raise awareness and To raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research).
But that was years ago. As YouTube, TikTok, and other competitors grew in popularity, they produced more trends and memes. The Sea Shanty Sensation, where people create and perform traditional whaling songs with modernized lyrics, was one of the biggest mainstream memes of the past 18 months – and it started on TikTok.
Recruiting from creators is helping Facebook re-generate buzz and capture more entertaining content, especially after repeated criticism for spreading misinformation, poisonous speeches, and divisive political posts. The more YouTubers publish popular videos, photos and posts on Facebook and its apps, the more likely users will keep coming back to the network. And if the company eventually calls for a cut in creators’ income, it can be a potentially lucrative source of income.
“Facebook basically says, ‘Hey, Instagram was the biggest influencer platform, and now we’re losing our hold in that space,'” said Nicole Quinn, venture capitalist at Lightspeed Venture Partners, who studies the influencer and creator market. “If I were Facebook I would be like, ‘I have to stay relevant. How do we get people back here? ‘”
However, it will not be easy to attract creatives who have more and more choices. In addition to Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, other platforms are also chasing influencers. Last November, Snapchat started paying YouTubers up to $ 1 million a day to post on its platform, and it is introducing more ways for YouTubers to make money, such as tips. Twitter has also introduced tips and will soon allow developers to put their content behind a paywall and charge a monthly subscription fee.
At least 50 million people around the world now consider themselves content creators, according to SignalFire, a venture capital firm.
“There is a total arms race going on to attract and retain creatives across the social media landscape,” said Li Jin, founder of Atelier Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on the creative industries. “All of the major platforms have recognized that the value comes from the creators who create the content that drives people to return regularly.”
The change has presented Facebook with challenges. The company mainly focuses on selling advertising to big brands and small and medium-sized businesses. It also failed to seize opportunities to attract creators.
In 2016, after the short video app Vine shut down, top creators like Logan Paul and Piques dived into Facebook to post their videos. But Facebook didn’t have enough influencer tools to make money at the time, so many shifted their efforts to YouTube.
One problem with Facebook and Instagram is that a user’s posts and videos are only sent to people who follow them. This means it can take years to build a large audience to make money off of. Facebook also has more than three billion users worldwide, so it is not an easy task to stand out from the crowd.
In contrast, TikTok has a “For You” detection algorithm that allows new unfollowed users to simply upload a video and instantly view it for millions of other users. TikTok also built relationships with popular YouTubers early on on its platform by building “partnership” teams that help creators grow and manage their following and streamline their tech support issues.
Some creators – like Jon Brownell, 29, a lifestyle and health influencer with over two million followers on Facebook – said they felt neglected by the social network.
Mr Brownell said he had difficulty speaking to anyone on Facebook after his page was hacked in 2017. He said he showed up four times at the Facebook office in Playa Vista, Calif. To speak to a representative for help, but he was never able to speak to anyone. While he eventually regained control of his Facebook page, he was unable to post sponsored content on his page for weeks, resulting in a financial blow.
“To say that Zuckerberg has always supported Creators is a lie, an exclamation point, an exclamation point, an exclamation point,” Brownell said, underlining his remark in a strong phrase.
Mr. Cox said Facebook was listening. The company is adding to its own partnership teams to better address influencers’ concerns, he said. He added that Facebook has creators who already have large groups of followers on the site. This includes Hala Sabry, a doctor who founded the Physician Moms Group in 2014, in which doctors who are also parents come together to support one another online. Mr. Cox added that Facebook’s experience with small businesses enables the company to empower YouTubers and help them build sustainable business models.
Facebook is also promoting more of its tools and features to help YouTubers make money. This includes monthly paid subscriptions to influencer sites and the ability to post advertisements in short videos and live streams. Mr Zuckerberg has promised that Facebook will not cut the creators’ earnings on the platform until 2023 at the earliest.
Facebook also uses a well-known strategy: more like its competitors look. This month, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said the app would make changes to keep up with the popularity of video sharing apps. That includes tweaking Instagram’s algorithm to allow users to see more videos of people they don’t follow – in other words, doing what TikTok does.
“We are no longer a photo-sharing app,” said Mosseri in an Instagram video this month. (He later tweeted that Instagram wasn’t giving up photos, but relied on videos.)
Facebook is developing more products to appeal to all types of creators, from writers to podcasters and beyond. Last month, Bulletin was launched, a newsletter service designed to attract independent writers and writers to build their audience on Facebook. It also released Audio Rooms, a feature where people have live audio chats with fans and followers. The company uses these tools to target the podcasting market and compete with apps like Clubhouse and Twitter “Spaces”.
Recently, Mr. Zuckerberg has also been leaning on viral memes about himself. He recently posted a photo of a surfboard he had commissioned, with an artist’s rendering of his face covered in gleaming white sunscreen, a meme that circulated widely online last year.
On the weekend of July 4th, Mr. Zuckerberg also tried to create his own meme. He posted a video on Facebook of himself surfing an electric surfboard in Lake Tahoe, California, clutching a giant American flag that was blowing in the wind. The video was set to the sound of John Denver singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads”.
Creators rushed; it was meme-ized almost instantly.