Patreon’s Thaniya Keereepart is dedicated to helping creatives make a living from their work, a challenging conceit in a world of social media views, and companies replacing paychecks with “exposure.” In her 99U talk, Thaniya explains the changing economics of creative work, and helps creators, clients, and consumers alike understand how they can support a stronger marketplace.
Read more about Thaniya’s approach in this 99U interview.
About Thaniya Keereepart: Thaniya is the Head of Product, Creator Experience at Patreon, where she helps creatives make a living through patronage support from their biggest fans. Her passion lies at the intersection of human-computer interaction, design, and behavioral economics.
Thaniya is the former founding Head of Mobile and platforms and Head of Product at TED, where she was responsible for overall strategic direction, investment, product, growth, and operations on all non-web platforms. Prior to TED, Thaniya led product development for live game experiences at Major League Baseball for seven years. Her work has been recognized by the Emmy Awards, the Peabody Awards, Adobe MAX, the Webby Awards, DigiDay, and the prestigious Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards.
Thaniya has advised on various projects for StoryCorps, National Geographic Learning, Women’s March Global, and For Freedoms.
What do you want to be when you grow up? The age-old question that we get ever since we show a sign of interest in anything as a child. For me, I wanted to be a wildlife photographer following Sir David Attenborough into the Serengeti, stalking wild animals. Except I knew nothing about wildlife photography or nature documentaries. I just watched a bunch of documentary films and I got inspired, and that’s what I wanted to do. But I grew up with a tiger dad who also happens to be an economist. And so, my dreams and imaginations are often reeled in with a dose of reality. “Oh my dear, whatever it is that you do when you grow up, you need to be able make a living from it.” Partly profound, dad.
But, as a child, everything was novel. Make a living, what is that? So it turns out, wanting to be a wildlife photographer was a bit farfetched for somebody who grew up in Bangkok. Most people back then wanted to be a doctor or maybe an airline pilot if they’re really wild. Fast-forward a couple of decades later, I am not a wildlife photographer, you guys. But, something has happened. Because the answer to this question has itself gone wild. This exists. Not, I want to build useful robots, or I wanna build scary robots that’s gonna take us all into an episode of Black Mirror, but I want to build shitty robots. And somebody out there is making a living doing this very thing. But wait, there’s more. This exists. This legitimately exists. There’s a group of kids that are in their pajamas playing video games. And that is what they do for a living.
Now if you ask somebody 20 years ago that the creative future could look like this, they would probably do a major eye roll. And yet, here we are today. This is Simone Giertz. She builds shitty robots for a living, and I’m gonna show you a little bit of her clip. It is such a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Humanity’s greatest collection of imagination on display. I have to ask, are we finally at a point where the creative profession finally sees a great burst of expansion? Can we really make a living out of filming our imaginative pursuits and putting them online? Today, I’m gonna talk about what currently works and what doesn’t from an economic standpoint, obviously.
So, let’s start with this. What does it mean to be able to make a living doing anything? Well, put simply, if I made a thing, and you want that thing at a price that’s higher than my cost, then we have a transaction. And I can grow from there. But if your willingness to pay is less than the price of the thing that I made, then we don’t have a transaction. Then I could go in a corner and cry, try to change my thing so that the cost basis is lower, or change my product altogether so that it commands a higher price. Either one of those could work.
Now, in terms of things, this also actually works with skill. You’ve got skill, somebody wants your skill, we’re good. Or, maybe they don’t want something that I’ve already made, but commission me to do something that they want and I can do that. And so long as I’m willing to do that, then we still have a transaction. So essentially what makes trade economy work is that there is willing to create on one side, which is the supply side, and the willingness to pay on the other side, which is the demand side. And the relationship between the creators and the consumer is what’s driving the supply and demand equilibrium. Now with almost eight billion humans worldwide, the exchange looks a little bit more like this.
Luckily, technology has made this big messy middle a lot more bearable. If you’re a designer, you could put your portfolio on Behance, and people from around the world can get to it and see your skill. If you are a photographer, you can put your photographs on 500px, and they’ll help you to license your photos out. If you have a beautiful little hut in Bali, Airbnb connects you to all the people around the world who might want to stay there. If you knit dog sweaters, Etsy has you and the dogs covered. The list goes on and on. Marketplace platforms charge us a nominal fee in order to facilitate a supply and demand transaction at scale. Now, what makes this work is transparency and direct transaction. People who want my stuff pays for my stuff. It works so well that the marketplace platform economy is now 10 trillion dollars, and it has enabled all kinds of people around the world to be able to follow their creative pursuits and be able to make a living doing those very things.
