Professional... or amateur?
Of course, there are Youtubers like French star Norman, who claims to earn "around €100,000" per year. There are also performers who have transitioned to TV, like the Palmashow humorists on French TV channel D8. Or popular Instagrammers who are hired by advertising and communications agencies, like Aurély Cerise and Qorz. But this elite paints a deceptive picture. Only a tiny minority of amateurs achieve this type of success, which does not reflect the ambitions of the overwhelming majority. Enthusiasts don't join platforms like Instagram, YouTube or Soundcloud to become rich and famous. According to sociologists Jean-Samuel Beuscart (Orange Labs) and Maxime Crepel (Médialab Sciences Po), they join for the same reasons that other people join local clubs: to exchange ideas with their peers, share technical advice, and obtain constructive feedback. In other words, they want to improve their work or refine their style.
Qualitative rather than quantitative objectives
On these platforms, the temptation to scramble for clicks certainly exists. Constantly gaining more subscribers, likes or friends - regardless of the amateur's initial motivation - is thrilling. But it can also be time-consuming, and ultimately sterile. "It's a sort of race, a fake race which is a bit sick: 'I want to get views, I want to get likes.' I went through that phase, but I care a lot less about all that now," says Samuel, a photographer interviewed by Beuscart and Crepel.
50% of the accounts hosted by these platforms are abandoned or inactive ghost accounts, deserted by a group Beuscart and Crepel refer to as "disenchanted amateurs." They are disappointed by the exchanges between creators and their public, which all too often hide ulterior motives or are simply superficial. In these conditions, it can be hard for amateurs to build a genuine community around their own work or that of their peers. According to image historian André Gunthert, "the motivation behind using a camera or any other device is primarily social. If that motivation is lacking, device use drops." The proof: when amateurs manage to join or form small, highly-social groups of enthusiasts, their creative activity continues and generally intensifies.
Audience indicators: an inevitable temptation?
This quest to share and exchange has not created a competitive environment, pitting creators turned audience strategists against one another, although we are often tempted to imagine them in that light due to the presence of counters and other indicators. While it would be absurd to claim that amateurs don't care about their statistics, it would be equally wrong to argue that they are marketers first and artists second.
Knowing your audience level is appealing, no matter what the motivation behind registration. The various indicators on their personal interfaces enable authors to obtain a precise idea of their visitors' social and professional background, the duration of their visit, etc. What they do with that information, however, varies. Some take a strategic approach and look for ways to build and maintain their reputation, which has become an important factor in platform hierarchies. But the amateur videographers interviewed by Jean-Samuel Beuscart and Kevin Mellet indicated that in order to maintain artistic integrity and their freedom, they prefer to let go of their stats. At the other end of the spectrum, successful video stars like Norman focus on humour "that everyone will like, and that doesn't hurt or upset anyone."
Platforms going "professional"
Audiences are essential for platforms, even more than for amateurs, whose expertise is increasing thanks to Web 2.0. Platforms are now seeking relevant, targeted content capable of attracting the biggest possible, most "consumption-oriented" audience possible, in a bid to appeal to advertisers. Hence the profusion of ratings, groups, channels, etc. On Flickr, the daily "Explore" features the 500 best shots, while Soundcloud offers top charts which are updated daily. Video platforms go even farther, with offers that encourage video producers to design their creations like series or programs for "real" TV channels, like YouTube's "Partner Program." They thus encourage the trend of professionalisation of amateur productions.
However, this trend breaks with the ideal of self-organisation which underlies most of these platforms, a shift which members do not always appreciate. For example, when Etsy, an e-commerce platform for individual artists and crafters, announced in 2013 that it would allow professionals with a team of employees to join (they were previously banned), the move was widely unpopular. What about the crafter's image as a skilled individual? And the risks of exploitation or hijacking of the original activity? This pro-am community, with its focus on maintaining an artisanal approach, squared off against other platform members, whose quest to go pro meant they welcomed the change.
Becoming a "web artist" rather than an off-line professional
Don't all professionals start as amateurs who constantly strive to improve their work, before they can seriously consider making it their job? The minority of creators who are working to build a professional career see these platforms mainly as important showcases. Online platforms provide a way to display their skills - just like programmers can build a reputation by making volunteer contributions to open-source software. These creators treat their account as a business card or CV, which proves that they interest others (i.e. their audience).
The path that they take has changed, however. Just a decade ago, amateurs didn't have access to resources like Etsy, Kickstarter or Soundcloud to share or sell their work, or raise money to start a full-time career. Other amateurs, on the other hand, aim not to go offline and start a traditional career but to become an "online artist," capable of monetising their audience.
A new amateur economy?
Donations from web users, advertising distribution, production of viral commercials for brands, and sales of rights to traditional media outlets: all of these revenues can be combined to produce a modest income, which is not necessarily regular and varies depending on the type of production. There are fewer opportunities for experimental creations than for fashion videos, for example. The account or channel, central pieces of the user's activity, essentially become businesses.
Small networks of pro podcasters have even formed new types of creative organisations. In 2009, a few YouTubers created Maker Studios, an independent collective which operates on a simple economic system: Maker Studios offers partner creators technical support and production assistance (monetisation, rights management, partner searches, audience development, etc.) in exchange for a percentage of their advertising revenue. With over 60,000 YouTube channels, 9 billion videos viewed each month, and thousands of applicants every day, the initiative has been highly successful.
In 2014, Disney bought the collective for 950 million dollars Also in 2014, French TV giant Canal+ purchased Studio Bagel, an animated humour channel managed by a group of a dozen video producers which had become a hit on YouTube. The minority of amateurs who have gone pro with their online activities have thus become a talent pool for traditional cultural industries, but only in certain fields (video, photo), on certain topics (humour, fashion) and in certain (short) formats. NRJ, France Télévision, M6, Webedia and more are investing in amateur collectives, which can help them appeal to young viewers, who are abandoning TV, and the advertising revenues they draw.
Does that turn these amateurs into professionals? Or are they a new type of "semi-professional," existing outside of traditional boundaries and proudly proclaiming their amateur status even if they spend most of their time on their activity, like mashup maker Julien Lahmi, who admits that he walks the line between the two?