Back in 2011, when Twitter was young, the artist and musician Leon Chang made a joke that you might remember even if you didn’t see it: “slept over at a kids house once in third grade. saw him pour milk into bowl first, then cereal. never talked to him again. hes in jail now.” Over the years, that joke has been stolen again and again, often retold with slightly different details. It still happens. Everyone tells it as if it happened to them—as if they really knew a kid with such a weird habit and were personally disturbed by it. This never really bothered Chang, one of the better-known and most beloved personalities in a scene called “Weird Twitter.” He knew that, by and large, people were ripping the tweet off just to impress a few hundred followers.
For many years, rampant theft of tweeted jokes didn’t seem so bad. Twitter users loved to make the observation: “This website is free.” This was often posted in response to something amazing and bizarre, to express disbelief at all of the unhinged entertainment that was available for viewing at no cost whatsoever. In that context, Chang explained, if a viral marketing company or a corporate brand such as Wendy’s had stolen his milk criminal and used the idea to make money, it would have been annoying. But otherwise, who cares?
These days, if Chang were to make a “silly little joke” about a boy and a bowl of cereal, he knows that it would be considered “content”—a post that can be circulated and noticed, and leveraged to inspire continued use of Twitter by those who want to see more content like it. He doesn’t happen to profit from his Twitter account, apart from linking to his Bandcamp page, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that he might. “In theory, why shouldn’t I get money from it, rather than just promoting Twitter itself?” he mused. I asked Chang if he remembered when this fact became apparent—when people came to understand that every post they publish is a potential moneymaker for somebody at some point. He guessed that it happened about five years ago, around the time when people stopped saying the word content in quotation marks, as if the whole thing was a joke.
That’s when “people just realized and accepted that it is content,” he said. “It has value to someone, whether that’s someone reading it and enjoying it or a platform that’s profiting off of it.” Amid growing concern over the power of Big Tech and the unfairly distributed riches of the “attention economy,” the sentiment that Twitter was “free” started to feel only half-considered.
Now it seems obvious: Come up with an idea, a thought, a look, a feeling, or a moment, and you’ve got a piece of content that carries the possibility of money changing hands. As an approach to online interactions, this has the great benefit of being accurate. It’s true that Twitter needs people like Chang to keep people like you and me reading it, and it’s better that these facts are understood. But we might also wonder what follows from the understanding that every little thing we do—every second of our time, every funny thought that pops into our mind—is something to be owned or sold.
At first, getting people paid for content was a noble goal.
For years, creative platforms (SoundCloud, Tumblr, Vine—may it rest in peace) were criticized for not offering artists straightforward ways to make money. A well-meaning and productive conversation followed, along with new solutions. Patreon arrived in 2013, providing an easy way to collect subscription fees from loyal audiences—now comprising 6 million paying subscribers or “patrons”—who are interested in supporting users’ podcasts, digital art, and music, or who just want to read their password-protected Tumblr accounts. Journalists and other writers can sell subscriptions to their work directly to consumers via email newsletter platforms such as Substack. And over the course of the pandemic, the not-just-porn (but plenty of porn) platform, OnlyFans, where all kinds of performers can charge subscription fees and collect tips, reportedly added 100 million new users.
These are positive developments for people who rely on creative work for their livelihoods, but the implications are stranger for everyone else. There are paid, premium versions of everything now, and a commercial structure to every major website. Twitter already has a digital “tip jar” for users who want to accept money from anyone who likes their tweets. It’s meant to replace the tradition of replying to your own viral tweet with a Venmo link, and it signals—even more so than the ads in your feed—that Twitter is a site of commerce. Another feature, soon to be released, will let popular people charge a subscription fee for access to their exclusive bonus tweets. On Instagram, people have been selling access to their “Close Friends” stories since 2018. The platform doesn’t directly facilitate that kind of transaction, but in nearly every other way imaginable, it has turned influencer profiles into so many online malls.
Anyone can mint their own “non-fungible tokens” and commodify a meme. A digital token of a famous GIF of a famous cat recently sold for $580,000. People who are particularly good at Twitter are experimenting with selling NFTs of their tweets. (I seriously contemplated buying one that reads, “I feel like NFT’s are basically those certificates that say you have a star named after you . Like ok sure babe.”) What counts as user content—and is thus for sale—can be defined more broadly still: Some of the biggest IP disputes on the social audio app Clubhouse, for example, have been over general premises for interaction. In February 2021, a group of friends who’d been gathering in an Asian-diaspora chat set up a new chat room where people pretended to moan like whales. Then a bunch of influencers heard how popular it was and made rip-offs. Around the same time, a group of white NYU students were accused of stealing the idea of a “shoot your shot” dating-show room from the many Black creators who had been hosting similar rooms for months. The students have now signed on with a major talent agency, with the goal of creating a “cross-platform franchise.”
At this point, when most of our interactions happen in this handful of highly commodified spaces, who could be blamed for feeling like everything they do is—or at least feels like—commerce? “I’m actually very torn on this,” says Stacey Lantagne, a law professor at the University of Mississippi who researches copyright in the digital age. She’s seen white influencers steal ideas from people of color who never see any compensation, and she wants this to be corrected somehow. Yet it’s difficult to advocate for fairness without perpetuating the logic that all human expression can and should be for sale. “I’m really resistant to the idea that everything we do needs to be owned,” Lantagne told me.
I often think about the former reality star Spencer Pratt, one of Twitter’s most dedicated posters, and how he lamented in 2016 that he was spending his time on the platform “bleeding soul for free.” He seemed to know that what he was doing was worth more than what he was getting in exchange—which was nothing, not even a response to the job application he tweeted at the Entertainment Weekly account. His posts around that time were desperate and eager, betraying a belief that even one really good tweet could change the circumstances of his life and then-floundering career.
Five years later, the “meme-to-money pipeline,” as the writer Delia Cai called it in a recent newsletter, is still confusing its participants—setting up some to strike it rich while others see their ideas stolen or devalued. There’s an air of frenzy at all times. Promising new platforms become the sites of gold rushes and then vicious competition; attention is a finite resource and anyone else’s gain is your loss. The new systems of commercialization don’t even do that much to address the pressing inequity of the old ones. Cai points out that, in practice, the new pipeline still carries profit mostly to white content creators, while Black teenagers’ contributions to internet culture continue to be appropriated.
At the same time, the NFT craze makes even more literal the suggestion that every post is worth only whatever value it commands on the market. This is unnerving for several reasons, not least of which is that a person’s most lucrative online moments are not necessarily the same as their most shining moments. The former Representative Anthony Weiner recently told The New York Times that, with few employment options available to him, he is now thinking of selling an NFT of the NSFW tweet that ended his career. That tweet could be even more valuable than Chang’s cereal joke, even though it is sad and gross, while the cereal story is clever and creative. But more important, when a market value is assigned to every utterance, we’re acquiescing to the premise that no other sort of value matters as much.
There is no easy way to resolve this tension. Selling an NFT of a tweet isn’t about fostering an audience or creating a sustainable source of income to support a creative life. It’s the newest, most direct way of converting attention into money, and of plucking a unit of content out of its cultural context—the conversation it was part of, the historical moment that made it significant, the people who saw it and got excited about it—and presenting it for purchase.
It’s appropriate to give credit to people for their creativity and compensate them for their labor. It’s empowering to siphon value from the social-media companies that have been making billions off our personal lives. But it’s also a kind of giving up.