May 08, 2024, 06:27AM

The Work of Pandemic Profiteering

Reflections on a golden age in Substacks, Patreons, and the work of subscriber-funded content.

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Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, while many industries faced unprecedented challenges such as forcing “essential” on-site workers to show their vaccination records and ensuring that the privileged possessors of “lazy girl jobs” that involved emailing and spreadsheet clicking were kept safely at home, the digital content sphere experienced a boom. With millions worldwide confined to their apartments, mothers’ basements, attics, and broom closets, the consumption of digital content skyrocketed, paving the way for savvy content creators to capture and monetize the attention of a massive, captive audience. These creators, ranging from influencers to political pundits, positioned themselves on various points across the ideological spectrum—from vehement opposition to stringent support of lockdown measures, vaccine mandates, and mask-wearing protocols. Their stances not only differentiated them within the crowded digital space but also significantly amplified their influence and, by extension, their potential revenue streams.

Interestingly, many of these creators are now waxing—or at least posting—nostalgic for this golden age, trying to gin up enthusiasm for vaccines people no longer receive or trying to remind us that “they” (whoever ‘they” are) still want us dead. This nostalgia for the pandemic era, particularly among those who profited the most during these times, is frequently reflected in current digital content. This retrospective longing for a state of stay-at-home/stay-in-bed emergency underscores a bizarre, almost paradoxical affection for a period marked by global distress. Privately, content creators reminisce about their days of rapid growth—when their daily updates on pandemic developments or conspiracy theories ensured a steady influx of subscribers, viewers, and, crucially, revenue.

“Biden bucks” was derisive term used to refer to the stimulus payments that were part of the U.S. government's efforts to mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic. Issued to nearly everyone who quit a job for any reason during this period, these “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” (PUA, an acronym that will forever mean “pick-up artist” to me) fueled a surge in consumer spending that significantly benefited digital platforms and content creators. Many influencers saw substantial increases in donations and subscription fees during the PUA period, with audiences—locked down in small spaces and laden with stimulus cash—more willing and able to pay $3-$5 for content that echoed their sentiments, assuaged their fears, and connected them to the para-social “frens” with whom they’d make common cause against their extremely online enemies (or “enemas,” as my Popeye-influenced father would say).

The rise of pandemic-themed content did more than create temporary internet celebrities; it triggered a realignment within media hierarchies. Creators who adeptly navigated the complex landscape of pandemic politics found themselves at the forefront of their respective niches, often at the expense of those who failed to capitalize on the moment. As the immediate threat of the virus diminished into utter irrelevance—I assume they’re burying all that unused vaccine next to the E.T. cartridges for the Atari 2600—the top influencers continue to leverage what’s left of their pandemic-era personas, finding that the fear and uncertainty that boosted their ascendancy, though diminished, still holds sway over large segments of the “bratty subs” and “paypigs” who finance their creative endeavors.

These influencers, who often criticized governmental overreach or mocked the fear-mongering media, now fondly recall a time when those same elements propelled their rise to prominence.

During the pandemic, this blend of fear, uncertainty, and the relentless thirst for updates created an opening for monetization. Content creators who once decried the sensationalist tactics of mainstream media found themselves aping similar strategies—dramatizing developments, spinning narratives, plundering the subscribers of former allies, and playing to the fears or biases of their audiences. This wasn’t just opportunism but a strategic recalibration of their content creation to meet the demands of an immobilized, highly-engaged, and polarized audience.

As the dust settles on the pandemic's peak years, the digital landscape resembles a game of musical chairs where the music has stopped, leaving many content creators stranded without a seat. The intense scramble for relevance and revenue during the pandemic's height propelled a handful of savvy players to stardom, while others, unable to adapt quickly or pivot their branding effectively, now find themselves left behind. The consequence is a digital arena marked by significant casualties—once-prominent voices that couldn’t maintain their pandemic-era momentum are now facing diminished followings and evaporating revenue streams. If you had one thing and didn’t pivot fast enough—for example, your whole bit was wearing a bunch of masks and getting a bunch of boosters, or spending all day claiming the vaccine had already killed billions—you now faced looming obsolescence.

For those who managed to build and sustain large platforms, the post-pandemic period remains fraught with its challenges. The very attributes that made them successful during the crisis—constant alarm, divisive rhetoric, and relentless opposition or support for pandemic measures—may no longer resonate with an audience exhausted by crisis (or at least crises so dated they might as well have occurred during the Obama administration) and craving a return to what passes for extremely online normalcy. This shift has forced a recalibration of strategies, with many influencers finding it necessary to downscale or completely reinvent their public personas to align with the evolving expectations of their audiences.

Although I don’t have any raw numbers, I’m guessing loads of podcasts, even ones that were performing fairly well, closed down at the tail end of this period. Content creators, like soldiers dispatched to foreign wars, can only man the hot-take trenches for so long without relief, and only a handful of Substacks and podcasts—Chapo Trap House, Racket, the Joe Rogan Experience, Red Scare—appear too big to fail over the next five-six years.

The stark reality is that the pandemic, while a time of unprecedented digital engagement and growth, was also a period of hyper-competition, where the stakes were high and the rewards for visibility were almost as substantial as working one of those “lazy girl jobs” that paid $65,000 plus benefits to sit on your keister. Now, with the acute phase of the crisis long past, the remaining content creators must face up to a harsh reality: it’s only going to get harder to maintain relevance in a saturated market that no longer operates under the same pandemic-induced pressures.

The narrative of “winners” and “losers” in this digital reshuffle highlights a broader phenomenon of how quickly the tides of online influence can shift (some might say the work of podcasting is done by the winners, but as a moderately successful podcaster myself, I can confidently state that it’s done by losers). Some substantial but not titanic brands that seemed poised to dominate the discourse found themselves unable to adapt to post-pandemic realities, their decline a testament to the fickle nature of digital fame. For these creators, the end of the pandemic's “golden era” has been a harsh wake-up call, underscoring the volatile nature of success in the digital age. Still, some geese continue to lay gilded eggs: What’s Left?, the podcast I co-hosted from 2020 until 2022, hasn’t recorded an episode since October 2022 yet earns approximately $500 a month in exchange for access to its paywalled archives.

The pandemic undeniably accelerated shifts in how content is created and consumed, leaving a lasting imprint on the strategies of savvier new content creators looking to replace us “old heads.” The challenge for these up-and-comers is not only to find new hot takes that resonate but to navigate the complexities of an audience that is at once more cynical and more discerning than ever before. In this brave new world, the true test will be whether these digital influencers can transition from the immediacy of the latest “state of emergency” content to more sustainable and stickier forms of engagement. I doubt that they will—“churn and burn” is an optimal strategy for those looking for some quick loot, as I once was—but isn’t it pretty to think that they might? 


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