Link in bio

Linktree, the creator economy and the segmented life

There’s something both maddening and undeniably satisfying about companies which set out to solve a very niche, artificial problem, and manage to somehow build a business — however rickety it may be — around it.

Take for example the number of ‘link in bio' platforms that have popped over the last few years. Australian firm LinkTree is the most prominent, but there also plenty of challengers with low-effort, SEO-hungry names like Feedlink, Shorby, Lnk.Bio, AllMyLinks, Link In Profile and ContactInBio.

They all solve the same problem, which is that major social media platforms like Instagram generally only allow users to share a single link: the one in their profile bio. The reasoning behind why this is the case is pretty obvious. Platforms would rather keep users frolicking in their walled gardens, consuming their targeted content and ads, rather than being allowed to wander out to the open web to do God knows what. A few years ago, “link in bio” was just a pithy way of pointing people to click on that one link, which savvy operators would switch in and out for whatever content they wanted their followers to engage with at any given moment. (As an aside, it’s quite funny to read back on the 2017-era pieces about this trend.)

It was inevitable that platforms like Linktree would develop. They provide a simple, mildly customisable landing page which users can populate with links to all of their other online presences. It’s both a genius and very fragile proposition. If Instagram suddenly decided to allow multiple links in bio, or provided a competing, integrated service, these companies would collapse very quickly1. There are plenty of similarly vulnerable companies in the online economy, thriving in the crevices, nooks and crannies which inevitably form in the tech industry superstructure, absorbing ad and subscription money parasitically and praying some product manager at Google or Facebook doesn’t casually obliterate them in pursuit of an 0.0001% improvement in quarterly revenue2.

In an effort to avoid this fate, companies inevitably look to broaden their offering rather than just pursue explosive user growth, which could fall off a cliff with little warning. Linktree, for example, wants to invest in social commerce and payments, rather than just being a liminal space people move through while trying to get somewhere else. They’re also clearly trying to make the brand aspirational for the creative set, and toward that end have set up a $250,000 ‘passion grant fund’ intended to “support creators, activists and entrepreneurs in taking their passion to the next level”. I remind you that the company’s core product offering is a colourful list of links.

But I’m less interested in the longterm success of these companies and more in how they reflect a strange and mildly perverse new way of thinking about our social and economic lives.

The segmented life

By now you’re no doubt at least cursorily familiar with the ‘creator economy’, here aptly described by Mark Stenberg at Medialyte: “The creator economy consists of individuals with unique skillsets using platforms to monetise their craft.”

He goes on:

In the late 2010s, specifically following the advent of Substack, Patreon, and OnlyFans, a new paradigm emerged. These platforms, rather than require massive fanbases, held the promise of turning just a few devoted fans into revenue. Using digital subscriptions, a person offering a distinct enough service could generate revenue from people who wanted that service, no matter how small or large the following.

Plenty of media coverage over the past few years has been dedicated to understanding this new mode, and how it differs from the ad-supported ‘influencers’ who took a very visible (if ultimately marginal) role in the online economy in the 2010s.

At its core, it’s about conversion. Someone has a ‘skill’ (broadly defined) they convert into an audience, which a platform then converts into subscriptions, tips and other revenue. Weirdly, titans like Facebook and Twitter only recently seem to have caught onto the fact that their users have been going off-platform to perform that conversion, and have been hastily devising ways to keep it in-house3.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the technological and social role Linktree and its ilk occupy in the creator economy, and why they see a future in offering payments infrastructure themselves. They let creators essentially ‘pool’ their followings across platforms, making it somewhat more frictionless for someone to transfer their Instagram audience to something more readily monetisable, like Twitch or OnlyFans or whatever it may be.

Head to your Instagram Discover page, or your TikTok For You feed, and start clicking on random profiles, then further profiles mentioned and linked to from those, and follow the web outwards. You’re going to see a lot of links in bio, and you’re going to quickly identify a lot of patterns and sameness forming. In their Linktree links, you’ll usually see core social and content platforms (Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter) alongside creator platforms (Twitch, OnlyFans, Cameo, newsletters, Amazon affiliate pages, fitness and diet subscriptions, and so on).

You’ll quickly identify something curious: it’s often the less successful people with smaller audiences who list more of these creator platforms on their link pages. This is no doubt due to the simple fact that the creator economy works just like the regular capitalist economy does: the gains tend to accumulate at the top with the biggest creators. (By one analysis, the top 1% of OnlyFans creators make a third of all revenue, with 73% going to the top 10%.) If you’re only getting scraps from any one platform, you may as well broaden your offering.

It creates an eerie effect, like you’re looking at not a person but rather an array of shopfronts on a high street. The politics of the ‘personal brand’ has been with us for decades at this point, but this feels like a further atomisation. It’s no longer sufficient to have a personal brand, however curated it may be. You need to live a truly segmented life, vertically sliced and compartmentalised, and parcelled up for sale: I sell my time on Twitch, my body on OnlyFans, my reputation on Cameo and my mind on Substack.

This mode of production is obviously still nascent, and it leaves to be seen just how sustainable it is beyond the pandemic, when a certain segment of the population has less cash to burn and perhaps less of a need for the kind of parasocial relationship they can find and purchase online from creators. But I think it probably has legs. In an era of non-existent wage growth, bullshit jobs, elite overproduction via expensive tertiary education and exploding asset prices, and — perhaps most importantly — cheap audiovisual equipment, this is going to continue to thrive.

Down the sinkhole

When I look at these facsimile link in bio pages across hundreds of accounts, it’s hard not to be reminded of the initial promise of the gig economy, however absurd it might have been.

In the original telling, the gig economy was also story of simple conversion. Platforms like Uber and Airbnb’s pitched their product as a way of converting excess capacity into revenue. You have inventory, they said. You’re already a business and you don’t even know it. Have some extra time of an evening and a vehicle? Drive people around on Uber. Going on holiday? Don’t let your house sit there burning potential — rent it out to travellers on Airbnb.

This was back when both companies were folded under the ‘sharing economy’ umbrella, which you don’t hear so much anymore. Because it doesn’t work like that now. When you catch an Uber, there’s a good chace your driver is doing it full time, or for so many hours that it can’t reasonably be called a ‘side hustle’. Tourist cities across the world are packed with identikit homes and apartments which serve no purpose other than soaking up elevated Airbnb rents all year round. Delivery riders manoeuvre dangerous city streets on bikes while swiping between the three or four different apps they use, collecting meagre rates per delivery.

I can see that change in its nascency already in the ‘creator economy’. Sold as a way for talented people to turn their fanbases into money, I see a strata of people who want to make money taking an ‘anything goes’ approach at the bottom, fighting for the scraps left behind by bigger creators. Whether or not the entire mode lasts or is supplanted by something else entirely, I think it’s something to watch.

1

There are already signals this could happen. TikTok now has a dedicated social profile button in addition to the single bio link, where users can link out to set platforms like Instagram and YouTube. You’ll now often see people on TikTok directing people to view their link in bio through their Instagram page — adding another click, another step, and more potential for audience growth.

2

There’s actually a word for it: ‘Sherlocking’. It refers to when Apple clones the function of a third-party application and integrates it into their operating system, rendering the app obsolete.

3

Considering the fact a good chunk of the most popular Substack newsletters are just successful efforts to convert big Twitter followings into subscriptions, it’s particularly amusing — but not at all surprising — that Twitter wasn’t on the front foot.