I was recently having lunch with a friend who works for a PR company. As we were chatting about content creators and brands, one of the things he brought up was the concept of influencer whitelists. I immediately knew what he was talking about and could only shake my head. For the uninitiated, influencer whitelists are a hardline list of content creators that are ‘brand-friendly’. This means their content and the creator are risk-free. The creator needs to be so safe that anyone from 5 to 80 years old could enjoy it. While initially, these lists would be internal, the long-term goal is a ‘global’ safe list of creators.
In truth, the idea behind influencer whitelists isn’t new or revolutionary. PR people already have a list of content creators they like to work with and a blacklist of people they will never work with. As a result, you see a lot of brand-friendly creators getting most of the opportunities. While in theory, I think it’s a rational thought process – but in practice, it’s misguided and results in an incestuous overuse of the same people. And it’s only going to get worse for everyone if we don’t speak out against it now.
A Perfect Storm Leading to Influencer Whitelists
While influencer whitelists have been informal, some high profile cases have hit YouTube particularly hard. Pewdiepie was demonized by media for anti-Semitic jokes. JonTron started promoting racist immigration policies. James Charles, CoverGirl’s first male spokesman, joked about Africa having Ebola. Meanwhile, bro-du-jour Jake Paul, had his contract with Disney cut for his antics. And those are the most recent and heavily reported controversies. There have been dozens of brand-friendly creators with their own controversies in recent months. It’s been so dramatic, YouTube has changed the way monetization works – to the disappointment of many. And as video content becomes more and more important, you’re going to see the same homogenization of content creators hit bloggers and Instagramers as well. Bikini selfie? Not family friendly – no brand partners. Used the term incestuous in a blog post? Too family friendly, no brand partners. (Ha.)
So, as a creator, what do you do? Do you create content that appeals only to brands to keep ad money coming in? Censor yourself and hope for a few brands willing to take a risk? Or do you carry on the path you’re on, knowing that it may not be something that enables you to pay the bills? All are viable options, but the content creator community can also do more to address this.
A Collective Approach to the Issue
I immediately explained to my friend how bad an idea influencer whitelists are. While doing research is important, you shouldn’t immediately discount someone because they say ‘fuck’ or use their sexuality on a Twitch stream. In 2017, the most controversial content often has the strongest support from audiences. A great example is Philip DeFranco, who opens his shows by saying ‘What’s up you beautiful bastards?’ While it’s a term of endearment, brands are sometimes skittish to work with him. But for brands like Ting, Audible and SquareSpace, they’ve seen huge results from partnering with ‘controversial’ figures.
As creators, we’re the front line with PR and brands. We talk to them on a regular basis AND we talk to our audiences. That gives us two powerful allies that we need. When it comes to brands and PR people, encourage them to work with a wide variety of creators. Suggest someone you like that may not get many brand deals! Tell them it’s bland to work with the same 5 creators for every project – and it’s lazy on their part. With our audiences, promote the use of things like Patreon, Twitch Subscriptions or buying merch. While the world of content has been ‘free’ for the last decade, if we want to avoid going the way of cable TV – we need audiences to play an important role in our continuation. Crowdfunding your content is the future for content creators – more on that later! (Mini-plug if you enjoy the content here!)
Influencer Whitelists are Bad for Everyone
If you’re currently profiting from being ‘family friendly’, you must know that this is only going to hurt you as well. Do you want the competition of millions of other creators that have to start creating identical content to yours? More competition means lower prices… It’s bad for everyone. Influencer whitelists are the beginning of the decline in content and creator opportunities. If we don’t support ALL creators, we’ll have to accept the content equivalent of inbreeding. Not only does that sound boring, but it’s the exact opposite of what has made digital content so great. A diverse variety of creators is the internet I want to be part of – and you should too!