Paul Saffo on “The Creator Economy”


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Well-regarded futurist Paul Saffo has been talking about a new economic age that he believes is now upon us. First came the producer economy in the early 20th Century, which “harnessed manufacturing in the service of satisfying the material desires of a newly prosperous working class and emergent middle class.” Then came the consumer economy in the middle of the century, in which “companies realized that they had a demand problem rather than a production problem and shifted their resources to finding new ways to sell their existing products.” Now comes the creator economy:

“Now we are entering a third age in which the central economic actor is someone who both produces and consumes in the same act. I like the term ‘creator,’ as this new kind of actor is doing something more fundamental than the mere sum of their simultaneous production and consumption. Creators are ordinary people whose everyday actions create value.”

So well put, and a really fascinating and useful framework for understanding why the things that worked so well in the last century are breaking down in this new century. Read Saffo’s full argument here.

  1. Interesting post! I’m working on an essay right now that comes to a similar conclusion, but worded differently; my angle is how this change in economy affects distributors. For a century, distribution was costly and so the people who owned the largest distribution methods were able to control the conversations that they published. This meant that most discussion slowly turned toward the safely profit-driven; it also meant that conversation acquired a certain pro-large-industry bias, because large industries were responsible for all newspapers, and then all television.

    Now, as the cost of distribution drops sharply, would-be distributors are finding that we rely on them less than they rely on us. Google was one of the earliest examples of this online. Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple are other instances. They have the biggest audience because they (are perceived to) offer their audiences the most options or the most convenience. Companies that rely on editorial control and limiting their content are facing massive struggles, because of the proliferation of incredible content that’s being produced independently and cheaply.

    (The NY Times is doing an impressive job of upping the ante, both by hiring some incredible bloggers and by bringing new writers into blogging — Errol Morris especially — with great results. The problem is that even those blogs fail to stand out as exceptionally good, worth my paying money. When you’re competing against Roger Ebert’s blog and Hyperbole and a Half and everything in between, it’s hard to make a competing product if they charge nothing and you charge something.)

    I don’t necessarily agree with Saffo that the simple creativity of Twitter and Google is enough. I know too many people addicted to Facebook/Twitter/Google who never go beyond them because those tiny creative requirements are enough. That’s nearly as bad as an economy where everybody’s sitting in front of the television.

  2. Very interesting indeed, e-Commerce sure has open a new world of free producing and buying every kind of product or service, economy could be support entirely by this on the future.

  3. Plagiarism?

    The “prosumer” and “third wave” concepts are not new.

    Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt suggested in their 1972 book Take Today, that with electric technology, the consumer would become a producer. In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge (even though he described it in his book Future Shock from 1970).

    McLuhan and Toffler were true visionaries who defined the meaning of “futurist.”

    Saffo seems like a commentator of current times who is re-wording other’s original work, peppering it with modern examples and pawning it off as his own.

  4. I agree with Steve Park, besides “creator”, “creative” are the two most dangerous buzz-words out there, according to that arrant knave David Ogilvy but Khoi Vinh was going for the meaning of what Saffo said.

    There are a couple of problems with the argumetns he makes – first of all there is the myth spread as fact that the internet is not for serious content, which is a lie.

    One of the first uses of the web was for exchanging articles between scientists via at Cornell

    And interchange of serious analysis and debate continues spreading through every section of society.

    Twitter, Facebook are not the centre or the marrow for that matter of the internet. They are marketing and if you will, mass control tools. However, marketing is just one layer of the web, not the totality. There are non-marketing related ways of communication through the web, people often forget that.

  5. I’d have to agree with Steve Park on this one too. When I read The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler (written in 1980) 2 years ago it literally blew my mind by how prescient it was. I think that’s the right place to start where contemporary forecasting is concerned. What I’m having trouble understanding is why ideas that obviously originated with Toffler in 1970 are not credited to him. There’s some great internet thinkers out there such as Clay Shirky, Rushkoff and perhaps even Saffo where I see so many of Toffler’s ideas reinterpreted…but I rarely hear the mention of his name. The importance of starting with Toffler is that it takes all this ‘new’ internet theory stuff and grounds it in an even broader theory (Wave Theory) which has it’s roots in behaviors that began changing as early as the 50s. This broadens the futurist context to more than just the explosion of the internet in the 90s and provides a much longer lense to analyze past and present events. This is useful because Toffler’s predictions, grounded in Wave Theory, are often accurate.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.