When you click upon a star

When YouTube held the third edition of its Fan Fest — featuring superstar content creators on its platform — in Mumbai earlier this year, general admission tickets were sold out within an hour. Capacity crowds came to see in the flesh artists they'd only seen on their computer and phone screens before, like Indian-Canadian rapper Lily Singh, and home-grown comedy acts like AIB and East India Comedy.

But that’s entertainment; always good for eyeballs and bums-on-seats.

Take a look at something as everyday as cooking. A simple search for Indian food recipes on the platform throws up a dizzying array of amateur content producers, from housewives to semi-professionals, all offering their own twist to things, with views well into the millions.

How do we understand this democratised content creation and distribution? What are its effects on traditional media?

Two leading academics in the media studies field — Professor Stuart Cunningham of the Queensland University of Technology and Professor David Craig of the University of Southern California — joined forces try and map this new emerging media ecology. Over the past year, they spoken to over a hundred content producers, platform managers and fans all over the world to understand what they term, somewhat clunkily, as ‘communitainment’, a new mode of professional and semi-professional content creation that leverages a deep connection between creator and online consumer. As part of their field work, Cunningham and Craig were in Mumbai to conduct interviews and to deliver a lecture on their work at the Godrej Culture Labs. The Hindu caught up with them for a chat on how their work evolved and some of their major findings.

Excerpts from the interview

What are you trying to study and how did the project evolve?

Stuart Cunningham: We are trying to look at all the bits and pieces that go into making this new ecology. It was originally on YouTube, but has gone much wider now. It’s a whole commercialised system of amateur content creators who have found ways to create businesses for themselves, originally through shared revenue that platforms like YouTube offered, but now also influencer marketing, licensing deals and live appearances. We coined the term communitainment because this is a form of communication that relies a lot on the notion of community. We think it’s a distinctive industry that is throwing out a challenge to mainstream media, which is not nearly as interactive. And it’s evolved over a short period of time: it’s only a little over 10 years since Youtube first came into being.

It’s growing to be very significant in India, though there are some technological and cultural reasons for why it hasn’t exploded yet as it has in other parts of the world. India is one of the many countries we are studying to map the reach of this new industry.

Your research started with how these new content creators are creating a different ecology in relation to Hollywood. What is the contrast you see with India?

David Craig: In the US, YouTube first started to incubate ‘amateur professionals’, people generating content out of their homes and now moving to studio spaces, getting more professional in the nature of their content. What we discovered in the US — and there are now similarities here — is that this is an industry that often co-evolves with traditional media. In the US, the breadth and nature of television and film content is pretty wide, which has allowed for the kind of content that has emerged on social media to be an alternative to that.

In India, in many ways Bollywood has a bit of a stranglehold in terms of diversity of content, which has limited certain voices from emerging. The first two kinds of genres that have emerged are more professional kinds of content like indie music and stand-up comedy.

SC: At the same time, there are also the beginnings of certain types of amateur content, especially in food. Housewives are now producing content and getting a lot of views.

So it’s just starting, and we’re interested in looking at whether people can make reasonable careers out of this.

What has your research thrown up in terms of how these content producers can make careers, earn income?

DC: You see each of them having their own kind of micro-ecology around how they generate revenue. They could make money through advertising that the platform provides, but they also get approached by brands to do ‘influencer marketing’, a kind of content marketing where they feature a brand which is inside their content already. Then there’s selling their books, appearing on TV, fan events, live appearances: it’s an almost unlimited array. Once you organise a large community then the money will come.

There have been eight successful Vidcons in Los Angeles — events which bring together people who love online videos — where there are tens of thousands of YouTube followers and stars. There are live appearances and seminars. Then there are Mag tours: Instagram and Vine celebrities who get together and go on road trips; people pay hundreds of dollars just to be in a room with their favourite Viners or Instagramers. There are Snappers from Snapchat, Scopers from Periscope, all getting into live appearances.

These are new platforms that haven’t been around that long.

Does this point to a new way of creating celebrity status? How does it differ from a traditional celebrity?

SC: Traditional celebrities are constructed by virtue of platforms, studios and networks. But there isn’t necessarily a direct relationship with fans.

This is a different phenomenon we are describing here: content creators who don’t even consider themselves celebrities; they consider themselves community organisers around shared values and interests, and they spend a big portion of their day interacting with fans, liking, sharing, reacting to criticism. It’s part of their creative practice.

DC: A key values is authenticity. Because there is genuine engagement with audiences, if they are, say, exposed for maybe endorsing a product that is not true to their values, they lose their audience. Their community feels lied to, and they walk away.

The content they have created is an extension of themselves. It’s shockingly strategic when you think of it, and requires an extraordinary intuition about what’s going to work.

When brands come to ask them if they will endorse products, we’ve heard many instances of creators walking away from the deal if they feel they are asked to promote the brand in a way that is not authentic. So they don’t want to sell a product, but they are happy to tell a story that features a product.

Which are the most interesting verticals in terms of content that have come up in this space?

SC: One of the most interesting genres is vlogging, which we’ve found is not something you see in India. This is a person talking into the camera about… just about anything for 5 minutes to 25 minutes, and there are thousands of them. It’s interesting to look at the character trajectory of a vlogger. How does that person keep engaging an audience? What kind of performances are required?

Gameplay— where people play video games and others watch and comment on them — has already had a major impact on the gaming industry, because they are the ultimate influencers. And DIY [do-it-yourself] videos. Perhaps the most interesting vertical we are studying is unboxing: stuff being taken out of a box — maybe toys or trinkets or electronic stuff — and then you see someone assemble it and use it. These are sometimes watched upwards of 750 million times. Our theory is that a lot of these videos effectively function as a virtual babysitter. Parents just put on the videos in front of their kids in iPads and they just watch them on repeat.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 2:24:21 AM |

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