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A TikTok strike highlighted issues of compensation and race in the creator economy

Black youth have been some of the earliest adopters of social media platforms, driving popularity and revenue, but are often not compensated, experts say.

On TikTok, when Megan Thee Stallion drops a new song, a dedicated dance trend is not far behind.

But that’s not what happened after the June release of her song “Thot S---.” Instead, Black creators on the app announced a kind of strike, saying they would abstain from creating a dance trend for others to co-opt.

The strike is at least the second time the Black users have held an on-app protest regarding their treatment on the platform, igniting an even larger discussion about ownership, compensation and equity within the digital economy. Black creators and creators of color say they are frustrated and fed up with being major contributors to not only the content and culture of a platform like TikTok but also a driving force behind the popularity of an app run by the $250 billion company ByteDance.

“African American youth have always been early adopters of different social platforms, if it's Twitter, if it was Instagram. Certainly Snapchat, TikTok, Vine," said S. Craig Watkins, director of the Institute for Media Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin. "A whole sort of long laundry list of platforms that Black users were some of the earliest adopters, some of the most inventive content creators, and yet have never been really adequately recognized or compensated for what they bring to those platforms,”

@theericklouis

If y’all do the dance pls tag me 🙄 it’s my first dance on Tik tok and I don’t need nobody stealing/not crediting

♬ Thot Shit - Megan Thee Stallion

In response to these growing concerns, some major platforms have made attempts to support their Black communities.

After a May 2020 Blackout on TikTok, an on-app protest to fight censorship and other concerns, TikTok announced it would create an incubator for Black creatives as well as a fund to support Black creativity. Other platforms, like YouTube, which announced a fund for Black creatives called the #YouTubeBlack Voices Fund, made similar moves.

But funds and countless statements about the importance of diversity within their communities are hollow when creators of color say they see few systemic, long-reaching benefits.

“Let's stop celebrating creator funds, incremental creator features, and shallow rhetoric about creator empowerment. All of these will fail to solve creators' economic precarity, so long as we fail to fix the fundamental issue, which is OWNERSHIP,” tweeted Li Jin, managing partner at Atelier, an early stage Venture Capital firm.

Jin went on to write that without ownership of their content, creators are merely enriching others.

“Without ownership, creators are ultimately enriching and empowering *someone else* — platform owners — with their work. The value they create is fed back into a system that commoditizes and treats creators as disposable labor,” she wrote.

But the influencer world is a comparatively new part of the economy, and there is less regulation, less emphasis on compensation for somewhat ephemeral trends, and greater confusion about who is considered the owner of intangible pieces of internet culture.

“There are people who are having these conversations around digital labor, around how do you restructure the power dynamics between those who create content versus the platforms who benefit from that content. I still think we’re still in the early, early days of all of this,” Watkins said.

These issues also tap into larger societal issues of cultural appropriation and oppression, according to experts like Raven Maragh-Lloyd, an assistant professor of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Maragh-Lloyd said unfair labor and compensation practices are not new with the advent of the creator economy and influencer culture, but date back decades and touch every facet of our culture from film to music to fashion. She added that while appropriation and the co-opting of Black creativity in some industries and platforms is more obvious, apps like TikTok are somewhat more complicated.

“TikTok is a new kind of player in that it was specifically built, I would argue, to copy and share content without credit to the original author,” Maragh-Lloyd said. “The whole point of TikTok is to copy.”

She added that with that format in place, and because users don’t see how a user’s views and likes on the platform are being converted into financial compensation, appropriation happens with far greater ease.

“I think TikTok is in strange waters when it comes to appropriation,” Maragh-Lloyd said.

Similar to the incidents of appropriation and repackaging of Black culture offline, there are numerous examples of incidents of misappropriated fame and compensation happening online.

One of the most famous examples from recent years is that of Jalaiah Harmon, who choreographed one of TikTok’s biggest dance phenomena, the "Renegade."

Jalaiah created the moves when she was 14, and the dance exploded in popularity on TikTok. However, those who were most associated with the moves, and thus profited off them, were white TikTok stars like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae. In 2020, Forbes listed Rae as the highest-paid TikTok star at $5 million and D’Amelio as the second highest-paid at $4 million. Both made their multimillion-dollar careers, in significant part, by posting dance trend videos to the platform. While Jalaiah has earned brand deals with major companies like Samsung, Netflix and Prada, according to Forbes, it’s unclear how much money she makes.

“On TikTok, these black creators, we run these subcategories. We're at the forefront of dance trends, music, fashion, etc. We drive all this traffic to TikTok, and it feels like that’s all we're there for. We’re black bodies who feed into this system and who give this single, insurmountable amount of popularity to the app, and we don’t get any credit, we don’t get the same clout,” said Erick Louis, 21, a content creator from Orlando, Florida.

One way to ensure that creators are compensated and given ownership of their work would be something akin to a digital labor rights movement, which may already be in its infancy, Watkins said.

It appears that digital labor is already on the minds of some unions. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, a labor union representing performers, announced this year that the union would cover internet influencers and content creators.

“I can imagine, in the not too distant future, these content creators, people who are working in the digital economy, organizing and mobilizing for greater rights, greater power and greater influence in terms of how these platforms operate,” he said.