Facebook Wants to Court Creators. It Could Be a Tough Sell.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Over the past 18 months, Chris Cox, Facebook’s top product executive, watched with surprise as Instagram came alive in ways he hadn’t seen before.

As young people looked for ways to express themselves digitally in the pandemic, Mr. Cox became captivated by the content of creators like Oumi Janta. The Senegalese roller-skater, who is based in Berlin, shot to fame when she posted videos to her Instagram account of herself dancing in skates to techno music. Her viral success — and that of others — made Facebook, which owns Instagram, realize it needed to do more to court creators, Mr. Cox said.

The problem was that Facebook was late. Many creators — who make and profit off meme-y online content — have already flocked to rival platforms like YouTube and TikTok, which invested in digital tools for influencers far earlier and gave them ways to earn money off their viral videos.

So Facebook began playing catch-up. To lure the next generation of viral stars, it started throwing millions of dollars at top influencers so they would use its products. It tweaked its biggest apps to emulate its competitors. Last month, it hosted a “Creator Week” to celebrate influencers. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, also said that he wants to “build the best platform for millions of creators to make a living.”

One issue for Facebook and Instagram is that a user’s posts and videos are only served to people who follow them, which means it can take years to build up a large audience to make money from. Facebook also has more than three billion users worldwide, so standing out from the crowd is no easy feat.

By contrast, TikTok has a “For You” discovery algorithm that enables new users with no followings to easily upload a video and have it immediately be shown to millions of other users. TikTok also forged relationships with popular creators on its platform early on by building out “partnerships” teams, which help creators grow and manage their followings and streamline their tech support issues.

Facebook is also promoting more of its tools and features to help creators make money. That includes monthly paid subscriptions to influencer pages and the ability to post advertising within short-form videos and live streams. Mr. Zuckerberg has pledged that Facebook will not take a cut of creators’ earnings on the platform until 2023 at the earliest.

Facebook is also falling back on a familiar strategy: looking more like its competitors. This month, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said the app would make changes to keep up with the popularity of video-sharing apps. That includes tweaking Instagram’s algorithm to begin showing users more videos from people they don’t follow — in other words, doing what TikTok does.

“We’re no longer a photo-sharing app,” Mr. Mosseri said in an Instagram video this month. (He later tweeted that Instagram wasn’t abandoning photos, but leaning in to video.)

Facebook is building out other products to draw all kinds of creators, from writers to podcasters and beyond. Last month, it unveiled Bulletin, a newsletter service aimed at attracting independent writers and authors to build their audiences on Facebook. It has also released Audio Rooms, a feature where people hold live audio chats with fans and followers. The company is using these tools to target the podcasting market and compete with apps like Clubhouse and Twitter “Spaces.”

Lately, Mr. Zuckerberg has also leaned into viral memes about himself. He recently posted a photo of a surfboard he commissioned, with an artistic rendering of his face covered in stark white suntan lotion, a meme that circulated widely online last year.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Mr. Zuckerberg also tried creating a meme of his own. He posted a video of himself on Facebook surfing on an electric surfboard in Lake Tahoe, Calif., clutching a giant American flag waving in the wind. The video was set to the sounds of John Denver singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Creators pounced; it became meme-ified almost instantly.

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