Here I introduce the beginnings of a theory on online media production, which will be part of a broader set of writings in this area.
The digital media landscape begun its adolescence in the 1990’s. The tail end of this adolescence, the present-day manifestation of the internet, has left us with a quickly developing environment which, thanks to its openness, even has provision for one to earn a salary.
And earn a salary one can, a handsome one. The plain example of this is of course Youtuber PewDiePie, who has reportedly earned $124 million since 2010. On the lower rungs are channels such as H3H3 Productions who clock in at around $1.1 million per year. A sizeable gap, sure; but the salient point lies in the concept generally. People can make very comfortable livings off internet audiences with very little initial expenditure/mobility, a great development for producer and consumer. We get content which at face value is free (that is to say there are no transactions), the only trade off being that we ‘put up’ with advertising. Not so bad either; we are shown products we can either choose to ignore or go ahead and buy.
The openness of online content creation is an incredible economic phenomenon, which I shall explore below. I shall confine what I say here to that which is social-media entertainment based (Youtube, Facebook), as tackling news media would prove to be an exercise in too broad a brush stroke. What’s more, news media is not as applicable as it comes with a readership that migrates to and from print, so does not fit within the bounds of the problem which I will attempt to solve: the common quip that content producers on any scale are done a great injustice when they create for free/little money.
There are two conditions of production that I see directly pertaining to online content creation: specialisation (ability and talent) and scarcity of raw materials. These contributors to the end market value of a product prove the online media market to be like no other; there is literally no scarcity of raw materials, so in order to have any market value a product will have to come from conditions (when compared to other products) of disproportionately high ability/talent, or specialisation.
Put another way, the internet is accessible on a scale that reaches far beyond what could have been anticipated fifteen years ago at its commercial inception. This means anyone can create and distribute ad infinitum, in turn dictating that value is hyper-concentrated in a work’s merit to make up the gap that would usually be evened out by a scarcity of materials. This idea of scarcity materials applies not only to production but also distribution: with the potential to distribute infinite amounts of a product on a global scale, ability in promotion also needs to be high-level.
Particularly interesting, then, is the rise over the last few years of seemingly meritless content. Fidget Spinners, Minecraft and space slime clocking up millions and millions of views almost say enough in this way, not to mention the high density of some vloggers who score cheap comedy points on mundane tricks. It is easy to be dismissive, but also just as easy to understand is how they do manage to breach this established ceiling of hyper-specialisation. They simply specialise in a market that wants what they provide: a children’s/young teen market that commands less merit and more instant gratification. Perhaps, then, this idea of hyper-specialisation isn’t only to be applied to ability but also to niche, which when viewed in the context of an open market can easily (and harmlessly) be conflated; the consumer desires, the producer provides.
The online media environment has ushered in a new age of content production, a sphere that is growing exponentially and is still in the early stage of its life. It seems that a growing pain has been popular concern that there is a deep immorality occurring in social media structures; that users labour without reward.
Taking into account our established theory of production in the media sphere, which naturally imposes a stagnated work/reward ratio, we must also consider how all dealings in the online market place are above all voluntary. We engage in a contract with Facebook, Instagram and YouTube etc. It is the producer (and consumers) responsibility to be scrupulous.
For these reasons, the online media market should be protected from the super-imposition of Marxian theories of worker ‘exploitation’. The only condition for true freedom of thought can be established in a voluntarist system and the time-old tenet rings true: economic freedom is personal freedom. Despite our observation that internet conditions of production are wildly different from that of ‘real world’ production, this fact remains.
The opportunity provided in a free market condition for free speech should be upheld by content creators vehemently. Upon this reflection we can clearly see that a state-intervened media (which, after all, would prove to be the only way to achieve a Marxian end for internet production) would be the antithesis to creative expression.
In a developing online market where anyone can create infinitely, work needs to be extra specialised or of an extra high quality to achieve tangible market value. Mixed in with the need to keep press, media and creation completely free of state suppression, we observe that social media entering realm of public ownership could prove to be deeply damaging economically and culturally. In the interests of a free people, full economic freedom needs to be granted: the internet needs to retain its freedom and remain a vanguard of expression.
Image courtesy of The Independent, obtained via Google Advanced Image search and licensed for use and modification, even commercially.