In 1999, I rented Final Fantasy III1 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Immediately overwhelmed by its complexity, I went scrounging2 for tips online and found a full-length guide someone had uploaded to a then-new site called GameFAQs3.

I printed (!) it out, took the little pile of papers upstairs to my game room, and referred to it frequently throughout my 33-hour playthrough. As of this writing, that guide is amazingly still up, with the seemingly immortal detail “Updated: 03/17/1995.”

The road to content creation

Untold amounts of online “content” have in the interim gone through their entire lifecycles of creation, adulation, monetization, resentment at their lack of expected clout-building, and finally destruction, across numerous platforms, some now-extinct and other lumbering on with their users clinging to their digital dinosaur limbs:

  • MySpace was conceived, rose to dominance through autoplaying music and easily editable HTML, was bought by News Corporation, lost all value and most of its users, had all its pages purged, and tried a weak 2.0 relaunch.
  • Facebook was borne out of Facesmash, went from Thefacebook dot com to sans-the, hawked Wirehog, introduced the NewsFeed, pivoted to video, and ultimately became uncool.
  • Blogging went from a niche and technically daunting task to something trivially easy to get started with, having passed through the guts of Blogger, Livejournal, Typepad, Wordpress, and Substack.

Meanwhile, that humble FF3 text file, a relic of the Web 1.0 era when internet users were mostly sharing nice stuff with no brands to build or ads to run, has sat unchanged by its maker for 28 years, yet still helping untold ranks of gamers navigate a wonderfully complicated game—for nothing, monetary or otherwise salutary, in return. Almost as if its charitable, rather than commercial, purpose has let it outlast reams of clout-boosting content.

Granted, FF3 hasn’t been updated, either; it predated the era of DLC4 and live-service games. But this FAQ has never gotten so much as an SEO refresh, gone behind a paywall, or been used as a springboard for building—for its writer—a glitzy online reputation through a major social media following that’d then rake in millions in presumably inevitable ad revenue.

Its free, immediate availability indeed feels like an act of charity—and I mean that as a good thing, even though a lot of Extremely Online people today would take the opposite stance and say that such a giveaway is bad, that the author did unpaid labor for GameFAQs, that they should’ve been looped-in on the site’s ad monetization somehow, and that giving away free stuff is bad for brand reputation.

In other words: No freakin’ way we could comfortably deem the FAQ’s author a real Content Creator.

Content creation is gambling, not work

As a leftist, such arguments about not “working for free” are intuitively appealing. Labor deserves compensation. But is posting a type of labor? Is it a job? No, it isn’t.

I think we’re confusing the distinctive addictiveness of platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, when used in a personal capacity, with work.

They hook you with the prospect of lots of re-shares of your content and perhaps fame (!) and even maybe fortune (!!) from there, but inevitably they let you down, at which point—if you don’t just quit or resign yourself to the fact that social media posting is not a road to riches or even to subsistence wages—you feel compelled to either go even harder (see the entire right-wing-coded “rise n’ grind” economy) or to resign yourself to a more satisfyingly left-ish “I’m being exploited and I should be paid by the platform itself!” stance.

Either way, you see yourself working even though you’re (almost certainly) actually just bummin’ around, unless you’re a professional content marketer. And both mindsets center the nebulous concept of “content,” which implies something that’s:

  • Hosted in someone else’s container: You’re on a stranger’s platform, whether that’s Twitter, YouTube, or somewhere else5, but contra most people’s understanding, that place is more like a casino than a workplace.
  • Meant to be monetized: Related to the above, what you create is at its root designed to enrich “the house,” in this case, the platform owner, and this is obvious from the start or with a bit of cursory research. “Content creation” is risky like gambling, with lots of effort channeled toward dubious chances of remuneration.
  • Constantly in need of more work: Once you start creating content on someone else’s farm6, you enter a doom loop of needing to work on greater amounts of it without seeing greater rewards for it—like a gambler needing to place continually bigger bets to sit out of a hole. Exhaustion and frustration (and maybe ruination) ensue. But as a Content Creator, you feel like you can’t give up, that fame is still close at hand with a few tweaks, that you’re in the correct fight.

On Substack, Brian Feldman has summarized the latter feeling well:

The pursuit of likes, followers, attention, fame, and money is framed as inherently good, or a noble struggle. To criticize one’s attempt to earn a living on social media is implied to be punching down and unspeakably rude. This discussion is often couched in vaguely populist, technical, and legalistic terms. A platform user’s “unpaid labor” and “intellectual property” is being “monetized” and “exploited” by the forces of “late capitalism,” and users are at the whims of “the algorithm” which “lacks transparency” — but if the participants in the platform’s “economy” were to band together, they could exert pressure through “collective action” in order to access the “profits” held in “creator funds” that are rightfully theirs. This is, when you think about it for like half a second, a myopic and stupid way to think about interacting with or informing other human beings, and yet it is the dominant mode.


