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Dossier 06/06/2016

Amateur creation: a cultural avatar of Digital Labour?

Online amateur production taken as a whole represents a significant source of value, one which is entirely appropriated by web giants, according to Digital Labour theorists. Are enthusiasts who spend their free time having fun online unwittingly being exploited? Or given their motivation and their total freedom, are they the ones exploiting brands and platforms?

Digital labour theorists highlight the invisible work done by amateurs, which is generally seen as a leisure activity with no market value but indirectly monetized by digital platforms like Google and Facebook thanks to advertising, data collection, and stock values - thus giving a value to these free contributions. Cultural industries, which were initially resistant to the increasingly democratic trend in culture, are also starting to take advantage of the situation, as are advertisers, who are moving into the new spaces of communication and influence generated by amateurs. A few amateur content producers, including certain YouTubers, do also manage to monetize their audiences, in the form of commissions paid by platforms.

This freely-distributed content is thus coveted by a number of players with very different objectives. Are amateur content producers and their products really vulnerable prey to corporate ambitions?

The "great scam" theory

While web users' individual contributions are of little value, taken as a whole their value is significant. The evidence lies in the revenue generated by digital content aggregation platforms like YouTube, Tripadvisor or Instagram, as well as those companies' stock values. Digital Labour theorists argue that by appropriating the vast majority of the value generated by web users, platforms exploit and profit from their "work." This Marxist-inspired reasoning ultimately sees web users as exploited workers. According to Antonio Casilli, the new powers that profit from this situation should share the value of this "overwork" with those who contributed to it.

Researcher Abigail De Kosnik objects that in the case of fan productions, it is difficult to assess the value of fanfictions (stories based on popular TV shows, films or novels) independently of the brand's value and marketing investments. Fan productions are inextricably linked to the cultural objects to which they pay homage. Sociologist Dominique Cardon also emphasises that users do not recognise themselves in the term "work" used by Digital Labour theorists: instead, they see themselves as passionate, enthusiastic amateur creators.

Amateurs under the influence?

Regardless of how amateurs see themselves, cultural industries and platforms have developed highly elaborate strategies to orient their production. For these powerhouses, the goal is to use the amateurs' fame and influence to boost their own audiences.

In this, they are helped by the fandoms themselves, and their tendency to disregard financial considerations. Fans see themselves as above caring about money - which they see as selling out - and believe that they are a counterweight to producers. They tend to see only the value that they receive and are blind to the value of their creations, according to Matthew Hills, the author of "Fan Culture." For example, they spend astronomical sums of limited editions of their favourite works. In a way, they are the victims of a form of speculation to which they themselves contribute…

Platforms and producers also create the tools they use to contribute, and define how and where they do so. For example, Allociné favours ratings over reviews and encourages contributions in line with its interests. For example, the film "The New Adventures of Aladdin" starring Kev Adams, came under fire when web users' ratings were abnormally high. In short, according to researchers Valérie Beaudoin and Dominique Pasquier, tools are not neutral: they are biased to produce a certain result.

Professionals also use psychological strategies: they play on amateurs' attachment to their interests, offering tickets to VIP premiers or collector DVDs, organising special encounters with actors and directors, etc. They pay fans in "goodies," thus feeding their "addiction."

Last but not least, brands, studios and professional platforms form close relationships with certain bloggers, creating an emotional rapport which makes it hard to refuse their requests or write a negative review. Manuel Dupuy-Salle notes that this type of situation lies behind the self-censure or in some cases complicity of certain amateur bloggers.

Or are amateurs selling their influence?

Dupuy-Salle adds that amateurs do seem relatively aware of these attempts to use them. At times, they take advantage of them and use the power balance to their own ends. For example, amateurs with a sufficiently impressive digital reputation sometimes approach brands to gain benefits or a platform with the brand, which would boost their audiences and thus their advertising revenues.

Others use their amateur work to try to break into the professional field of their dreams, seeking a way to learn from and be discovered by professionals. De Kosnik notes that amateur production has become a talent pool for producers.

Beyond the question of money, Beaudoin and Pasquier note that amateur critics on sites like Allociné are mainly motivated by the social aspects of their communities: The amateur environment is a social space where practices are learned. There is a sort of closed society, which is invisible to the naked eye (...), with diffuse learning mainly based on imitation and reproduction." Newbies' struggles to become big names in a community are a prime motivation of many fans, according to sociologist Sarah Thornton. There is a quest for peer recognition, whose value is indisputable despite the fact that it cannot be directly monetized. Group membership and the opportunity to get involved sometimes even overtake enthusiasts' interest in the cultural object in question, which becomes a pretext for or a tool in a search for meaning and relationships.

Work that's so much fun it's impossible to stop

The essential difference between amateurs and professional lies in "professional" workers' subordination to the producer, editor or platform. Amateurs are free not to keep their commitments, which are often vague, or to turn down a request. While some do find them dissuasive, sanctions on amateurs remain minor (e.g. removal from première invitation lists) compared to those risked by professionals whose livelihood depends directly on their work.

Sociologist Andrew Ross refers to "work that is so pleasant and so fun that you can't stop doing it." Naturally the amateur in question works, but he (or she) doesn't have a job. His work - if we can call if that - is justified by how much he enjoys it: products and cultural platforms become playgrounds, with toys which are provided for him and which he doesn't have to worry about paying for or maintaining. Seen from this perspective, of the professional who manages the platform and that amateur who uses it, who is the exploited and who is the exploiter?

Amateurs often remain impossible to control

The author Henry Jenkins has turned the usual idea of fans consumed by their idol on its head. He argues that fans personalise and transform their interest, to meet their own needs and desires. In certain cases, they even appropriate it to such an extent that they dispossess the producers and authors of their creation. The work they do to that end is anything but altruistic: they pay themselves in kind. The object is at their service.

While professionals can control a handful of influential amateurs and capture a large amateur public in order to obtain significant financial resources (sales, advertising, personal data), there are still hordes of uncontrollable amateurs who parody, mock and even destroy brands, works or artists, one example being the endless parodies of Marion Cotillard's death scene in Batman, The Dark Knight Rises.

Certain parodies even take on a political tone. When the first Hunger Games file was released, fans teamed up with Oxfam on an initiative to fight hunger worldwide: #HungerIsNotAGame. The producers were able to quash the initiative, but were overrun by fan involvement when the second film was released. Fans rallied around the hashtag #JoinTheResistance and a tumblr, "We are the districts " which appropriated the imagery and plot of the film to continue their activism on a larger scale…

Amateurs are a true phamarkon for professionals: both cure and poison, good for business thanks to their comments and creations, but unstable and explosive enough to be dangerous.


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