Unlocking creative independence in the Age of Algorithms

If you’ve opened Instagram in the past couple of months, you’ve probably noticed the sudden burst of videos gracing your feed, or the influx of algorithmically recommended posts from people you may not even follow.

Apps are always experimenting with their algorithms to evolve, but lately it’s gone beyond just self-improvement. In the past few months alone, YouTube has announced changes to be more like TikTok, TikTok has announced changes to be more like BeReal, and Instagram has announced changes to be more like… everyone. Social media companies are constantly trying to one-up each other and it’s having a damaging whiplash effect on creators.

We surveyed over 1,500 creators both on and off Patreon to learn what obstacles they’re up against, and how they’re faring in an increasingly algorithmically driven world. Now we’re sharing the data we’ve collected and insights we’ve learned, so we can all build a better creator economy together.

The dangers of dependence

70% of creators say they feel screwed by big tech platforms (ie. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube), yet over 60% say they primarily rely on these platforms to showcase their creative work. We know these apps are important tools for creators, so ditching them completely isn’t the answer. But disproportionately depending on any single one puts you at the whim of the platforms, meaning any algorithm change can impact your income.

So how can you detangle yourself from the web of algorithms to achieve more predictability while still leveraging social media to grow as a creator?

1. Experiment with different platforms

75% of creators say they want to make more diverse work, but that can be difficult when you feel like you have to make what the algorithms want you to make. By diversifying the platforms where you share your work, you can not only develop more consistent income streams, but also achieve the stability you need to be able to take creative risks and experiment with new ideas that excite you.

Victor Nevarez (aka Internet Shaquille) has 500,000+ subscribers on YouTube who come to watch him cook, and an Amazon page where he shares his top kitchen tools. So you might not expect that over on his Twitch, he’s giving his culinary skills a break to try DJing and ceramic wheel throwing. Even though he calls the income from it negligible, he still streams twice a month as “more of an experimental way of playing with the idea of livestreaming without having the stakes of broadcasting that to half a million people.”

And you never know what might come of something that starts out as just a hobby. Victor started posting his homemade ceramics on Instagram, and after countless requests to buy his plates, he teamed up with a local group of potters to create an affordable dinnerware line called Barkley. With a sold-out drop under his belt, Victor’s already envisioning how his new venture can grow alongside the other parts of his business. “I would like to get to a point where I’m running ads just for myself, and Barkley is a way of doing that,” he says.

2. Make discoverability work harder for you

Nearly three quarters of creators (73%) say they don’t like that algorithms affect the work they put out. But instead of molding your creativity to fit what the algorithms want, you can strategically choose where to post so you can make these platforms work for you in the long run.

Comedian and creator Christian Hull has gone viral countless times, and even though he says social media is great, that doesn’t mean he sees Instagram and TikTok as reliable income sources. “You have success, but it doesn’t translate into dollars,” he explains.

One of the big things social media algorithms do have going for them, though, is discoverability… and creators can take advantage of that. Viral posts that “didn’t earn me any money,” he says, “might get me a sponsorship post down the road,” which is exactly how Christian became the unofficial face of his favorite chocolate bar. In 2018, he posted video after video of his undying love for Caramilk, which eventually landed him a partnership deal where he got paid to promote something he was already talking about organically.

3. Approach one concept from a variety of angles

Most creators (75%) feel like algorithms punish those who aren’t constantly publishing work. But there are ways to use the algorithm to your advantage that don’t involve constantly churning out new ideas.

Jade Fox, comedian, creator, and culture commentator, says adapting one idea to work across multiple platforms is such a smart and easy thing creators can do. She finds ways to take a single concept and turn that into a handful of posts that all create value for her community in different ways.

For example, Jade might make a reaction video about style tips for her pop-culture YouTube channel, and then collab with herself by linking to a how-to-dress video over on her madeyoulooks channel. From there, she suggests looking at the comments to find “what the most memorable parts of the conversations that you’re having are,” and cutting those into short-form Instagram or TikTok posts.

Considering creators ranked lack of time as their #1 obstacle, it’s a big plus if you find low-touch ways to make ideas work across as many platforms as possible. And even coming up with that initial idea doesn’t have to be some massive lift. “I have fully made videos based off of one comment that I got, just because it just struck a nerve with me,” she says. “If you see any piece of communication as a potential piece of content, that can be a launchpad for evergreen content for you.”

4. Get collaborative

40% of creators say they don’t know how to use platform algorithms to increase the reach of their work. And it’s only becoming more difficult to understand what it takes to actually land on potential fans’ Explore pages or FYPs. Instead of leaving your growth up to the apps, consider expanding your audience in a more natural way: through collaboration.

83% of creators say they love collaborating with other creators they respect, and 85% say they’re interested in building relationships with other creators. By working on a project or cross-promotion with a creative partner, you can tap into a new community of potential fans and introduce your existing fans to a new creator’s work.

Earlier this year, Summer Mensah and Emily Roig met through a songwriting club. The experience opened both of them up creatively, and they ended up releasing a song together in July. Both artists promoted the single to their individual audiences and even performed two shows together, bringing their existing communities into one space.

Where do we go from here?

How do you keep your head from spinning in a world where algorithms are constantly shifting? Keep your options open. “Algorithms change, things change,” Jade says. “What worked for you this month may not work for you next month. And so I think it’s safe to cover your bases. Get on multiple platforms.”

Algorithms may be volatile, but we still believe that there has never been a better time in history to be a creator than right now. The next decade of the creator economy is going to be full of even more amazing opportunities for growth and creativity… just so long as creators stay in control.

A world of creative independence and freedom is the only world we want to live in, and we won’t stop working until that’s the reality for every single creator.

If you want to learn more about our survey and how we can all make the next era of the creator economy even better, dive into the data with us here.

Patreon worked with a third-party company, MarketCast, to conduct a multi-phased global study from September to December of 2021. To better understand the creator and fan experience, we reviewed over 7 billion social conversations, interviewed 54 individual creators on and off Patreon, and surveyed over 1,644 creators and 4,027 fans in 10 countries.