The Emerging Digital Economy of Content Creation

Content creation, according to the Pew Research Center, is, “…contribut[ing] to the online commons by creating or contributing to Web sites, posting photos, and sharing files,” (Lenhart, Fallows, & Horrigan, 2004). For example, content creation includes posting a video on YouTube, a photo on Instagram, a tweet on Twitter, or a blog on WordPress.

The economy of content creation is often interchangeably referred to as the sharing economy or gig economy (Bulajewski, 2018; Presland, 2015; Rinne, 2017; Schor, 2014; Smith, 2016). It can also be called the freelance economy (Darell, 2011; Freelancers Union, 2014; FreeTrain, 2019; Lund, 2015; Rinne, 2017). One source described the content creation economy as simply the content economy (Hil, 2018).

According to Rinne (2017), these economies are not interchangeable and are their own separate digital economies. Rinne defines the sharing economy as, “…the sharing of underutilized assets, monetized or not, in ways that improve efficiency, sustainability, and community.” The gig economy is defined as, “…income generation via ‘gigs’, single projects, or tasks for which a works is hired.” The freelance economy, in Rinne’s definition, is similar to the gig economy expect freelancers are self-employed with more long-term work. Content creation, according to Rinne, would be a part of the gig and freelance economies.

Bulajewski (2018), however, disagrees. Bulajewski acknowledges the interchangeability of terms sharing economy and gig economy and takes a different approach to what the sharing economy really means. He states, “[The term sharing economy] is primarily used to refer to the ‘sharing’ of physical goods or labor. Since the ‘sharing’ occurs in exchange for money, critics have frequently noted that ‘selling’ is the more accurate term.” In Bulajewski’s definition, the sharing economy does encompass the gig economy because both are occurring in exchange for money, specifically labor in the case of content creation.

The sharing and gig economies do not just encompass the content creation digital economy. The sharing economy can describe apps such as AirBnB, Zipcar, or Uber (Bulajewski, 2018; Schor, 2014). The gig economy can also describe those same apps and other apps that the Pew Research Center defined as:

…any websites or mobile apps that connect workers directly with people who want to hire them, that require workers to create a user profile in order to find or accept work assignments, and that coordinate payments to workers once their task is complete (Smith, 2017).

The sharing economy can also describe remix and remediation. Remix is creating something new from something that already exists like remixing a song. Remediation is taking old media from one medium to another like a physical book to a digital book.

The content creation digital economy is possible because of what O’Reilly (2005) termed as ‘Web 2.0’ (as cited in Pulver, 2017). Pulver (2017) described O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 as a “web-as-platform model” that was, “…built on a more transparent and cooperative ethos and propelled by social practices of networking, collaboration, participation, and sharing,” (p. 192). This web-as-platform model is evident in social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube who provide platforms for users to create and share content.

In this web-as-platform model, the platforms control the means of profit and generate profit from the content created by its users. According to Lanier (2013), “…we have forgotten that wisdom and decided that when it comes to digital networks, more and more people will not be paid for what they do even though what they’re doing is needed.” This idea of exploitation is shared by Bulajewski (2018), Hil (2018), and Lund (2015), who all describe the potential in this economy but the ultimate failure. Bulajewski (2018) goes so far as to call the economy dystopian.

Platforms not only can control the means of profit, but also a content creator’s ability to monetize. According to Hil (2018), “Social media algorithms change and fewer people see your posts. Monetization rules are tightened or require a lot of subscribers,” (Hil, 2018). Bulajewski (2018) describes a similar issue of anonymous ratings systems and “deactivations” where there are no labor protections. Content creators are at the whim of the platforms who can decide their monetary fate.

In addition to the platforms controlling the means to profit and profiting from the content created, content creators also face the issue of the free internet. According to Lanier (2013), “Jobs involving communication and expression (music, journalism and so forth) are suddenly much harder to come by, because information is now held to be free.” This free internet eliminates jobs that were once present through offering free services and information leaving the elite to profit. Lanier’s solution to this issue would be a micropayment system and monetization.

For writers specifically, according to an article titled 13 Writers Speak Out About Life Down on the Content Farm on the website Making a Living Writing (Editor, 2018), exploitation comes in the form of content mills. The article states:

They’ve been called content mills, content farms, bid sites, broker platforms, and many other less kind names, too. But whatever you call them, websites that pit loads of writers against each other in a race to the bottom on price…

These content mills suffer many of the same ailments of the content creation digital economy as a whole, but rather than a specific web-as-platform model, the exploitation is not a platform but a business.

Lund (2015) describes a similar occurrence with what she terms as freelancing. For Lund, pricing transparency and competition on digital platforms is an issue. She states:

Just as e-commerce marketplaces tend to bring down the price of products sold online, talent platforms put pressure on the prices associated with services. Many of the jobs created by contingent work platforms do not add up to a living wage.

Workers lack protections of standard work positions in the United States, leaving freelancers vulnerable. In Lund’s opinion, instituting new policies and protections that, “…all of the participants — including the workers — to enjoy the economic upside,” (Lund, 2015) is the next step.

