Conventional wisdom states that social media has been a boon for creativity. Despite the odd curmudgeon bemoaning the banality of online life, those of who use social media on a regular basis know that it's true: the tweets, Instagrams, and Vines of creative types can be remarkably inventive.
All the same, as social media matures and we see more and more novelty on the web, a question lingers: might a too-cozy relationship with marketers and brands affect the nature of creativity and art online?
It's something worth asking in light of the news that Niche, a kind of talent agency for social media stars, is soon set to rake in a million dollars a month in revenue. What Niche does is act as a go-between for brands and people popular on platforms like Vine or YouTube. If you're under 25 you may have never heard of them, but people like Nash Grier or DeStorm have millions of followers on various social sites.
The idea is simple. Niche enlists the services of these people with huge following to do things like promote products or cover events put on by brands, who in turn can target young, engaged consumers for a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing. Meanwhile, the young creators reap the rewards of payment and fame.
Sounds like a win-win situation, yes? In some ways yes, but not necessarily. For one, as Capital New York reports, Niche has taken the depressingly familiar tack of eschewing cash payments and rewarding some of its artists with free "exposure" – or the simple pleasure of getting to be at a fancy event. Unfortunately, it's an all-too common phenomenon when it comes to new technology and the sticky issue of how people are compensated for "labour" that sometimes seems like it's just for pleasure.
It speaks to the broader issue of how and where marketing should fit into these new – ostensibly more democratic – organic ways of connecting. If social media and brands were to publicly announce their relationship on Facebook, it would definitely fall under the "It's Complicated" option. On the one hand, the fact that brands are on social media at all speaks to its rapid rise to mainstream prominence: if brands are there, it's because there's value, both cultural and economic, in places like Twitter and Facebook.
On the other hand, from sites receiving free products to review, to so-called mommy bloggers like Heather "Dooce" Armstrong grappling with "sponsored posts," there's a sense that marketing's fit on social platforms is uneasy at best, in no small part because it can undercut the feeling that social media is meant to represent the "authentic" voices of its users. After all, in the case of Niche's facilitation of social stars and brands, it becomes difficult to ascertain where a creator begins and the marketing ends.
It's perhaps that intertwining of creativity and branding that is the worrisome aspect of an otherwise normal reaction to shifts in the market. Because social media involves individuals creating an audience, it's hard to escape the spectre of the personal brand – that a person's identity is a thing to be both protected and advertised. Fans of the kind of people featured by Niche seem not to distinguish between what is meant to entertain and enlighten and what is meant to sell.
If you believe that social media is just about promoting oneself, then that's fine. But Vines, blogs, tweets can also be novel modes of expression – and, in the right hands, can even be art; whether clever short fiction, or poignant moving images. They are the site of youthful creativity in the 21st century. Ideally, social media provides an outlet for young creative people to get their work out to the world. And certainly, it has in many cases done just that, such as with Ottawa-based beatbox star Julia Dales.
At the same time, the fact that a service like Niche not only exists but is succeeding and growing suggests that there is a increasing market pressure to "monetize" creativity. The idea that young artists can get paid in ways they never would have before is a boon for popular art.
But being sucked into the economics of art is never a neutral thing. The more bound up you are in the logic of the market, the harder it is to resist it. Though it's pointless to simply object to money in general, we also look to art to show us not just new things, but new ways of thinking. And in a world in which the idea of "the brand" has become so prominent, perhaps it's a little sad that social media may also be turning creativity itself into yet another opportunity to pitch a product.