When was the last time you heard someone say, “don’t forget to like, comment and subscribe” on TikTok? I’ve never heard it uttered, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. That’s because followers — TikTok’s version of subscribers — don’t contribute in any meaningful way to a creator’s reach. On TikTok, big and small creators compete on a level playing field.
That’s bad for both groups.
Creators with big followings on other platforms stay relatively small on TikTok because of competition with small creators in the feed. Small creators can never become as big on TikTok as big creators are on Instagram or YouTube because they don’t get the opportunity to methodically develop an audience.
The problem for creators lies in the fact that an algorithm — that is, a computer program — determines what content TikTok presents to users, rather than users explicitly deciding who to follow.
This is in stark contrast to the early days of social media, when feeds were sorted by recency and pulled from a list of creators users chose to follow. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all initially used this model. If a creator could get someone to subscribe or follow them, the creator could be confident their content would appear in front of their subscriber’s feeds. When users actively curate their own feeds in this way, creators win. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
Today, TikTok and YouTube are almost fully algorithmic. Instagram is moving aggressively toward showing users algorithmically-determined content that users don’t follow.
What a boon for small creators! New forms of discovery are always great for those who need to be discovered. However, creators with big followings aren’t happy. And why would they be? A feed with more creators is a feed with more competition for attention. The platforms have already told us that content that doesn’t see engagement won’t be shown to users, even if those users follow the creator.
And that’s the big threat TikTok poses. Users can’t get enough algorithmically curated content. Its popularity is forcing other platforms to adopt similar practices in order to maintain their user base.
If a creator can’t plant a flag in users’ feeds and stay there until that user decides to remove them, the creator doesn’t actually have an audience. When a creator’s content appears on someone’s feed, that creator is only borrowing the platform’s audience.
That raises the question: Can a creator earn a living borrowing their audience? The answer depends on how long they have access to that audience.
Here’s a thought experiment. If a creator had consistent access to 10 million viewers but only for five years, could they earn a living? They probably could. Five years is long enough to build a profitable monetization strategy and establish lasting business relationships. After the five years is over, they could leverage their previous success into a new success — a fashion line or a subscription box, for example.
Now let’s imagine a different creator who had brief access to 10 million viewers and didn’t know exactly when it would be. For example, one video received 10 million views six months after the creator started creating content. Could they make a living from that? Probably not. The creator never had time to develop credibility. They could never promote a product or service to another 10 million viewers.
Being able to predictably reach an audience is the foundation of making a living as a creator. Without that, creators have nothing. If the platforms take away the predictability of audience reach, it threatens creators’ hope of building a sustainable living.
I first wrote about the decreased importance of subscribers back in 2019. Today, it’s common for YouTubers, and especially TikTokers, to get most of their views from non-subscribers. Considering TikTok’s success with algorithm-powered content feeds, we should expect the other platforms to follow suit and ultimately do away with subscribers and followers in all but spirit. The result will be a digital landscape where creators have a much harder time establishing a long-term audience that can sustain a career.