The Internet Creators Guild: An interview with Hank Green and Laura Chernikoff
Laura Chernikoff, incoming Executive Director of the Internet Creators Guild and Hank Green, Internetainerpreneur and founder of the Internet Creators Guild
SU: Talk about the issues that you see creators wrestling with: what they’re celebrating and the issues with which they are frustrated.
LC: So many people are now earning some sort of living, part time or full time, from internet creations as a whole that this is a full blown industry…There’s really no force that’s organized that group, supported that group, or spoken for that group. That’s one need that I hope the ICG will fill. Related to that is helping the press and the community talk intelligently about what’s going on… I’ve seen through VidCon that the narrative around online video is often still spoken to traditional media as “here’s the thing you haven’t heard of” and I think we’re past that point. [Also]…changes on platforms that influence creators and feedback that creators have for platforms…there’s often a lot of confusion when anything new is rolled out that doesn’t have a clear conduit and there’s no one to really help evaluate that objectively. Platforms will always tell you what they think their new feature means, but what does it really mean and what is the community concerned about when that happens.
SU: Was there an “a-ha!” creation moment for ICG?
LC: I think the thing that fed the creation was a lot of individual pain points, like when YouTube Red was announced and people felt very confused about what was changing. [Also,] conversations about sponsorship deals going bad that often happen in the back corner and no one knows what to do about them. I think any time that would come up there would be a feeling of “Something should be done about this” and it wasn’t till Hank crystallized what that would be that it seemed that a Guild would really help.
SU: What does online video mean to you?
HG: In reference to the ICG, it’s less about the medium people are creating in and more about that there’s a way that people are creators. There’s an existing system in which people are creators right now in the entertainment industry, there’s a system for books, and a system for TV and movies and …everybody’s a contractor. And that’s how stuff gets made…
As the digital space has defined itself, it’s just different from that. So that’s what we’re focusing on: there’s a different way to be a creator now. Certainly there will still be that kind of work, and that kind of work will happen in the digital space. But when I think about what an online creator is, what an internet creator is, it’s functionally different in that they are responsible for more of the stuff. There are lots of individual people in charge of very small productions from start to finish. And that might be a Let’s Play video, or a beauty tutorial, or it might be a pretty complicated narrative series…There’s less of that existing infrastructure, so people need to be responsible for more than just one thing, and they need to know lots of stuff in order to be a content creator.
SU: You’re very clear about this being a guild and not a union. What is the function of the guild when a brand deal goes bad? What’s the action item and how will the guild help or advise that creator?
LC: One of the fundamental reasons we’re saying it’s not a union is that no one has to join. Membership won’t be a requirement to work. That said, advocating collectively is still a function it can have. I think the degree to which we take active positions will really be determined by the board and the advisory board, specifically the Board of Directors because they’re the decision makers. Myself and any future staff would follow that lead, but I think even more importantly we would follow the membership. So if an issue comes up, I don’t know that the guild would take a stand in one person’s specific situation. I think first through positive reinforcement, talking about what deals should look like. And doing a lot of educating so that people don’t end up in those bad situations where they’re getting paid only in product or they’re not being valued based on their viewership numbers. I think that will be where we’ll tackle first. In the future, broader movements around what membership would like to see in terms of standards. But currently, we’re not looking to go to bat on one specific deal.
SU: When you say standards, are you talking about standardizing rates for brand deals?
LC: We wouldn’t set something where “You have to charge this amount in order to be a member” but starting to research, even anonymously: what are rates that people are facing? What is a fair rate?…Setting a standard in that way is something I’ve heard the board mention that they’re interested in. The initial projects will be information gathering and education.
SU: Metrics are another area that could use some standardization. Success is measured differently depending on goals, platform, etc. There’s a lot of confusion about how to begin to define a rate card because we’re all using different metrics to measure. What metrics do you think are the most valuable in online video?
LC: A lot of the language that Hank and I are using around launch is online video specific. We’re already seeing the question, “I’m a designer, I’m a blogger,” and we do eventually want it to be broader than online video…we’re starting with online video because it’s what we know and we want to do one thing right rather than trying to do too much. That said, the question of metrics gets even more complicated when you get into Instagram, and blogging, and Vine and all the other things…I’d like to see the guild stepping in and explaining, and summarizing, and clarifying what is going on. And then start to assemble groups within the membership that do have strong viewpoints about what’s going on, to start taking a more active role if we want to re-define those things.
