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.”
“Covid was an inflection point,” Mr. Cox said in an interview, “where the industry and creators more generally started becoming more of a creative economy.”
Facebook is seeking to overcome its slow start with creators as it tries to stay culturally relevant. The social network once regularly originated memes like Chewbacca Mom (featuring a woman laughing hysterically while wearing a mask of the Star Wars character) and the A.L.S. Ice Bucket Challenge (where people dumped ice water over their heads to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research).
But those were years ago. As YouTube, TikTok and other rivals became increasingly popular, they produced more trends and memes. The Sea Shanty sensation, which features people creating and performing traditional whaling songs with modernized lyrics, was one of the biggest mainstream memes of the past 18 months — and it started on TikTok.
Wooing creators helps Facebook regain buzz and capture more entertaining content, especially after it has repeatedly faced criticism for spreading misinformation, toxic speech and divisive political posts. The more that creators put popular videos, photos and posts on Facebook and its apps, the more that users are likely to keep returning to the network. And when the company eventually asks for a cut of creators’ earnings, that may add a potentially lucrative revenue stream.
“Facebook is basically saying, ‘Hey, Instagram was the biggest influencer platform, and now we’re losing our influence in that space,’” said Nicole Quinn, a venture capitalist at Lightspeed Venture Partners who studies the influencer and creator market. “If I were Facebook, I would be thinking, ‘I need to stay relevant. How do we bring people back here again?’”
Yet it won’t be easy to win over creators, who increasingly have choices. Apart from Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, other platforms are also chasing influencers. Last November, Snapchat began paying creators up to $1 million a day to post on its platform and it is rolling out more ways for creators to make money, like tipping. Twitter also introduced tipping and will soon let creators put their content behind a paywall and charge a monthly subscription fee.
At least 50 million people around the world now consider themselves content creators, according to SignalFire, a venture capital firm.
“There’s a total arms race underway to attract and retain creators across the social media landscape,” said Li Jin, founder of Atelier Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on the creator economy. “All of the major platforms have realized that the nexus of value comes from the creators who make the content that keeps people coming back regularly.”
The shift has posed challenges for Facebook. The company has focused primarily on selling advertising to big brands and small- and medium-size businesses. It also failed to seize opportunities to win over creators.
In 2016, after the short-form video app Vine shut down, top creators like Logan Paul and Piques dove into Facebook to post their videos. But Facebook didn’t have enough tools for influencers to make money at the time, so many shifted their efforts to YouTube.
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.
Some creators — such as Jon Brownell, 29, a lifestyle and health influencer with over two million followers on Facebook — said they have felt neglected by the social network.
Mr. Brownell said he struggled to speak with anyone at Facebook after his page was hacked in 2017. He said he showed up at Facebook’s office in Playa Vista, Calif., four separate times to try and speak with an employee for help, but was never able to speak to anyone. While he eventually regained control of his Facebook page, he was unable to post sponsored content on his page for weeks, causing a financial hit.
“The statement that Zuckerberg has always supported creators is a lie, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point,” Mr. Brownell said, punctuating his remark with an expletive.
Mr. Cox said Facebook was listening. The company is adding to its own partnerships teams to be more responsive to influencer concerns, he said. He added that Facebook has creators who already lead large groups of followers on the site. Those include Hala Sabry, a doctor who in 2014 founded the Physician Moms Group, where female doctors who are also parents come together to support each other online. Mr. Cox added that Facebook’s experience with small businesses sets up the company to support creators and help them build sustainable business models.
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 a hydrofoil 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.