Who’s Looking Out for Social Media Creators?

They're Creating a New Economic Sector, but It's a Wild West

by Atika Alkhallouf

Netflix documentaries. Beauty tutorials. Unboxing videos. Being an audio-visual creator is changing as fast as platforms change their algorithms. Creators face new opportunities and threats in the fast-changing world of social media entertainment.

At an International Communication Association postconference, “Creator Governance: Platforms, Policies, Regulations, & Rights,” held at the Center for Media & Social Impact, scholars, creators, activists, policy makers and industry professionals analyzed the challenges together.

Professors David Craig (University of Southern California) and Stuart Cunningham (Queensland University of Technology) designed the conference, around their recent book Social Media Entertainment: The New Intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (New York University Press). Tarleton Gillespie (Microsoft Research), Colin Maclay (University of Southern California), and CMSI’s Patricia Aufderheide helped to coordinate it.

A new kind of creator.

What kind of regulatory environment do social media creators need?

“These creators are social media entrepreneurs who engage fan communities on and across platforms for commercial and cultural value”, said Craig. That includes “influencers, Youtubers, Instagrammers, vloggers, micro-celebrities gameplayers, and live streamers.”

Among the issues creators are facing are the power asymmetry between creators and owners of enterprises, limited legal protections, and the welter of differing regulations and protections around the world.

“Creators are not different from Hollywood IP generators and talented celebrities. They are cultural producers. And they actually represent the avant-garde of digital talent creative labor in the gig economy,” said Craig.

Media policies.

A session on media policies addressed issues including copyright, fair use, and FTC disclosure. “All the things that would regulate and create a rule of law in this new environment eventually go back to the power of expression and the power of citizens to have agency in their world”, said Aufderheide.

“The net neutrality rules are not looking out for platforms that are supporting independent creators and independent artists”, said Aymar Jean Christian (Northwestern University). Christian not only studies the phenomenon, but runs a platform for underrepresented voices, OTV: Open Television.` He added, “Platform transparency is the biggest struggle that any creator has, whether they have millions of followers or they have just started. Algorithms are discrimination machines.”

Kevin Erickson (Future of Music Coalition) noted that while some creators are monetizing their work with merch, appearances, and ad-sharing on platforms, others still want to license their work. “In the techno-utopian frame from the 1990s and 2000s, the loss of the ability to protect your rights wasn’t going to be a problem. For some [music] creators, it hasn’t been a problem, but for others, it has.”

Meredith Filak Rose (Public Knowledge)noted that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) bans decryption of media—something that can inhibit remixes and that also makes fair use impossible. “The DMCA is not very useful for some the new media creators, such as those doing gameplay on Twitch,” she said. Creators can win exemptions from the decryption ban, as many have. But too often, she said, the terms of the exemption are too limited.

Platform Governance.

Corporate platforms such as YouTube, Twitch and Facebook engage in creator governance, both formally and informally. As well, they’re now increasingly under scrutiny from government regulators.

Platform moderation itself is a challenge. Tarleton Gillespie’s book, Custodians of the Internet, argues that “to be free of intermediaries, we accepted new intermediaries. Platforms answer the question of distribution differently from the early web or traditional media. But they do offer the same basic deal: we’ll handle distribution for you__but terms and conditions will apply.”

Gillespie recalled in session, “There was a great hope that social media companies would be venues by which independent artists and amateur media creators could find their media audience without the restrictive power of intermediaries.” But consolidation in the industry, and the increasing challenges of platform moderation (deciding what and who to censor) are changing the terms of the business.

“It is not just a First Amendment issue for these creators, but also an equity issue related to how these rules are applied and forced,” said Andrew Zolides (Xavier University).

Creator Labor.

How can creators organize for their interests as a creative labor within emerging gig, artisanal, digital, and creative economies?

A large and growing body of makers are fueling a new sector of the entertainment economy. “This year, around 23 million Americans will earn income from posting their creations on media platforms. Collectively, they earn more than $9 billion,” said Robert Shapiro (Sonecon). But most people who do this work don’t make money, and most of those who do don’t make enough to support themselves. His research, showcased at the Recreate Coalition site, is based largely on indirect data, he said with frustration, and so conclusions can have a wide margin of error.

How can creators protect their interests, faced with huge corporations and little government oversight or labor protections? Marick F. Masters (Wayne State University) had one answer: organize. “There are several models of unions, such as Internet Creator Guild, representing enterprise unionism,” he said. Organizations such as Writers Guild-East have shown great interest in recruiting independents in audio-visual production.

Anthony D’Angelo from Internet Creators Guild noted that there’s both opportunity and desire to cross national boundaries with a global labor movement, but challenges, too.  For instance, many of the creators are young and unfamiliar with the notion of labor rights.

Further, many creators don’t think of themselves as labor, and in fact act like entrepreneurs. That changes their options, or maybe it creates new ways to organize. “This is neither a content distribution industry, nor a labor industry. It is a social industry. The value that is being generated for the most part is the way in which creators manage their affinity, micro-communities, fans, and then monetize it”, said Professor David Craig. He added, “We’re moving a little further past questions of labor, entering into management, entrepreneurialism and enterprise.”

Global Ruptures.

International differences also complicate the question of how to support creator rights. Chinese platforms are huge, multifunctional, and intimately intertwined with state interests.  Elaine Zhao (University of New South Wales) pointed out that “union” can mean very different things in China, and that some Chinese creators are expert entrepreneurs at “commercializing and professionalizing their content”.

Regulatory structures are different in different regions. The UK government, for example, has proposed a set of reforms to force platform moderation, particularly in the areas of national security and child protection, noted UK journalist Chris Stokel-Walker. This could change the current business environment profoundly. Thomas Poell (University of Amsterdam) noted the need for a better understanding of—and better data on—the economics and inner workings of platforms, in order to regulate effectively.


Participants left agreeing on some general takeaways:

Creators need to organize themselves, to represent their interests. They can’t trust platforms or agents to do it for them, and they don’t currently have regulatory or labor law protection.

We all need better transparency. Right now, platform management, whether on financial or moderation or algorithmic issues, is a black box. It’s going to take governmental mandates to force companies to release data, and enforcement to make sure the data is both useful and reliable.

Academics need to play a role in educating policymakers. Too few policymakers understand the changing terms of social media entertainment, or indeed the basics of Internet governance. But they’re wading in anyway.

Regulatory initiatives are moving fast, in uncoordinated ways, across jurisdictions. Creators who have been working in a transnational environment may find themselves forced to pay attention to national regulations. Platforms may conform their global practices to the demands of the regulator most important to them. Regulations may have unforeseen consequences.


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