We’re internalizing the logic of “content” outside of its natural home in the marketing agency world, seeing every attempt at sharing a link, writing a blog, or posting a video on our own time as fundamentally a transaction—and along the way, indulging the quintessentially American fantasy that we’re all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. We’re telling self-styled Content Creators that they’re right to gamble away their precious time and money, despite the overwhelming evidence that most of us can’t even come close to making social media activity into a real career—and the fact that treating another pull of the online notoriety slot machine as a noble act is just weird.

I get the impulse—the idea that with more posting, the right kind of posting, the 10 Tips for Better YouTube Discoverability, it’ll all work out and you’ll score a victory for labor over capital, and all without having to make content marketing your day job! But the source of your addiction isn’t your actual job, of course—if it were, it wouldn’t be so addictive!

Twitter (or any other megaplatform) isn’t your job

There are certainly people who’ve made social media content creation their life. But to see how rare this is, consider the following platforms and their macro trajectories, and how all of them point to the nature of these places as sites of charity, not labor:

  • Twitter: It’s common to say that Twitter’s users are creating “free content” for it, implying that it should be paying them, not the other way around. But no one, not even Twitter itself, has ever made much money from Twitter. Despite the number of site visits, the company at its peak generated about as much annual revenue as Olive Garden. Even huge accounts are often forthrightly desperate for money and support, revealing that social media fame has no direct path to money. It’s a bad, sleepy casino, or, if you prefer, a bar—a place to hang out with no expectation of becoming galactically rich and famous, but to instead dispense jokes, threads, and links as charity.
  • Bluesky: Twitter’s would-be successor is small but its early adopters—who’ve gotten invites via their own prominence or adjacency to someone else’s—are eager to “scale” it, and with that scale…do what, exactly? Bluesky is so clearly just a place to shitpost without worrying about Elon Musk twiddling with his dials. It has no concrete plans for either better moderation or monetization, let alone some way for Content Creators to mine its veins. It’s just a place to have fun! Or it would be, if engagement weren’t through the floor, despite its users snootily acting like Mastodon is the network with those problems.
  • Mastodon: Mastodon has no illusions of being a place of potentially remunerative labor. There’s no ads, no way to algorithmically boost your content, no revenue sharing. These features are some of the big reasons I think clout-chasing Bluesky users dislike it—there’s no clout to be bought, no audience to upsell, so the gambling of time and money on grind-like content creation immediately reveals itself as foolish. Better to just relax and share some cool links about the old AppleVision monitors.
  • Reddit: Reddit users, as Feldman points out in their article, seem to recognize that what they do is charity. They post helpful tips and links that wouldn’t make it through the Google SEO ringer without adding a special “Reddit” operator to the query. They’re not workers destined for slices of revenue, and they know it. Their rebellion against Reddit’s recent API changes shows more than anything that the charitable (free) sharing of Reddit’s posts across the open web, rather than the transactionalism that Reddit leadership envisions, is what they value most.

Social media may fulfill a basic need for community, but trying to win at it, rather than enjoy it and share knowledge freely without the expectation of every bit going into a spreadsheet invoice, is going to always be disappointing. The only way to win is not to play—and to instead find actual games and other activities that you like. The best parts of the internet—Wikipedia, the Fediverse, and the Internet Archive—are essentially volunteer-run charities that survive on donations. That’s the model for enjoying your time online.

  1. Know as _Final Fantasy VI _in Japan. The second, third, and fifth installments of the ironically never ending franchise had not been localized in North America at this time. ↩︎

  2. Google existed but IIRC I hadn’t found out about it yet. So I probably used Dogpile? ↩︎

  3. GameFAQs’ design has roots in Usenet, where “frequently asked questions” pages were common as repositories of knowledge in the days before easy web search. ↩︎

  4. Downloadable content. Not long after FF6, Nintendo did experiment with some early DLC with its Satellaview add-on for the SNES, though. ↩︎

  5. It’s funny how the big, centralized platforms have taken us back to the days when the internet was considered a discrete location rather than a continuous medium. ↩︎

  6. A “content farm” is an organization that churns out content at industrial scale in an attempt to capture Google traffic. I highly recommend this rundown of how they work↩︎