I don’t think between now and a year from now that we’re going to have a definitive metric that everyone will adhere to but if there’s a little more clarity, if you’re pulling the mystique away from some of those problems, I think that will be a good first step.
SU: Talk about the programming and benefits for members. What’s my user experience as a member of the ICG?
LC: The big things will be a knowledge base for members. A question and answer setup where you can both gather experts to provide answers to things and members can weigh in. We’ll also have static resources for things like, “How does disputing copyright strike work?” and “What are the standard terms in a contract with an MCN?” and things like that we’ll put out there to describe common issues or concerns. We hope to have sample contracts. We have Jonathan Katz on our board, who is an entertainment lawyer, and a few other people interested in helping pull the curtain back on the mysterious language of the legalese.
We’ll also be a focal point to gather ideas for conferences like VidCon, and hopefully say we’d like to see this kind of programming or members had ideas for panel topics like that. And as we get closer to membership launch next month, we’ll be developing a lot more.
SU: Can you talk about how ICG might guide creators in other revenue streams? For example, merch. Will there be guidance there?
HG: Yes, we’re going to put together case studies. I’ve been doing interviews with creators that I’m going to turn into a podcast, and one of the questions I ask is “What’s your pie chart?” Don’t tell me how big each slice is, but tell me what the slices are in terms of percentages. Different creators have very different ways of making a living. Some people are 80% Patreon, some people are 80% brand deals. Some people are contract work. It’s surprising how many internet contract creators use their content to then get other work. The creative outlet of their own content is satisfying to them personally and it’s also for your resume. So there’s a tremendous variance in the ways people make a living in online video. And people need to find what works best for their specific kind of content and for their specific skill set. And I don’t think people know all the different ways that creators are using. There’s always innovation in terms of the content you make, and different ways to make it work.
And the content, it’s always very clear how that’s being innovated. You watch a video and you say oh that was an interesting different way to do that thing. That was an interesting way to get people to watch the video. But in terms of how to make money, it’s more obfuscated, so we want to bring that into light more.
SU: The ICG will not be the “morality police.” How, in practice, will this operate? As community leaders, you and John have been wonderful about standing up for creators when you deem it necessary and also making it clear when conduct is not appropriate or acceptable. And I want to understand how you as an individual will relate to this policy. The interplay between your role as an individual community leader and your role at the ICG.
HG: Well, I think they’re two different things. They’re pretty disconnected from each other. My choices as a person are mine to make. And I don’t feel that’s the same thing when it comes to an industry organization that’s trying to be representative of a kind of creator. When you have a sanctioned organization that’s deciding to say what is and isn’t right, that becomes very self destructive very quickly. Because drawing that line is very difficult, if you’re not drawing the line at what is and is not illegal. The MPAA kind of does that, but that’s pretty much all it does. If that existed for online video, that would have to be the only thing that it did. We don’t to take people off of our website because they made a bad joke. We also don’t want to have people yelling at us for not removing someone’s membership because they made a bad joke. That is not inside the scope of the organization.
But I am happy and have been pleased when the community can come together when something is over a line and I’m sure the community will continue to do that.
SU: What if the community comes together and decides that something is not acceptable — and moves in the direction of the morality police?
HG: I will not have control over that. I think that the best way for decisions like that to be made are by people, and not by organizations. If a bunch of individual humans come together and say something together, it’s different from having an organization that basically becomes the House Un-American Activities Committee. It seems like it would be very easy for it to turn into a witch hunt and for that to become the only thing the organization does. It is not the goal of the ICG.
LC: [This is] a complicated one. The first thing is that we don’t want this to turn into a black list. You can’t start a community organization and then right away start crossing people off it. [We want to] lead by setting standards and examples positively rather than negatively. So having a code of conduct that we’d want to encourage, even if that doesn’t necessarily strike someone off of it.
And the mob situation is…wherever you land on any of those issues, i think the way they’re being handled is detrimental to the community. So [we’re] looking for more ways to better strike a positive discourse online and stop the cycle of people getting burned in a witch hunt. Whatever the cause may be. I think there’s two issues there: what values do we want to have as a community, and looking at how we as a community express those values if someone does step off of them…But I don’t think the ICG should say “You can’t be here, this is how it has to be.” We don’t have a lot of enforcement if someone steps across the line but we do have the power to say what we want this community to be like.