But what if I love making online content? What if I love filming myself doing stupid shit? Can I actually make a living do this? Well, let’s see. The online content space is equally large and equally lively. On any given day, an average person actually spends up to 40 minutes on their phone watching YouTube per day. That’s a lot. And there are 50 million creators just on YouTube alone. And one billion hours of videos gets watched across the world in a single day. And that’s just YouTube. Not the entire content industry. So it’s pretty big.
So what does trade economy look like in the content space? Well, we know the cost of creating a video, but it turns out, on the demand side, us consumers, well, we don’t want to pay for content. We love them, but we don’t want to pay for them. We don’t want to think about the things that we read, we watch, and we listen to, how much it cost, the time and material. Except there’s price to creating the content, hosting them, putting them out online. So, who’s facilitating the supply and demand equilibrium in this space?
Now the reason why we consumers are not willing to pay for content is because we’re used to the days of television and radio. Somebody else is paying for it. We assume that some big studio is funding the production, and then it snowballs into distribution and licensing, and then it snowballs into advertising, and voila, it shows up on our screen and we’re sitting on a couch, conveniently, comfortably watching, listening, reading. Except, today, content creation has been democratized. Anybody can put anything online. And technology has facilitated the distribution of it. And so the funding model on the content creation side has changed, but we are still couch potatoes. We’re still not willing to pay for them.
So now advertising begins to play a larger intermediary role in the supply and demand chain. So the trade economy now looks something like this. You know this. We watch those 30 seconds pre-roll ad. Are we doing it for the altruism nature of it all? I mean, are we just really kinda in love with the brands that parade themselves before us? Or are we really in it to help YouTube make more money from advertisers? No, neither one of those. We continue to give our attention to these ads instead of opening our wallets because we are willing to pay for convenience, and in some ways, we believe it to be a form of payment upstream to those who make the content for us.
There’s three problems. The first is that only a tiny sliver of the price of our attention as consumers actually goes to benefit the content creator. Last year, the amount of ad revenue that YouTube pays content creators for the videos that they put online averages out to about $1.50 to $3.00 per thousand video views. The exact amount is somewhat hard to calculate because it varies and it depends on a whole lot of factors. Now, if you’re at the top echelon of YouTube creators, then for that same 1,000 views you’d make more money. Meanwhile, the same time last year, the advertisers pay YouTube an average of $9.68 to put ad content in front of your video. And so let’s do some basic math.
Let’s say you are an average YouTube creator, and your video hits a million views. Essentially, you’d take home somewhere between $1,500 and $3,000 for your video. That’s really great. But that’s actually 30% of the total revenue that’s made on your video. Imagine that little beautiful hut that you have in Bali. If you had charged $100 a night for it on Airbnb and Airbnb turns around and takes $70 out of that $100, would you be okay with that?
Now this is just how online advertising works. It’s just the whole industry, it’s not just YouTube. But maybe, from a creator’s perspective, maybe this isn’t about profit maximization. Maybe it is about the ability to express yourself online through content creation. Maybe it is about that, because there are, let’s remember, 50 million of them on the platform. But maybe, maybe we’re all lead to believe that those creative self-expression and all of that stuff is what matters to us, and not necessarily the sustainability of our work. And for us consumers, the price of our attention for every single time that we watch those ads and we think that it’s gonna go towards the people who create the content that we like, just remember that only a sliver of that actually goes there.
Problem number two. Every single company exists to maximize profits. We know this. And in the content space, maximization of profits means everybody wants you to engage with more content. The longer you engage with content, the more ads you see, the more ads you see, the more money the company makes. This is fine. Except we have one key important flaw as human beings. And that is, we are equally interested in the ingenious and humorous content that we absolutely love as much as the disturbing, polarizing content that we don’t love. Machine learning is the mirror of our own humanity. It learns quite quickly that we can’t not watch that which disturbs us. And so it does what it’s designed to do in the recommendation engine. Give us more of it. When we engage with disturbing content, we incentivize the people who create disturbing content. Problem number three. There is a big price tag to our attention. We’re not really sure what that is quite yet. Whether or not it’s our attention, our time, or our data. Whenever we see, oh, I don’t know, a commercial for a bar soap or maybe a propaganda fly-through, time, and time, and time again, well, the repetition of the things that we see over and over again acts as a slow and steady behavior modification tool. It works this way since the dawn of marketing. It continues to work.
Except everyone now has more data. And no one, to date, is effective at moderating advertisers. So, you might be thinking, oh my god, I’m picking on YouTube. Actually, no, I’m picking on the entire industry. If you substitute YouTube with any big social content platform, the narrative is not that different. And we are not here by accident. We are here by design. Now, from the creator side, if you create content and you want that to be something that you do for fun, that’s fine and dandy, it’s beautiful, and I absolutely think that’s amazing.
