The thorny problem of how creative people might get paid for content they put online has persisted for the best part of 20 years.
Jack Conte, chief executive of creative content platform Patreon – one of the companies seeking to solve that issue by encouraging subscription payments to creators – sees those past two decades as a period when distribution was thoroughly figured out, but the economics remained elusive.
“The next 20 years is going to be [about] rebuilding the financial engine to get creative people paid,” he said in a recent podcast interview.
Today, across the web, you can see that challenge being tackled head on. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are introducing new ways for creators to be paid for their music, jokes, advice or expertise.
Whole platforms, such as Substack, have been built on this single idea: audiences paying creators directly for what they do, rather than clicking on adverts to generate meagre pocket money.
Twitter is now launching two new features which seek to capitalise on this trend. Super Follows allows creators to accept subscription payments through the platform in return for exclusive content. Ticketed Spaces, meanwhile, expand Twitter’s burgeoning Spaces feature – essentially an audio chatroom, not dissimilar to a live podcast – to allow charging for admission.
“[These features] will allow creators and publishers to be directly supported by their audience and will incentivise them to continue creating content that their audience loves,” said Twitter.
Super Follows is being tested in the US, with a view to launching globally. To join the scheme you must be at least 18 years old, have 10,000 followers or more and tweet regularly (at least 25 tweets in the previous 30 days). If your application is accepted, you could charge people $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 a month to become your Super Follower. But what do you give them in return?
“It could be tweets, it could be DMs [direct messages]” said Kayvon Beykpour, product lead at Twitter, on The Verge podcast. “It could be subscriber-only Spaces. It could be subscriber-only newsletters. Think of it as stitching together all the current and new and upcoming forms of content that someone can create on the platform, and really having this new subscriber layer – a new community, essentially.”
This idea of community is central to Twitter’s new initiatives. Like Patreon, it believes that it isn’t about the quantity of content an audience member might get for their $2.99, but more about them recognising and rewarding creators whose work they value.
Ticketed Spaces has a similar community thrust: creators can charge a ticket price of between $1 and $999 in order to connect with their followers using voice, rather than the strict limits of a 280-character tweet.
Spaces has clear parallels with other new audio platforms such as Clubhouse and Greenroom, but Twitter is the first to offer paid admission (as opposed to a tipping feature), and Beykpour said that it’s “fundamentally Twitter”, for good or bad. It just has a new wrapper.
“I think the rise of this audio renaissance that’s happening right now is interesting,” he said. “[Having] serendipitous conversations with people, but doing it in a way that is synchronous rather than asynchronous, and powered by the human voice.”
After many years of remaining fairly static as a platform, these two new initiatives are part of a suite of features being added to Twitter as the firm seeks new revenue streams, including the forthcoming Twitter Blue subscription service, which is rumoured to include new features such as “undo tweet”.
Advertising accounted for 86 per cent of the platform’s revenue in 2020, according to Twitter's annual financial report, but a feature such as Super Follows could, if it works, net a new income stream for the firm, as well as the creators they’re trying to support.
Twitter will take 3 per cent of the first $50,000 in revenue (that’s after Apple and Google’s inevitable commission on in-app purchases), which increases to 20 per cent thereafter.
But the jury is out on whether it will work. One of the attractions of Twitter over the years has been its level playing field, enabling people in and out of the public eye to freely converse in a way they were never able to before.
Putting content behind a paywall could create a platform that’s far less egalitarian; more of a “them and us” scenario, where some people broadcast and the rest listen.
Creators may also have to get used to smaller audiences. Currently, Twitter can direct thousands or millions of people to viral tweets in a very short space of time, but charging will hugely restrict its visibility. It’s a reiteration of the burning question at the heart of the creator economy: do you want exposure or do you want to be paid?
Lastly, there’s the ever-present question of whether people will want to pay for things they’ve traditionally had for free – particularly when there’s a massive oversupply of things for us to read, watch and listen to.
Bekypour’s take is, naturally, a positive one: “You have a tremendous amount of incentive to create some form of content for all to see, because that’s how you build an audience. And then some percentage of your super fans will totally be willing to pay for content that is exclusive.”
Patreon has shown that the idea of a closer community yielding a financial pay-off can work, but when YouTube tried it – with paid channels, fan funding and channel memberships – none caught on. Patreon’s Conte believes that enabling a flourishing, financially rewarded creative sector is really down to trust in the platform itself.
Whether we trust Twitter to successfully mediate between talent and audience is something that the next few months will slowly reveal.