Many of these new players have historically existed in a “pre-revenue” space — that is, they have gained higher evaluations than their return on investment might suggest. But, this is starting to change. How will profitability impact the kinds of social and cultural functions these players perform in this new media ecology?
The profitability of platforms is very uneven. It’s much too early to say which of the current slew of social media platforms will survive and thrive, and under what conditions. Twitter for example is very problematic as an economic proposition. It has huge social media affordance, but if it was to falter – as a lot of business media is reporting over 2015-6 – whole swathes of industrious academics in our field would be looking for new angles! Facebook is humongous and threatens to create a proprietary wall around the web for developing countries particularly in Africa, dressed up of course as civic noblesse oblige. YouTube is in a different position. Hammocked by Google’s VERY deep pockets, it was purchased for $1.65 billion back in 2006 and some now estimate it to be worth $70 billion but it has only started to break even very recently. It has been given all the time in the (online) world to get its (business) act together.
But for cultural studies scholars, the point is not really about profitability –it’s about commerciality as such. Most scholars, so far, have treated the kinds of social and cultural functions YouTube performs in the new media ecology as having been compromised by its rapid commercialisation. Jose Van Dijck, for example, says a ‘far cry from its original design, YouTube is no longer an alternative to television, but a full-fledged player in the media entertainment industry’.
Our point is to absolutely acknowledge the deep social and cultural role and impact of YouTube. Vanderbilt University law professor Stephen Hetcher says of its ability to avoid Napsterization: ‘the world has never before seen the likes of YouTube in terms of availability of non-infringing content’. This has allowed it to roll out a virtually global space for vernacular video content whose success culturally as well is commercially has seen most of the contending digital platforms needing to develop video players.
Our second point would be that there is still massive non-commercial civic space available on YouTube. But its commercialisation strategies of professionalizing amateurs have now reached a level that demands critical analytical attention without such strategies being normatively framed against the brief period of pure YouTube amateurism.
We’ve seen many generations of struggles for independent artists to gain greater access to the viewing public. How might these new media producers fit within that history? But, the genres or kinds of entertainment they produce are radically different — more commercial in a sense — than what constituted independent media-making in the past. So, how do you respond to critics who would argue that these independent producers are selling out and going mainstream?
Rather than artists or producers, most of our interview subjects referred to themselves as “content creators”, although some used the term “community builders”. In stark contrast to media artists in the past, these platforms offered these creators unlimited access. No gatekeepers or scarcity. The only limitations were, as mentioned before, the iterative tech and social platform that are harnessed and converted into commercial affordances by these creators.
However, before they were creators, and like most artists and producers, they were fans, users, and viewers. And, in addition to watching content, they were also engaging with creators and their fans who shared their interests. Over time, these users became creators, operating as hobbyists initially until they discovered how to monetize their content and their community. In an effort to distinguish these phenomena from traditional entertainment, we have coined the term “communitainment”. This term accounts for their use of social media platforms, uniquely content innovation, as well as the “communion” between creators and their fan communities.
Within communitainment, creators have engage in unique and iterative content innovation that is sometimes starkly different from the high production value and sophisticated narratives of traditional media. Hank Green, one of the most prominent creator-entrepreneurs in this ecology, described how “YouTube has helped people create at least three massive genres of cheap-to-produce, high-quality content that viewers really, really love. Video game “Let’s Plays”, style tutorials, and direct-to-camera monologues (which we in the biz call “Vlogs”).” Our own genre analysis offers slight variation and, as with most genre formulations, is libel for taxonomic tyranny and rightfully subject to heightened scrutiny and debate.
Game play has emerged as one of the most popular forms of content on YouTube. PewDiePie has converted his comedic game play commentary into over 43 million subscribers and 11.5 billion video views. Although he appears often singularly on screen, PewDiePie employs over thirty people plus a raft of managers, publicists, and advertising experts who run his global media brand across multiple platforms. Although our analysis would suggest much higher sums, PDP has also been rumoured to have earned over $14 million in revenue from his game play in 2015.
Despite some backlash from his fans, for which PDP has even issued forth a kind of video apologia, his media empire continues to grow. This has been a pattern we’ve found with other creators and communities who understand that this space requires funding. That said, creators have developed a fascinating self-regulatory system for maintaining authenticity with their fans while also generating revenue. Creators are very cautious to avoid brand deals with products and services that are misaligned with their own content and representation. As one manager mentioned, “a 19-year-old would be happy to take a one million dollar check from an advertiser unless it’s the last check she ever gets.”
By the way, PDP is just the tip of the game play universe. In 2011, Twitch combined game play on YouTube with the affordances of live broadcasting and was acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. The platform has 100 million monthly users and 12,000 partners generating revenue off of their game play. China features an even more competitive game play industry, including multiple platforms like Panda TV and DuoyuTV that routinely pilfer each others best players.
As Green affirms, style tutorials feature prominently on YouTube and Michele Phan operates as perhaps the best example of how to combine content innovation with strategic commercial entrepreneurism and grow a media brand. Her aspirational makeup tutorials have secured over 8 million subscribers and over 1 billion views. Phan is not converting her fans into subscribers for her mail order makeup business, Ipsy. Phan is also converting her best fans and subscribers into lifestyle vloggers who appear on her YouTube network called Icon. As a result of this virtually seamless ecology both on and offline, the 26-year-old Phan is now valued at over $500 million.
