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Sensemaker: The new one-percenters

Sensemaker: The new one-percenters

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK’s minister for EU relations said it was time for an “entirely new” set of rules governing the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, less than two years after the first one was agreed (more below).
  • A coroner ruled that Gabby Petito, the US blogger whose body was found in Wyoming last month, was killed by strangulation. Her boyfriend Brian Laundrie is still missing.
  • Former child star Macaulay Culkin confirmed he was not in Home Sweet Home Alone, the Disney reboot of the 1990 Christmas classic.

The new one-percenters

“Jeff Bezos paid $970m for this, we’re giving it away for free.” With that sentence, last week, a user on the message board 4chan leaked 125 gigabytes of sensitive data from the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. The dump included the earnings of Twitch’s top “creators” – many of whom simply stream footage of themselves playing video games. The data shows the false promise of democratisation in a creator economy with growing investment and few protections, where wealth is concentrated at the very top.

The topline. Twitch talked up its community with the slogan “You’re already one of us”, a 2019 rebrand that it said aimed to make users “really feel like they matter”. But inclusive taglines don’t necessarily mean amount to widespread compensation. Over the course of two years, the amount Twitch pays to streamers has almost tripled. But of the $889 million paid to creators in 2021, more than half went to just 1 per cent. Only 5 per cent of streamers have made more than $1,000 in the past year. Just three of the top 100 streamers – excluding streams run by multiple people – are women.

The bigger picture. In 1896 the Italian civil engineer and economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed just 20 per cent of the pea plants in his garden were creating 80 per cent of his peas. Applying this observation to the Italian economy, he saw that 80 per cent of wealth was controlled by 20 per cent of the population. This principle applies in even starker terms not just to Twitch, but to other big creator sites. Such as…

  • Spotify: In 2018 the firm’s CEO told investors he wanted to give “a million creative artists” the chance to live off their work. That’s a long way off when 90 per cent of the platform’s royalties are shared among the top 0.8 per cent of artists. Rolling Stone estimates that the rest earn an average of just over $15 a month.
  • YouTube: Forbes estimates that Ryan Kaji, a nine-year-old creator who reviews toys among other things, earned $29.5 million between June 2019 and June 2020. He’s an outlier. Research by German scientists has found that just 3 per cent of YouTube channels receive 90 per cent of all traffic. If you are at the bottom end of that 3 per cent, you’ll still earn less than $17,000 a year on average. 
  • Patreon: In 2020 creators on the membership platform earned a combined $1 billion. And yet, research suggests less than 2 per cent of creators make the US federal minimum wage. Substack, a similar platform focused on writers, doesn’t have good data on what its average creator earns, but the top 10 writers on the platform make more than $20 million a year despite the fact as little as 5 per cent of total readers are paid subscribers to the site. Many of the most successful creators (who include Michael Moore and the former NYT writer Bari Weiss) joined Substack with ready-made audiences from previous work.

The upshot. The imbalances of the creator economy are not unlike those of the media landscape – especially in the US, where the NYT has more digital subscribers in California than the LA Times or San Francisco Chronicle (a phenomenon repeated across the country). This isn’t surprising when top YouTubers like Logan Paul resemble media companies more than they do less successful creators. If you’re out to make hay, creator platforms aren’t quite the empowering forces they claim to be.  

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Frosty the showman
From a luxury ambassador’s residence in Lisbon, David Frost, UK minister of state for EU relations, demanded a wholesale rewrite of the Northern Ireland Protocol that he negotiated with the EU to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. Frost’s principal demand is an end to European court (ECJ) jurisdiction in Brexit-related dispute resolution in Northern Ireland, something the EU has said it won’t countenance while the region is effectively in the single market. The EU is expected to set out proposals today that include reduced checks on goods and medicines, though these have little chance of satisfying Frost, who’s accused the EU of being “disrespectful” to Britain. Frost’s speech may have been a negotiating tactic aimed at setting up a Swiss-style dispute resolution mechanism independent of the ECJ. Or it may have been designed to pre-empt EU proposals and perpetuate a quarrel that still plays well – with some – at home. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

UK’s Covid numbers
While the rest of western Europe enjoys a relative respite from Covid infections, the UK has some of the worst Covid infection levels in the continent, despite having a vaccination rate comparable with its neighbours’. The UK is seeing an average of 554 new cases per million people every day. Only Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have more, while Sweden, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are among countries with fewer than 100 cases per million. In Portugal (60 cases per million) mask wearing remains mandatory on public transport and in certain indoor spaces. When I was there on a recent trip compliance appeared to be nearly 100 per cent – until the queue for my flight back to the UK. Portugal’s vaccination roll-out has been exceptional, but it sees the need for reasonable day-to-day precautions too.

New things technology, science, engineering

Shatner in space
All being well, at 1.30pm BST today, 90-year-old Star Trek legend William Shatner will blast off in Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket. A postcard he wrote ahead of the flight read: “This is the most important and practical concept for space use and for aiding in saving Planet Earth.” Shatner is great but one wonders if he’s drunk the Bezos Kool-Aid. In July the Amazon founder and executive chairman said he wanted to move “all polluting industry” into space. Meanwhile Amazon’s CO2 emissions grew 19 per cent last year, the equivalent of burning 140 million barrels of oil. It’s probably a stretch to see Blue Origin as part of the climate solution.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

‘Adapt or die’
The Environment Agency warned that hundreds of people could be killed in floods in the UK if effective defences aren’t put in place. The thrust of the agency’s report is that climate shocks are already baked into the environment, even if mitigation measures save the planet in the long-term. The agency wants more investment in protection against flooding, including in improving soil management to minimise run-off of rainwater. Its chair, Emma Howard Boyd, said: “It is adapt or die.” That is the ultimatum of someone who thinks the government isn’t listening.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Trump treasure hunt
The US State Department is looking into whether Trump officials made off with gifts meant for foreign dignitaries, including pewter trays and marble boxes bearing the name of the former president. The gifts were meant to go to world leaders at a 2020 G7 summit that ended up being cancelled due to Covid. For decades US presidents have received presents from foreign dignitaries, even though most now go directly to the National Archives (Trump’s haul included a ceramic dragon head from Vietnam’s president, an Ottoman Empire rifle from the Bulgarian prime minister and a hardwood bench carved in the shape of a jaguar from Jair Bolsonaro). Presidents give gifts too in a process that’s typically well-regulated, but it appears that the system fell apart under Trump.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Giles Whittell. 

Photographs Philippe Lopez/ AFP, Tolga Akmen / AFP, CBS, Ian Forsyth/Getty Images