Schor (2014) takes a similar approach to Lund (2015). She acknowledges the issues of labor exploitation stating, “While some of the platforms present a gentle face to the world, they can also be ruthless,” (Schor, 2014). She also discusses the possibilities of sharing platforms, “There is potential in this sector for creating new businesses that allocate value more fairly, that are more democratically organized, that reduce eco-footprints, and that can bring people together in new ways.” Her vision for the sharing economy is a utopian and cooperative Web 2.0.

Presland (2015) and Farnworth (2015) ignore the exploitation aspect of the content creation digital economy and instead focus on the positives. Both discuss the accessible nature of the new web where in-depth technological knowledge is not necessary. Each discuss the possibilities rather than acknowledge any exploitative aspects or downsides.

Presland’s (2015) idea of this new digital age of content creation is one where anyone can become a content creator, brand, and entrepreneur and everyone should. She states, “…we are all now co-creators — creating with, instead of for our customers, and the model is open for all of us to be a part of.” In her viewpoint, the sharing economy is a truly open, sharing, and collaborative space. With no restrictions on content on the web (Pomerantz, 2015), Presland’s (2015) sharing economy is unlimited.

The idea of an open, collaborative, and sharing internet in Presland’s (2015) content creation economy is shared by Lessig (2012). Lessig describes content creation in the sharing economy in terms of remix and remediation. In Lessig’s description, creators are not out for profit.

A survey conducted by the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk (2014) supports this more positive view of the content creation digital economy. The respondents were more positive than not on the growth, demand, and potential for earnings in freelancing, which was the specific terminology of the survey. Millennials were the most positive about freelancing and the most likely to pursue that type of career.

The demographics were similar in a study by the Pew Research Center (Smith, 2017). In that study, which also included online tasks and ride hailing, the most likely participants in the “online gig platforms” (the term the study used), were young adults, non-whites, and lower-income Americans. It stated that 18-29-year-olds are the largest demographic and roughly five times larger than those ages 50 and over (Smith, 2017).

According to the Pew Research Center (Smith, 2017), “Nearly one-in-ten American adults (8%) report that they have earned money from some type of digital work platform in the last year, often by doing online tasks.” In total, “…some 24% of American adults have earned money in the “platform economy” over the last year,” (Smith, 2017).

Despite nearly a quarter of US adults earning money on digital platforms, opinions are not necessarily favorable (Smith, 2017). While 68% said gig work was great for those who need a flexible work schedule, only 16% said it was the kind of job a person can make a career out of (Smith, 2017).

The digital economy of content creation is still emerging and ever-changing. Whether it is a dystopian nightmare as Bulajewski (2018) states; a fixable and currently exploitative system as Hil (2018), Lanier (2013), and Lund (2015) contend; or a utopian dream as Presland (2015) and Farnworth (2015) believe, it may not be that tomorrow. The platforms may hold the power today, despite whether Presland (2015) and Farnworth (2015) acknowledge it, but they may not hold the same power tomorrow or another day in the future.

O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 (as cited in Pulver, 2017) drastically changed the web, laws and protections for content creators can drastically change the monopoly platforms have on monetization and profit of content created by content creators. This is evident in Creative Commons, which offers copyright licenses for creative digital works. These copyright licenses protect content creators’ content and allow creators to choose their preferred level of sharing from holding all the rights to their own creation to allowing their creation to be in the public domain.

Works Cited

Bulajewski, M. (2018, December 12). The Sharing Economy Was Dead on Arrival. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Darell, R. (2011, August 1). Freelance at a Glance [Digital image]. Retrieved April 24, 2019, from

Editor. (2018, December 31). 13 Writers Speak Out About Life Down on the Content Farm. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Farnworth, D. (2015, August 03). The Unstoppable Rise of the Digital Content Creator. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk. (2014, September 3). 53 Million Americans Now Freelance, New Study Finds [Press release]. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from

Hil, L. (2018, February 26). How Content Creators Earn. Is the System Broken? Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Lanier, J. (2013, June 8). Fixing the Digital Economy. The New York Times. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Lenhart, A., Fallows, D., & Horrigan, J. B. (2004, February 29). Content Creation Online. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from

Lessig, L. (2012). REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law. In Mandiberg M. (Ed.), The Social Media Reader (pp. 155-169). NYU Press. Retrieved from

Lund, S. (2015, October 30). What the Rise of the Freelance Economy Means for the Future of Work. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Pomerantz, J. (2015). Metadata. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Presland, C. (2015, April 01). The Sharing Economy: What It Means for Authors and Content Creators (and how to not miss out). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Pulver, C. J. (2017). Web 2.0 Writing as Engine of Information Capital. In Economies of Writing: Revaluations in Rhetoric and Composition (pp. 191-202). Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Rinne, A. (2017, December 13). What exactly is the sharing economy? Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Schor, J. (2014, October). Debating the Sharing Economy. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Smith, A. (2017, December 27). The Gig Economy: Work, Online Selling and Home Sharing. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from

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