SU: There’s a phrase used in the announcement: ICG will offer “protection, representation, and guidance.” Can you break those words down? We talked a bit about the guidance piece, but protection…what do you mean by that?What does this look like in practice for a creator who is involved in an issue that she may not be able to handle herself?
LC: If a creator does have a brand deal go bad, or a bad situation with an MCN, they often can’t speak up. No one wants to bad mouth a sponsor because they’re not going to keep getting work. No one wants to be the one who has their channel taken down and they have no recourse. An organization speaking for them with the full body of the membership behind them can protect individuals better than any individual can. It’s ripe for being taken advantage of and no one can speak up when something’s going wrong. And to be a neutral faceless (or almost many-faced) voice that can say those things, will do a lot to protect the individual creators.
HG: To some extent, it’s providing tools. If you’re a creator and you are doing your own brand deals, because often times you have to. And you get a contract, you have three choices. You can sign the contract and trust that these people aren’t going to take advantage of me. You can try and read the contract, which you probably won’t be able to do particularly effectively. Or you can hire a lawyer to do it for you and charge probably a significant portion of the money you would make on this brand deal.
So providing protection can be as simple as creating an annotated contract that shows you a lot of the language that is usually used in these kinds of contracts. And also creating some industry standards when it comes to these things so that when something gets written into a contract, you can say to them, “No, this isn’t the kind of thing that’s allowed to be in a contract. This isn’t normal.” And potentially the ICG could do something like, if there’s language in contracts that’s detrimental to creators, we could say that we don’t suggest that any creator sign a contract that has this language in it. And that could go for an agency deal, an MCN deal, a sponsorship deal. Early on, MCNs were signing people into lifetime contracts and that doesn’t make any sense. The community came together and said that was exploitative and crappy and that was the community protecting itself.
SU: In [a brand deal that goes bad], maybe the ICG can put out a statement, but what does that do for the creator who is in that immediate situation?
LC: We’ll have to see how it develops. We can certainly be a stockpile of resources and put them in touch with someone who can help them. I think a lot of problems arise for smaller creators where they don’t have a lawyer to go to, they don’t have someone to look at their contracts or an understanding of what they’re agreeing to. And just a place to say, “Is anyone else having this same problem?” I think that camaraderie and accessibility to the right people and the right information to help will be something.
I think this is a piece that will develop a bit more as we launch. It might be that we start out proactive about educating about those pieces, rather than reactive because we’ll still be gathering our membership and getting a sense of what those problems are and what resources we have to help.
SU: How will the ICG represent creators who work within an organization who need help advocating to their employer?
HG: One way is giving people a place where they can connect and talk about these issues. It’s also giving people options — if they’re successful at one company, maybe they want to look at taking a job at another company. And that’s how wages go up in the free market. If you’re doing well at your job and they’re not paying you, you go somewhere else and do your job. If you work at Buzzfeed, you might go to Tastemade because they’re trying to recruit Buzzfeed employees. That’s how it functions.
[Also, the ICG will allow] people to have a platform where they can get their voice heard. Gaby [Dunn’s] article on Fusion, that was a platform there…allowing people to know that they can say the things that they want to say. Providing a platform. But I don’t think in the near term we’ll be able to provide any union collective bargaining style stuff. Because that’s a hard road. But that’s something we’ll have to listen to the membership about.
SU: How will the ICG help its membership transition to the more traditional entertainment world of film, TV, and books?
HG: That’s a great idea! Talking to creators who have done TV things, or made the transition from productions on the internet vs. productions on TV, it’s definitely different. [The ICG will] talk about how those industries are different, what the advantages and disadvantages are, and why what we’re doing is special. I think [the ICG is] definitely a resource.
This isn’t part of when we’re launching, but I’d love for there to be some kind of job assistance component to it. Just a place where people can post jobs for people who know what they’re talking about, which is something that I really want. As we move into a world where the line between these two things gets blurrier, absolutely, [the ICG can be a resource].
SU: Talk about the advisory board.
LC: [The advisory board] will [have] limited terms, and we’ve tried to assemble as diverse a group as possible in terms of location, content type, gender, sexuality, really everything we could to try and get different viewpoints. There are a few advisory board members we haven’t confirmed yet. But those will turn over and we’re hoping to lead from within the community with those perspectives.