Curator Economy, Not Creator Economy

Toward a new publishing model

"Publishing" is a word that no longer makes sense.

What does it even mean to publish something in 2024? You're reading this essay because a few minutes ago, I pressed a little blue button that said: "publish." Over the last thirty-plus years, internet technology has made it easy for anyone to publish anything, in virtually any form, anywhere, at any time, to anyone. There is an unprecedented amount of publishing freedom available today compared to any time in the past.

Still, a weird idea persists: the publisher.

Even when you can publish whatever you want, many writers seek the prestige of a publisher. It's right there in our words. When we speak of "self-publishing," we make a critical distinction: this is not the same thing. While the stigma of self-publishing is diminishing—and more so every year—there still exists an aura of legitimacy around "traditional" publishing. Because anyone can do it, self-published works are often considered to be of lower quality than those subjected to editorial review.

Publishing signifies success.

But this is an old idea, and one that doesn't square against existing technology. If everyone can self-publish, do we need publishers? What value do they provide? When words needed to be physically printed, distributed, and stored somewhere, the value was clearer. Publishing required a technology stack that was too expensive and complicated for writers to manage on their own. Publishers took care of it for them—along with other duties like promotion and payment processing. But in a world of digital distribution, strong self-promotional tools like social media, accessible payment processing (through companies like Stripe), and even print-on-demand for physical books, it feels like the perceived value of a publisher is mostly that—perceived.

If you've ever spent much time trying to query your work or place your writing in a traditional journal, you'll experience first-hand how painful the process can be compared to self-publishing online.

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to place poems in traditional journals. I had a spreadsheet to track every submission, noting submission requirements and response timelines. Mostly, I spent the process waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Virtually every submission took months to receive a response. Some took years. Almost all of the journals declined my work. All of this is normal—the wait times, and the low acceptance rates. Editors and established writers will tell you to keep at it. Keep sending your work into the void. There's even a name for it: the slush pile. While you're patiently waiting for a decision, your work ... sits there. It stagnates in a Schrödinger's purgatory halfway between finished and unfinished; a creative zombie that's neither dead nor alive.

At the same time, I also published poems on Instagram. I think I needed to do it to keep myself sane. There were so many poems coming out of me at the time that to keep them all locked away in spreadsheets and Submittable queues would have driven me mad. When I published on Instagram, the process was straightforward. I copied the poem into Canva, downloaded it as an image, and pressed publish. Instantly, the poem went out to hundreds of people who had opted in to read my poetry. I got instantaneous feedback on what they thought. I went back to writing my next poem.

Self-publishing was so clearly better from a time, process, and emotional standpoint that I gave up submitting to journals entirely. I put all the work out myself. I needed to clear all those poems from my unconscious, freeing up space for me to work on other things. I needed to put them out into the world. While you're waiting to hear if a piece of writing will be accepted, it lingers in your mind, clogging your creative muscles, and keeping you from fully focusing on your next piece.

Good writing requires a slow, steady, consistent output. At every stage of the writing process, including publication.

But while traditional publication has lost many of its advantages, I still think there are important benefits. A traditional publication gives a writer:

  • Access to new audiences

  • A curatorial stamp of approval (which can boost confidence)

  • Visibility with critical tastemakers

The benefits of self-publishing, however, are fairly strong too. Self-publication gives a writer:

  • A steady output of work

  • Instantaneous feedback (which can help you improve quickly)

  • A direct line of communication to their biggest fans

Is there a way to unify these two approaches? Bring together the best of both worlds? Does it have to be one or the other—can we not have it all?

I think that we can. I think there's a better way to write, read, and publish online.

It starts with changing our vocabulary.

Curation, Not Publication

The first step is to redefine what it means to "publish." Thankfully, we already have a fantastic word that we can swap in its place: curation.

The article that kickstarted my thinking on this idea is Timothy Green's piece in LitMag News, Uncurated: The Case for a New Term in Art. As Green unequivocally states: "The word 'published' bears no weight in the digital age, and yet, purely out of habit and momentum, we still pretend that it does." He goes on to attack a particularly frustrating part of the "publication" process: that most journals require that your work be "previously unpublished" and that they count sharing it online—including posting it to social media—as publication.

Add the months and years it can take journals to respond to your submission, and you can see a clear recipe for frustration. While you wait for a response, your work is trapped in submission jail, unable to see the light of day. As Green points out, waiting for a submission response kills the spontaneity of creative work: "Poems, especially, must be banished from our friends and fans when they matter most—when they're fresh and relevant to the cultural conversation."

