Whose Passions Belong in the Passion Economy?

A new category of work is emerging. It’s called the passion economy, and it’s built on the idea that you can turn your interests and passions into a livelihood. In many ways is not a new idea: services like YouTube, Kickstarter, and even Twitch have been around for 10+ years. What’s new is the stack of services and tools that make publishing, audience engagement and revenue much easier to manage.

Like the gig economy, the passion economy promises to remove the gatekeepers from one’s career: no resumes to submit, no hiring managers to impress, no ladders to climb. Work when you want, where you want, how you want.

But these freedoms inevitably come with snares of their own. With the gig economy, we’ve seen sparse protections for workers, incentive structures that require grueling hours (it’s not uncommon for Uber drivers to sleep in their cars), and the flattening of one’s identity down to a first name and a star rating. With the passion economy, we’re starting to see a different set of problems:

  • It requires financial runway. As Li Jin writes in her Case for Universal Creative Income, “the current paradigm in the creator economy of amassing an audience through free content before eventually monetizing locks out creators who are less able to take financial risks.” In other words, creators often have to produce work for months or years before seeing a return.  
  • It’s powered by consumers. Today’s passion economy depends primarily on engaging audiences at scale. That could be generating ad revenue on your gaming tutorials, having a large subscriber base for your fitness videos, or having a small number of clients who pay you for 1:1 coaching. In all cases, consumers are paying with attention, money, or both for a service that benefits them personally. Other kinds of work, like creating public goods, don’t fit in nearly as well.
  • It’s built for superstars. Venture capital is a hit-based system; most VCs count on a small number of mega-hits to offset a large number of failures. Similarly, and probably not coincidentally, the platforms that power the passion economy rely on hits. As Li Jin puts it, the passion economy is missing a middle class. Spotify’s numbers are typical of other platforms like Patreon, YouTube, and Twitch: “[T]he top 43,000 artists — roughly 1.4% of those on the platform — pull in 90% of royalties and make, on average, $22,395 per artist per quarter. The rest of its 3 million creators, or 98.6% of its artists, made just $36 per artist per quarter.”

As a result, today’s passion economy today excludes a diversity of worthy people, passions, and projects.

Since launching Hello World in November 2020, we’ve seen some remarkable young people share their passions. Here are just a few examples from the 80,000 teens who’ve joined so far:

  • Gustavo is trying to save his local lake in Bolivia from plastic contamination.
  • Jennifer is writing an audio narrative about monsters who face prejudice and discrimination, echoing her own experiences with homelessness.
  • Zainab is creating sand art to express the suffering in her homeland of Yemen.

These promising young people do not have the financial runway to focus full-time on producing more content until they grow an audience. They do not offer services; rather, they are creating art and public goods. And while superstardom may await them, they aren’t striving for it.

So: do these projects belong in the passion economy? And if not, where do they belong? What institutions will support them? What tech companies will build for them?

Icons via the Noun Project created by Eucalyp, Flatart, Smalllike.