Patreon CEO Jack Conte Q&A: Social Media Giants Are Getting It Wrong

Patreon CEO Jack Conte
Patreon CEO Jack Conte in Austin, Texas for SXSW 2024. Hutton Supancic for SXSW

As social media platforms grow into profit machines, many of them have stopped building up their content creators, according to Jack Conte, the co-founder and CEO of Patreon, a creator-focused subscription and membership platform that seeks to change that.

Conte closed out this week’s SXSW conference with a keynote presentation today (Mar. 15) about how social media companies are working against creators in favor of profitability. Conte spoke about how major platforms like Facebook began ranking posts based on user engagement, which eventually changed the nature of these sites from a place to discover creators to a recommendation machine that only promotes content that the ranking algorithm thinks users should see. As a result, creators now have a harder time gaining a following and building a dedicated fanbase.

“We only saw it in retrospect, but now I think of the 2010s as the decade of ranking, the decade when the original promise of the creator-led community, the true follow, was broken for the first time,” Conte said during his keynote today.  

Patreon provides a platform for creators to sell subscriptions to audio and video content. Conte, a musician in two bands named Scary Pockets and Pomplamoose, co-founded the platform in 2013 with developer Sam Yam as a way to monetize his own videos.

Earlier this week (March 12), Observer spoke with Conte about his thoughts on the problematic trends in the creator economy and how his company is working to build a better future for content creators. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Observer: The title of your keynote is “Death of the Follower and the Future of Creativity. What do you mean by the “Death of the Follower?”

Jack Conte: TikTok was one of the first platforms that came around and basically said, “We’re not even going to worry about follows and subscriptions aren’t a thing we care about or work on. And that’s why I think you see creators on TikTok getting millions of views with one video and then a thousand views the next video. And you sort of bounce up and down like that because you don’t really have a direct relationship with your fans on that platform. 

Your distribution is up to the whims of the platform and the distribution algorithms that govern it. So the shift that happened was toward that style of content feed. Specifically, YouTube followed with Shorts, and Instagram followed with Reels. But it wasn’t just short-form vertical video, it was an emphasis on recommendations and algorithmic curation because that drove really strong engagement on the platforms.

If you look at the way the internet is organized, it’s shifted from a follower-based, creator-led community based organization to curation and recommendations and personalization that I think is really bad for creative people. It’s harder to build a business, it’s harder to energize your fan base, it’s harder to have a community, it’s hard to manage your community. It’s hard to tell your community new things that’s happening in your life. 

It doesn’t have to be like that. The shift to curation and personalization is not the way it must go down. There needs to be a way to reach those people and build an energized community as opposed to just having communities die off as the shift to personalization precipitates across the web. 

Have you talked to creators lately? What kinds of things have they expressed that they need from these platforms? 

I can’t think of a creator that I know through Patreon or just in my personal life who hasn’t felt this shift over the last four years. It started even before that with post ranking. Ranking algorithms were focused on engagement and ad revenue, which was great for their business and the right decision. But what it meant for creators was our posts are getting pushed all the way down to the bottom of the feed and we’re not able to talk to our fans anymore.

There was a group of creators whom I met with once a week for 12 weeks as part of a creator club that I did where we just talked about what’s working and what’s not. One of those creators emailed me a year later and was like, “I’m hanging up my hat. Overnight changes to the way Facebook distributes content, reduced traffic to my pages by 80 percent, and I have to sell my house.” I wish that was an exception to the rule, but that’s actually what’s happening now. 

What is the argument for these companies as to why they should care how well creators do on their platforms as long as people are still visiting their sites and they’re getting ad dollars?

I don’t think they do, and I don’t think they have a business reason to, and that bothers me as a creator. Their customer is the advertiser, so why should they prioritize creative people and their work? Well, because it’s the right freaking thing to do. But is that their job as corporations? Clearly it isn’t. 

I think they are making the right business decisions for their revenue models. The vast majority of their revenue, 90 plus percent of it, is coming from advertisers, and they have to maximize engagement on their platforms to sell ads. It just so happens that that’s not the best thing for creators. I think the argument is that there ought to be a better way for creators to build communities and fandoms. 

Do you see a parallel to creators in the media landscape, like Big Media or corporate media? 

Yes, the parallel between creators and media companies is real. Actually creators and media companies want similar things, which is to provide utility to the audience they’re serving. Big Media feels kind of thrashed around by social media platforms over the last four years. That’s how creators feel, too: it’s hard to reach people.

What is Patreon doing to solve this problem?

Patreon is a media community and business platform for fandoms and creators as opposed to just a membership platform. Not all creators want to do memberships, and not all fans want to pay for memberships. So we started to expand outside of membership into more holistic media and community and business tools for creators.

A lot of fans aren’t yet ready to pay, but they consider themselves true fans of the creator. They want to see what the creator has to say and they want to have a tight-knit relationship with the creator in that community. And so we’ve found a way to do that. We call it free membership: It’s kind of like a follow, but it’s gated behind an email. What that does is it puts the control in the creator’s hands and they can build a community of free members that they have a direct line of communication to. 

We also built a community product called Chats, which allows creators to set up a community where fans can talk with each other and with the creator, in an effort to help creators build what we call energized fandoms. I think the problem with the way it exists on other platforms is the fandom doesn’t get energy as the fandom gets older. The fandom is sort of zapped of its energy as it progresses through time, because those fans aren’t seeing the work of the creator. Those posts aren’t rising to the top and they’re not getting a chance to hang out with other fans and build their enthusiasm.

Do you think that we are past the days of online public forums, especially now as individual or group creators can kind of create these spaces for themselves? 

I don’t know if those days are over, but it’s certainly changed and it certainly feels like we’re starting to break apart into smaller, more manageable, in my opinion, more healthful groups of people. I don’t think the big open spaces will go away. Those maximum broadcast channels will continue to be there, but I think people will likely want to spend more time with smaller groups of people that they have deeper connections with. 

Why do you believe smaller groups are more “healthful?” Can you expand on that a bit?

I think having a smaller group of people that we have really intimate deep relationships with is a much more pleasant experience as a human being. You can be more vulnerable, you can share more, you can be more of yourself without feeling worried that people are judging. You can find it’s easier to find belonging instead of constantly being subjected to people whose values you don’t share, yelling at you while you’re wrong. You’re among a group of like-minded people, which is how our brains are designed. So, something about all that feels a bit more healthy to me rather than just kind of being in the big mosh pit. 

With all the changes and disruptions going on in the social media business, what do you think the future holds for creators?

I actually think the future is very, very bright for creative people. If you look at over the last two decades of the internet, where we came from and where we are now, 11 years ago, there was no paying creators. There was no way to make money, no tipping, no subscriptions. Now, all of that stuff is like table stakes in the industry. If you’re a platform, there’s a cultural expectation that creators deserve to be paid for their work. But then there still needs to be the actual community building and business building that happens. 

I think we’re moving into a world where there will literally be hundreds of millions of people as full-time professional creators building communities and businesses. And that’s the world I want to live in. 

Q&A With Patreon CEO Jack Conte: Social Media Giants Are Getting the Creator Economy Wrong

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