After the American Civil War, southern states turned to sharecropping to regain some of the profits they lost after the abolition of slavery.
Sharecropping is an arrangement between landowners and farmers, where, in lieu of rent, landowners require tenants to pay for land usage by farming it and sharing profits with the landowner.
It sounds fair on its face, but consider that the tenants were the ones who owned the equipment, did the work, and held the risk. If a plow broke or a horse died, it was the farmer who incurred the expense. If the farmer decided they didn’t want to farm, the landowner evicted them and found a new farmer to take their place. If profits dried up, the farmer lost their farm, but the landowner kept their land.
The result was a form of servitude where power was firmly in the hands of landowners, and farmers had little choice but to stay put and keep working. There was little opportunity elsewhere.
Today, YouTube, Twitch and millions of creators are engaging in digital sharecropping. Creators are allowed to farm the platforms’ fields in exchange for a share of the profits — no rent required.
There’s been recent talk of the creator economy closely resembling the gig economy, where the burden of risk is put on creators and not shared with the platforms. Dedicating 40 hours a week for little to no financial return hurts the creator a lot more than the platform.
But YouTube and Twitch aren’t the same other platforms in the gig economy, like Uber and Lyft — they’re worse. The ride-sharing companies have very similar services and compete directly with one another for riders and drivers. YouTube and Twitch are very different from one another. If a YouTuber decides they’re unhappy with their arrangement with YouTube, they can’t necessarily take their content to Twitch. Twitch, as a platform, is too different for a YouTuber to expect to have the same or any level of success there.
Yet creating content for either Twitch or YouTube isn’t exactly servitude in the way sharecropping was. Unlike the sharecroppers of the 19th century, creators aren’t forced to generate a profit or face eviction.
Creators can choose to disable monetization while still enjoying all the other great features YouTube offers.
There’s some speculation that YouTube’s algorithm de-prioritizes videos that have monetization disabled. If creators want to enjoy the benefits of the algorithm without becoming sharecroppers, they could enable monetization only to donate the revenue to charity.
The most successful creators aren’t those who earn the most ad revenue or have the most subscribers. The most successful creators are those who have used YouTube and Twitch as marketing platforms for other revenue sources. They’re the creators who could survive YouTube giving them the boot. They’re creators who can continue reaching their audience with other platforms. They’re creators who have reached a level of professional freedom that’s harder to achieve than living off ad revenue alone, but much more gratifying.
To avoid becoming a sharecropper of the platforms’ fields, don’t let them become your primary source of income.