But if you want to do what you love to do to be something to sustain your living, if you wanna make a living doing that thing that you love, the two things that you need to care about, as a creator, is subscribers and views. Now, growing subscribers and reviews require that you make content not just once, but continuously. This grows your cost continuously. And you have to chase fame. Fame is ephemeral, fame favors the few. In fact, only 3% of YouTube creators makes up 90% of the view on any given day. Is it worth it? How much effort is it gonna take you to get to 1,000 subscribers, 10,000 subscribers, a million views? We did the math earlier. Now, maybe, maybe you put up one video and then I just randomly hit a million views overnight, and that’s really awesome. But can you keep that up?
Now whether or not it’s ad revenue or brand deals, if you’re big enough to land one of those, the return on investment for your work is not very transparent. It’s very hard to really think about, well, is it worthwhile? But most importantly, most importantly, your transaction as a creator is not with the people who love your work. It is with the advertisers who is financing you so they can get to your fans. Jaron Lanier said this in his recent TED Talk. “We cannot have a society in which, “if two people wish to communicate, “the only way that can happen is if it’s financed “by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.” The trade economy in the content space, it’s functional. But it is not designed for the humans that make it beautiful. Not the creators, not the consumers.
So what now, what should we do, what could a better future look like? Well the one thing I know to be certain is that the advertising industry is not going away. And advertising in general is not a bad thing. I actually think there’s a lot of really beautiful, creative things that comes out of advertising. But maybe there should be alternatives. Well, we know that this works. We know creators are willing to create. Could consumers start to be willing to pay for the things that they like? There are currently three models that’s working right now. The first is the membership model. Patreon, Memberful, these are platforms that allows creators to build direct relationships with their fans. They could potentially put their content up behind a subscription wall, or they could continue to put their content freely out into the wild and create exclusive perks that is only available to their biggest fans. Either way, this is the model where the person who likes your thing is actually paying you for the things that you make.
The second model is a revenue share model. Medium pays its content creator from the subscription money that they get from their reader memberships. So if you write on Medium, you could make about $450 for about 5,000 reads of a single article. And if you write more, you make more. If you write better quality articles, people clap more for it, then you make more. So that model is really great because it encourages quality over quantity. YouTube Premium is also starting to play in this space as well.
The third model is your traditional, good old digital subscription model. You pay for HBO, you get HBO. Now what is common across all of these three models, what is important for it to all work, is consumers’ willingness to pay. I’m gonna read, I added this last minute, I’m gonna read you a little letter. It came from Brandon Stanton, who runs Humans of New York, and it’s called Feeling Grateful. “Hi, I’m currently in Rwanda. My intention was to interview random people as always, “but while on the ground, I had an idea for a series. I decided to focus on the stories of people who rescued others during genocide. I’m calling it The Rescuers. These stories are important. It’s important to never forget the depths that humanity can sink to. But also that even in the darkest moments, you will find a shining example of good. The reason why I’m feeling grateful is that this series is exactly the type of work that Patreon enables. Your support allows me to ignore what’s lucrative and focus on what’s important. So thank you. I’ll be posting the series next month. Know that you played a large part in its creation.”
The Rescue is available right now on Humans of New York website freely, so you can check that out if you’re interested. Back to the beginning. Now, 10 years from now, I would love nothing more than this very talk to be completely obsolete. I would love for, when somebody said that when I grow up, I want to build shitty robots, for that to just land normally as if somebody also said, I want to be a doctor. I would love for all of us who draw, who write poems, who make music, who paint happy little trees, to be able to do so and to make a living doing those things, being supported by the people who like what we do. I actually think we’re almost there. It works in the world of the creative trade, and it almost works for content, almost. I think we can get there.
So this is called the 90-9-1 Rule of Engagement. If I am convincing today, 90% of you will do the bare minimum, 9% of you will go just a little bit further, and 1% of you, just maybe, will go to the far reaches of land and try to change the paradigm. Now, for the 90%, the next time you watch videos, read the news, or whatever, listen to your podcast, take a moment and pause and observe the price of your attention, of your time. Consider where it’s going. For the 9% of you, if you have a favorite creator, whatever medium it is that that’s in, see if you can support them directly. Even if you can get the content for free. Because it is only through us funding content creation can we make the trade economy for content transparent and direct. And now for the 1% of you, perhaps maybe those of you in the position to invoke change, or one who want their grand challenge.
Well, the grand challenge is this. How might we convert all the couch potatoes out there into paying consumers? I go out, I want coffee, I pay for my coffee. It is not a big step. But it is a change, and it is a large-scale change. I don’t have an answer for it, but what I do know is this. Design is a discipline of anticipation. Design uses human instincts to drive behavioral change. And we have always been able to design a world we intend. And so if we intend to create a trade economy for content that benefits the humans that makes it beautiful, ingenious, hilarious, well then, the possibility is as wide as the space we create for it. And maybe one of you here in this room will make that happen.