If a piece feels timely, it's difficult to capture the moment if you have to wait for publication. Just a few weeks ago, I published the essay, In Praise of Going Slow, a piece that had been simmering in my mind for years. It finally came together when I sensed the right moment: an emerging slowcore scene on Farcaster. It would have been very difficult to time the zeitgeist if I had needed to wait months to publish my essay.

Publish is an old word. As Green points out, it comes from the 14th century when books were still copied by hand. Publishing anything was difficult. It was a labor-intensive, time-consuming process, but today, in our digital, software-eaten world, publishing has never been easier.

We could throw out the idea of publishers and publications entirely. Unshackle writers from all gatekeepers and let them publish independently, whenever they wish, and to whoever wants to read them. But there is still value that a publication can provide, and as a long-standing publisher of the poetry magazine, Rattle, Green knows what that value is: "I've come to realize," he writes, "that what I've been providing for my entire career isn't publication at all: it's curation, from the Latin 'curare,' which means to take care of. I'm not a publisher; I'm a curator."

Green goes on to propose replacing the term "published" with "curated." A poem is uncurated, not unpublished. A journal like Rattle curates poems. It does not "publish" them. I agree wholeheartedly with this approach. It pushes language in the direction it needs to go, towards embracing the reality of what it's like to write and share in the twenty-first century.

Platform Dynamics—Why You Cannot Outsource Curation

Curation is an important concept not just because it's a better term for the valuable work that publishers provide, but because it's also the critically missing piece of what has been termed the "creator economy." I've written before about my dissatisfaction with the creator economy, specifically the way that it contorts creative expression, twisting it into high-velocity "content" that helps to grow platform engagement at the expense of both creators and consumers.

Can we fix the creator economy? I think so, and I think the answer may be provided by Timothy Green's salient insight that publication is curation.

The central problem with the creator economy is that it places the creator at the center of its universe. Everyone, regardless of what they are doing (or would like to do) must become a creator to unlock value, and in turn, the creator becomes responsible for everything involved in creative production.

In his essay, How can we grow the Creator Economy from the 1% to the other 99%? Abhishek Agarwal points out that the creator economy rests on a particular monetizable relationship: that between the content and its creator. As Agarwal says, "The value is in the network but it is the content::creator unit that is seen as the monetizable entity." But there's a lot more happening in online networks that create value besides creating content. "Every user active on a digital content platform influences not only distribution," Agarwal writes, "but actively supplies fodder for the content that emerges within these environments." Online networks work on a 90-9-1 ratio, in which 90% of users are "lurkers" (they read but don't actively participate), 9% contribute occasionally, and 1% account for the majority of contributions. As Agarwal rightly observes, the creator economy rewards the 1% of users who contribute the most content at the expense of the 99% of other users who are nonetheless instrumental in growing the platform (and its associated value) as a whole.

The 90-9-1 ratio is much older than online communities, however. It's just that the scale of online networks has made the relationship noticeable. But if you look at the history of creative movements, you'll see a similar breakdown. Literary scenes, for instance, were not built by writers alone. They had many other people contributing in various ways to create a vibrant scene. There were four roles, and they map nicely to the 90-9-1 ratio:

  • Writers (the 1%) - creative, generative

  • Critics (the 9%) - critical, curatorial

  • Readers (the 90%) - receptive, quiet

  • Librarians (the platform) - preservative, archival


Enough has been said about writers; they play the obvious role, and in the creator economy, that role has been placed in the spotlight.

But what's a writer without readers? A silly, posturing thing. It would seem obvious that for any literary culture to flourish, it would need writers like an organism needs oxygen. Yet digital platforms can struggle here. They court writers, hoping that readers will naturally follow—but they don't always. Witness Substack Notes, a platform full of writers writing to ... other writers.

The reader is the lurker of the creator economy—the 90%—and they present two "problems" for platforms:

  • How do you get them to participate

  • How do you measure their (often invisible) contributions

Though the gatekeepers have been abolished, and anyone can publish anything, most people choose to remain silent. Why? This appears to greatly annoy platform owners. Shortly after taking control of Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted that "90% of Twitter users read, but don't tweet, reply, or like." He then introduced public view counts as a way to "show how much more alive Twitter is."

This is typical "creator economy" thinking: how do you measure (so that you can monetize) an invisible activity? How do you make the platform appear more appealing—more "alive"—if 90% of its participants are silent and invisible?