We prefer the term DIY to refer to not only style tutorials but multiple “how-to” subgenres, including the mysterious world of unboxing. Unboxing features built in narrativity as creators open a box in order to assemble and operate its content. Most notably, we have encountered numerous channels dedicated to children’s toys that have garnered startling view counts. One video featuring the Play Doh Ice Cream Cupcakes Playset has been seen over 740 million times. This content can not help but generate critical anxieties, if not instigate a kind of moral panic, over what these hyper-commercialized appeals may be doing to young viewers.
Vlogging operates as both format and genre, operating more like commodified speech than entertainment IP. As a format, vlogging is a production format featuring direct address as seen in documentaries and reality programs, and now featured regularly in scripted television, like Modern Family and The Office. As a genre, vlogging can feature multiple topics. Hank and John Green are the “vlogbrothers” and have cultivated a community called “nerdfighters”. Their content, which we have identified as a subgenre of “popular information”, feature educational topics as diverse as the U.S. healthcare system to Syrian refugees to why people love giraffes.
In contrast, vloggers like Tyler Oakley feature less overtly educational fare, often based on their own larger-than-life style. Oakley’s most viewed videos cover topics include how to get the best booty, tips for the first kiss, or 100 things he did last year. In his recent feature documentary, Snervous, Oakley acknowledges he doesn’t “make skits or films”. Rather he is “just a personality” – albeit a personality that attracts over 8 million subscribers on YouTube alone, numerous television appearances, bestselling books, and sold out global fan events.
These new media producers are, as a whole, more diverse, culturally, ethnically, racially, and otherwise, than the mainstream media industry. What factors has contributed to the success of minority producers working in this space?
Let’s compare the Academy Awards to the Streamy (online video) awards. 2015’s nominees including an astonishing diversity of race, gender, and national identities, including Palestinian-Americans (Fousey), Germans (Flula), Canadian-Indians (IISuperwomanII), African-Americans (King Bach), and more. While #Oscarssowhite, the Streamyssodiverse. Minority producers have not only harnessed these platforms because of their affordances of unparalleled access coupled with content abundance. They may even be privileged in this space because of their ability to appeal to minorities that have been underrepresented in traditional film and television. This includes Asian-Americans and LGBT content creators who over-index in this space.
Asian-Americans feature prominently in the first wave of commercial content creators on YouTube, e.g., comedians (Fung Brothers and Ryan Higa), musicians (Sam Tsui and David Choi), beauty vloggers like Michele Phan, and traditional scripted creators (Freddie Wong and Wong Fu Productions). Curiously, we discovered that most of the creators ventured online, not due to the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, but because their parents prohibited them from pursuing media and entertainment careers. This phenomenon was as much the consequence of subcultural inhibitions as any perceived or latent racism within the entertainment industry.
Similarly, LGBT content creators are prolific, leading Vanity Fair to claim that, “everyone will come out on YouTube eventually.” Some creators like Tyler Oakley and Davey Wavey arrived online and out. Others like Hannah Hart came out shortly after starting their channel. For transgender people the coming out process can be quite different. Over the past eight years, Gigi Gorgeous allowed her fans to witness her transformation from cisgendered male to transfemale, which well pre-dates the trans moment in traditional media with Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent.
Other creators have come out of the closet mid-career, including top content creators like Ingrid Nilsen, Joey Graceffa, Troye Sivan, and Connor Franta. On the one hand, their declarations affirm the discourses of authenticity that distinguish their content. As a result, their courage is rewarded with millions of views although we found numerous instances where they turned off advertising on their coming out videos, even those reaching over 20 million views. Alternatively, these creators placed their self-owned-and-operated business in peril. When Ingrid Nilsen came out, she jeopardized her multi-year relationship with Covergirl as a “glambassador”. As she declared in our interview, she did not want to represent a brand that wouldn’t accept who she is.
What are the civic or political implications of these new channels and systems of circulation? Are we seeing signs that these new creators are speaking for and to their communities in new ways? Are now issues and new models of mobilization emerging here?
A number of prominent media and communication scholars like Mary Gray and Katherine Sender have described the proliferation of online networked LGBT communities. They have accounted for the unique forms of Guffman-esque impression management conducted by gay youth online. Some have even levelled critiques about the homonormativity within this space.
Our research continues this scholarship to account as well for their commodification of identity, perhaps best exemplified by Joey Graceffa. After six years of hiding his sexuality, Graceffa came out in unique fashion, by writing, producing, and starring in his own musical fantasy video where he saves and kisses his Prince Charming (his boyfriend, Daniel, in real life). After the music video ends, Graceffa delivers his pitch to camera, expressing his firm desire that his fans appreciate his work and that his coming out might just make a difference in someone else’s life. And, by the way, the video is “just a glimpse of what you will discover” if you buy his memoir to be published the next day. In the meantime, purchase the song to download on iTunes.
The coming out of entrepreneurial LGBT content creators may represent the new “gay for pay”. And yet, does this commercialization mitigate their cultural value or meaning for their tens of millions of fans, old and new, gay or straight? In nearly every instance, our research has discovered that LGBT creators who come out of the closet have subsequently engaged in various forms of LGBT activism and media interventionism, whether raising money for LGBT causes, or speaking out on behalf of pro-LGBT policies or advocating for pro-LGBT products and services.
For decades, theorists have described the “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu) and “annihilation” (Gerbner and Gross) committed by the dearth of diverse media representation. In this industry, we may be witnessing the inverse, a symbolic proliferation of authenticated, marginalized identities and performance, albeit for commercial gain. While reinforcing anxieties about media capital and effects, these phenomena also offer the potential for progressive cultural change, not to mention the prospect of dozens of student theses and dissertations.