Around the same time that companies like Nike and Sony started realizing the powerful potential that online creators held for them, a group of established personalities banded together to create a guild meant to protect creators’ financial and personal interests. Three years later, that group, the Internet Creators Guild (ICG), is shutting down.
The ICG started out as a personal project from Hank Green, one of YouTube’s most respected and admired creators, to build a centralized organization for people who work online. The guild was supposed to educate creators, protect their interests, and help them succeed on platforms that were constantly changing monetization methods. “There is no system for protecting creators, many of whom have no experience in any industry, let alone the notoriously cut-throat entertainment industry,” Green wrote at the time.
But the $60-a-year membership and union-friendly language never really caught on. The guild never disclosed membership numbers, and it struggled to gain interest from the very people it was meant to represent.
“Creators with big audiences often don’t feel the need for support from a collective voice,” the ICG’s board wrote in a statement announcing the closure. “We believe these attitudes will change as our community encounters new challenges. Antitrust sentiment grows in the US, and Article 13 now threatens the foundation of digital creativity in Europe.”
The board said that support has “declined to the point where we cannot maintain our work actively,” and that it’s limited their ability to recruit new members.
Despite the shutdown, the ICG’s concerns are even more apt years later. The guild says it remains concerned about networks and studios using illegitimate copyright claims to take down “huge amounts of content,” record labels allegedly taking 70 percent of every dollar spent on YouTube Premium subscriptions, and brands mandating that creators hide how much they’re paid for sponsorships, making it harder for everyone to be paid fairly. (The Verge reached out to YouTube for comment, but the company did not respond by publication time.)
The guild also found it difficult to get individuals spread across several continents to rally together, Anthony D’Angelo, the guild’s former executive director, told The Verge. Unlike labor movements happening right now in areas like digital media and the tech sector, creators are usually isolated. Not having that same kind of camaraderie affected the organization’s attempt to fight for a more secure front. Whereas traditional unions’ fights have immediate physical results (like requiring actors to have a membership card before stepping on certain sets), online media doesn’t.
“It’s seen as an inconvenience to them, rather than this amazing power,” D’Angelo said. “The setup of the space makes it harder to bring everyone together because they’re not all on the ground.”
Prominent YouTube creators also felt the guild wasn’t doing enough to help creators. Multiple YouTube creators like Lindsay Ellis and PhilosophyTube (who are often regarded as a part of left-leaning YouTube referred to as “BreadTube”) have specifically spoken about the lack of movement on the ICG’s end to actually help creators, instead of just raising awareness of the problems they face.
“One thing that liberal groups tend to forget a lot is accountability; being accountable to the people you’re trying to help,” Philosophy Tube said in a video about the subject. “Not just in the sense that they can write to you and give you feedback in a Slack group, but in the sense that you actually give them the power to direct the movement and say, ‘We’re going to use these tactics and do this.’”
Those concerns were heard by the ICG, said D’Angelo. He doesn’t disagree, but he argued the concerns raised by Ellis and others didn’t explain why the ICG failed. The reasons were more “nuanced, complex, and internal.” Part of that was incredibly low membership — numbers which D’Angelo declined to share with The Verge. But the biggest reason was trying to convince YouTube creators that in a constantly changing industry where nothing was certain, banding together through an organization was necessary. It’s hard to see the value of something if its existence seems ephemeral.
“Only when they realize that they have something to lose here will they be motivated to unionize,” D’Angelo said. “Because the space is so atomized, it’s hard to build that awareness and that solidarity.”
The fight isn’t over yet. The ICG may be gone, but D’Angelo is already starting to think of what’s next when it comes to protecting YouTube creators. Early rumblings of conversations happening with other guilds, including the screen actors guild, SAG-AFTRA, have started. (The Verge has reached out to SAG-AFTRA for comment.) People are migrating online faster, and developing more full-time jobs that exist solely on the internet. They need to be protected, D’Angelo said, and just because the ICG is closing shop doesn’t mean the fight ends here.
“The space needs health care. It needs fair contracts,” D’Angelo said. “I’m certain that collective action is the only way to achieve those goals. There are a lot of barriers to translating that imagined community into something that can change the world. Only when that conversation kicks up and people realize, ‘We have to do something about this,’ based on a common material interest, that is the key to actually mobilizing.”