You try to goad them into posting more. You try and convert some of the 90% into active participants. This line of reasoning never bothers to wonder why somebody is happy to lurk. It's a particular sort of blindness, an inability to see the value that a reader brings if they don't also do something in the form of a public appraisal. If a digital platform can't measure it, it doesn't exist. Most of the positive contributions that lurkers make to a social platform are invisible—or dark. Activities like texting someone a link, taking a screenshot of a post and sharing it on a different site, and telling someone IRL about a great blog—these all help to grow networks but are mostly unseen on the network.

Trying to entice lurkers to participate more also completely misses the point: just because anybody can publish doesn't mean they should; and more subtly, it doesn't mean they should want to. Before social media, it was a completely natural idea that someone could spend their entire life reading books without ever once entertaining the idea that they should write one.

The creator economy has not done well in courting readers. It "cares" about readers, but only in two dysfunctional ways:

  • Turning them into creators ("you, too, can make money doing this")

  • Aggressively tracking (and monetizing) their activities

But readers are the largest cohort and the value they provide is the entire value of the scene. There is no value to provide to creators without extracting something from its lurkers—time, money, attention—but that value should flow back to them in turn. They should receive more than empty promises. The question is not how to turn lurkers into participants but how to make their time spent on the platform worthwhile.


Speaking of platforms, we come to the third role: the librarian. Their role is to preserve. They ensure that the output of work is available to be consumed and that consumers can find what they are looking for via discovery mechanisms.

When words were bound to physical form, libraries took physical shape, too. This left them vulnerable to catastrophe and also required that they make decisions on what to preserve, how to preserve it, and for how long.

But in our digital age, librarianship has changed, too. Most words are now stored digitally, and the largest library in the world is Google. In addition to processing 3.5 billion searches of information daily, Google Books stores over 40 million titles in more than 500 languages, free and accessible online. The goal is to scan all 130 million distinct book titles in existence, which would make Google Books the library of all libraries.

The librarian role has been replaced by the digital platforms themselves. They are now the storehouses of the enormous quantities of data produced every second on our planet. The drastically shrinking cost of storage—combined with the emergence of large language models (LLMs)—creates an information-storage system that the librarians of Alexandria could only dream of. You can now, theoretically, store everything and access everything via AI librarian centaurs who help you surface key information from vast oceans of data.

Today, most people browse online via platforms that store all the content generated on them and make that content available via algorithmically-generated feeds. While platforms are fairly well-suited to their role as content storehouses, what is becoming increasingly clear is that platforms are also trying to become curators via recommendation engines. This has not worked out at all.


The writer creates, the reader receives, the librarian stores and the curator decides what is worthwhile and why.

The curator (also known as the "critic" in literary circles) decides what is valuable, to whom is it valuable, and why it is valuable. They create and sustain culture. Their role is to build and maintain canons—not "set in stone" canons that can never change, but living breathing ones that adapt to changing times. The curator understands creative work and they understand the times in which they live, knitting those two understandings together to create scenes. They are the ultimate vibe masters.

In the creator economy, the curatorial role has been replaced by algorithms, and this is a problem for several reasons. The algorithm cannot sense vibes. It doesn't understand culture. It cannot understand how a piece of creative work does or does not fit within a certain milieu. It cannot tell what is worth recommending and what is not without first receiving feedback—which is pointless, because it is the curator's job to recommend what is worthy of attention, not the other way around. The algorithm has it backward. It requires that you first do stuff on the platform, and then, based on that history, will recommend more of the same.

The human curator informs the reader what is valuable and worth their time, and the reader thanks them for it. The algorithm curator waits for the reader to tell them what is valuable, and then feeds them more of it. The algorithm doesn't even do the work of curation. They outsource it to the reader.

But this is how all social media feeds and recommendation algorithms work. They gather information on what you consume and then feed you more based on that initial input. They quite literally cannot do anything else. They are not capable of introducing true novelty.

These algorithms also do not have preservative instincts across time. They cannot create canons. They cannot highlight work that is worth coming back to. Work that inspires more work. Everything is ephemeral, doomed to dissipate beneath a relentless stream of content.

There's also a biological quirk that renders the entire system insane. For completely understandable reasons, evolution has ensured that humans respond to potential threats more immediately than to anything else in their environment. It's a system that makes sense—if you see a tiger in a field of berries, it doesn't matter how delicious the berries look, all you're going to pay attention to is the tiger. Because while eating is important, the tiger might kill you, rendering the need to eat moot.

This means that algorithms, in trying to assess what interests you, will, over time, feed you more and more content that triggers a threat response. The algorithm is blindly trying to give you "more of what you want" by tracking where your attention lies, but where your attention does not point to what you want, it points to what you fear. If you want to know what someone's afraid of, look at their social media feed for a day.

