Now, running a company that helps creators earn predictable monthly income from fan memberships, Conte is pissed off at Meta. As both Facebook and Instagram make changes to emphasize algorithmic curation, even the Kardashians have rallied for the platform to "stop trying to be TikTok."
"I realize I'm a bit biased as CEO of Patreon here. I get that, but this is a big deal for creators," Conte said about the shift to AI-heavy feeds in an Instagram reel last week. "We spent years investing in these platforms, building followers, building communities, and these changes remind us once again that these are not our followers, these are Facebook's users."
Meta's ceaseless imitation of TikTok has been brewing angst among creators for a while, especially after Instagram head Adam Mosseri declared that the platform is no longer just a photo-sharing app.
“Instagram is making it seem like the photography to video thing is a separate thing from algorithmic curation, but that’s not entirely true," Conte said.
He has a point -- the promotion of videos over photos is, inherently, an algorithmic decision. Though Zuckerberg said that our time spent watching reels has increased 30% quarter-over-quarter, this might just be because we're being served more and more video content on our feeds.
"I actually think the problems are quite linked, because when you focus on the platform mitigating the relationship between the creator and the subscriber, what you're essentially doing is giving the platform the power and the responsibility to decide what to send to whom, when," Conte explained. "And that's the part of it that makes me angry as a creator. Because I've spent years, decades building communities on these platforms."
After such widespread backlash, Instagram head Adam Mosseri said that the social network would walk back some of its changes, including its test of a TikTok-like full-screen feed and its increase of algorithmically recommended posts.
"I doubt that the roll-back is long term," Conte told TechCrunch. "I think they’re trying to figure out what to do [over] like, the next few weeks, next few months."
The wishy-washy decision-making among Meta executives seems a bit closer to theater than actually taking constructive feedback from users. After all, as Mosseri made these statements, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had just announced on a difficult Meta earnings call that algorithmically recommended content would double on Facebook and Instagram by the end of next year.
"I believe that Instagram is committed to algorithmic discovery, as is Meta," Conte said. "I believe they’re committed to essentially move from more of a follower priority model to an algorithmically curated model, because I believe that’s what they view as one of their core weaknesses against TikTok.”
Seemingly every social platform has tried to emulate TikTok in some regard, which makes sense -- clearly, the app is doing something right in capturing audience attention, since it reached 1 billion monthly active users faster than any other platform. TikTok has launched countless creators' careers by algorithmically promoting lesser-known personalities on its For You Page, but even once you develop an audience, it's difficult to make money from TikTok alone. One TikToker with 36,000 followers told TechCrunch that they only make "between $1 and $6" per month from the TikTok Creator Fund, so they instead rely on brand deals, partnerships and payouts from other social platforms for income.
So when Meta imitates TikTok, they're imitating a platform that's still trying to figure out how to properly compensate creators. This issue is heightened because on algorithm-first feeds like TikTok -- and now, Instagram and Facebook -- there's no guarantee that your followers will actually see what you post, making it harder to connect with them. YouTube similarly faced backlash when it stopped automatically notifying subscribers of new channel uploads.
To navigate the constant changes in algorithms and creator funds, Conte urges creators to diversify their income streams.
"Don't put all of your eggs in any one company's basket," Conte said in his Instagram video. Of course, Patreon itself is a basket, and a false step can seriously implicate the creators who rely on the platform for monthly payouts. Some creators have fretted that Patreon's open curiosity about web3 could alienate subscribers who (understandably) see blockchain technology as a vessel for elaborate scams. (For the record, Conte told TechCrunch that crypto features are not "on the roadmap" right now). But that's all the more reason why Conte's advice to creators makes sense.
“I'm not going to stand up in front of creators and say you should bet everything in your careers on Patreon," Conte said. "Of course, you shouldn't. You should operate like a smart business person and spin up a Patreon, and sell some merch, and have some ad revenue and build an email list."
As Instagram pilots its own in-app subscription product, it may seem like an opportune time for the CEO of Patreon to critique a competitor.
"Strategically we’re of course paranoid about it and looking into it, but not losing sleep about it," Conte said about Instagram creator subscriptions.
According to data from SimilarWeb, Patreon gets very little traffic from Facebook and Instagram -- the majority of the website's social media traffic comes from YouTube. In Patreon's own survey of its creators, the platform found that 38% of respondents primarily work in video, followed by 17% in writing and 14% in audio. Conte also thinks Patreon's subscription business has a leg up over Instagram since it purports itself to be creator-first.
“Instagram has a fundamental choice to make,” Conte said. “Are we building a place where people can build deep, intimate, lasting relationships with each other? Or are we building this top-of-funnel, mass media, algorithmic curation platform?"
For now, it seems like Meta has chosen the latter. This dichotomy also invites platforms to choose between what's best for creators and what's best for their bottom line. This doesn't have to be a mutually exclusive choice, but Meta's ad-first business model makes it so.
"I believe that the platforms and companies that respect the transition and shift toward creative people will ultimately win," Conte said. "To me, this seems over the long run like Meta fighting creators, instead of respecting that creators run the show now. And that, I don't think is a winning strategy."