Platform owners don't care because the numbers keep going up. It doesn't matter what biological systems are contorted to make it happen, value accrues when the numbers go up. And if the numbers stop going up, they can simply introduce new metrics—like views—and make those numbers go up.

But it's not all doom and gloom. A recent study in Nature showed that being online can have "a positive effect on welfare" and that the Internet might "boost measures of well-being, such as life satisfaction and sense of purpose." I've experienced this positive side of being online—along with the bad—which makes me realize that there's nothing inherently bad about these technologies. The danger is when they are deployed in ways that do not understand these dynamics; when human flourishing is ignored in favor of making certain metrics go up.

One way to rethink these platforms is to think about all the users across the 90-0-1 ratio; to figure out how to share a platform's overall value with all its contributors, big and small. In the creator economy, this means rewarding readers and curators alongside creators.

Our digital systems generate noise and there's little the algorithms can do about it. We need curators—good curators—who can help us navigate these noisy waters and promote positive signals.

Only then can we possibly build a creator economy that isn't just predatory. That doesn't just promote the top one percent of creators. For vibrant creative scenes to function, the value must flow to all four roles. Good work must be created, and it must be identified, amplified, and stored for the future. Only then can you create an environment favorable to readers, which increases the value of the entire scene.

Strong curation is the missing piece. It produces better readers—and better writers. It unlocks the value provided by both creators and lurkers. It creates digital platforms worth spending time on.

How to Create the Curator Economy

For this system to work, curation labor must unlock value. How do you do that? Via protocols that allow payment to flow to the creator, the curator, and the platform; and by creating a space that is attractive for readers.

Let's imagine creating one for poetry, as an example.

First, built a simple app for posting and reading poetry. You could use the Farcaster protocol and create a client that reads certain channels—the Poetry channel, for starters. Make the experience simple and beautiful. Focus on readers—you want to create a space where it's easy to engage in poetry. A space that encourages close reading and deep thought—away from the casino incentives and constant interruptions that are typical of traditional social media platforms. A client on top of an existing protocol is the perfect system.

Then, hook the client up to a payment system—it could be Zora or Paragraph—for minting and creator rewards. Make it easy for readers to collect their favorite poems, create curated lists, and "super like" in the form of transferring money to poets.

Encourage readers to follow poets they like, and encourage poets to post their work to the network, unlocking value instantaneously.

Next, encourage good curators to take on the traditional role of journals. As Timothy Green argued in his "Curation Revolution," good poetry journals are good curators of work. These editors would then browse the feed, looking for good poems. When they identify one that they would like to curate, they can set up a contract with the author to split future funds that come from the additional exposure.

When a reader mints a poem, both the creator and the curator receive a portion of the funds (along with a small percentage to the platform). Curators could then create their own journals—which could be channels on the Farcaster protocol—collating their collections into a separate feed, making it easy for readers to browse and collect. You can see how this curatorial work is rewarded. If you curate strong work that readers want to collect, you get a small cut for every transaction.

To bootstrap the network, you could make poems in the public domain mintable. Funds from these poems could then be added to a grant used to pay poets and curators who are active on the network.

Attract great writers. Share the funds they generate directly with them. Attract great readers. Make their time valuable. Attract great curators who help bring readers and writers together. Create a repository of great work and ensure it's available in the future.

If you pulled this off, would you have satisfied the criteria I listed out earlier? Will you have created a system that combines the best of both worlds? The freedom and flexibility of self-publishing with the exposure boost of traditional publishing? Would this system give writers the following:

  • Access to new audiences

  • A curatorial stamp of approval

  • Visibility with critical tastemakers

  • A steady flow of work

  • Instantaneous feedback

  • A direct line of communication to their biggest fans

I think that it would. Imagine: you finish a poem and post it to the network. Those already following you see it and read it immediately. Your biggest fans mint it, transferring money directly to you. A curator finds your work and deploys a smart contract to list it in their journal. You get more exposure, resulting in more money and increased followers, which in turn boosts your future work and unlocks value from your long tail of published creations.

The trick is that we've separated publication and curation. Creators publish. All on their own; when they're ready; as little or as often as they wish. "Publishers" curate. They pick out what they like and boost its exposure. The slush pile is now a public feed—open for all to see. Anyone can contribute to it; anyone can read what's in it; anyone can curate work from it.

No longer will you have to wait for someone to choose your work. When it's done, it's published—available to all. On a platform specifically designed to attract readers and curators.

Now it just needs someone to build it.

If you enjoyed this essay, you can collect it right here on Paragraph. Or, if you'd prefer, you can collect a screenshot version of this essay on Zora:

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