Detroit-based digital artist Molly Soda’s latest book project was borne of Instagram, but not in the way you might think.
When the multimedia artist noticed her photos being removed from Instagram for violating the community guidelines, she teamed up with co-curator and artist Arvida Byström and put out an open call for submissions of photos banned by the network. The resulting project, the book Pics or it Didn’t Happen, is due out early next year.
Their subversive project is interesting for its range of imagery – banned images include everything from nipples and pubic hair to a woman wearing a hijab and holding an iPhone. Despite building a name for herself in the art world largely through networks like Tumblr and Instagram, Soda says that she regularly thinks about the fact that those platforms don’t have her career interests in mind when designing their networks’ policies.
“I don’t feel like Instagram as an app necessarily owes me anything,” Soda explains. “I’m willingly using these social media platforms but the internet has set itself up in this guided and streamlined way where everyone follows these rules in order to facilitate whatever it is they’re trying to promote. Meanwhile, these platforms are huge corporate entities with an entirely different set of interests — I don’t think many [creators] realise the reality of what they’re dealing with, including myself.”
Indeed, as the internet economy is maturing, this nascent tension between big internet platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook and the creators that provide them with content comes into focus. Platforms need users to create content which elicits the kind of engagement that is attractive to advertisers. Users need the platforms to reach wide audiences and potential revenue streams, but they want it without fear of censorship. However, since few brands want to be sandwiched between racism and pornography, it’s up to platforms to figure out how to find the sweet spot of policing their networks without prompting frustrated creators to move on to their competitors.
Laura Chernikoff is the executive director of the Internet Creators Guild, which was formed earlier this year to represent the interests of creators to big internet companies. She says that one of the primary ways this tension manifests is through opaque user guidelines, or the lists of rules which outline what content is liable to be removed or demonetised.
In response to criticism around content removal, last month Facebook publicly admitted that “observing global standards for our community is complex” and announced that they would be “allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards.”
In September, YouTube weathered a backlash from many high profile creators when it tweaked its notification process for content that is deemed advertiser-unfriendly, spawning the hashtag #YouTubePartyOver. Chernikoff explains how the controversy perfectly displayed both sides of the debate.
“The guidelines themselves are very broad and are being enforced by an algorithm without a lot of clear information about what YouTube is looking for, people think it has to do with tags, metadata, and titles, but it’s not known exactly how it works,” Chernikoff explains. “However, it’s easy to understand why the guidelines have to be broad. It is YouTube’s platform and they need to make it a safe space for brands which is a huge part of what’s going on here.”
Chernikoff notes that compared to other more impenetrable social networks like Facebook, YouTube has been reaching out to creators and nurturing them. Though sources say it would be unlikely for YouTube (or any large internet company) to outline their exact criteria for content removal and/or demonetisation – because then it’d be easier to thwart – a spokesperson for YouTube contacted by the Guardian pointed to an example of that: a recent announcement “that every creator who has joined the partner programme can get answers via email from a real person at YouTube within one business day”.
“While our policy of de-monetising videos due to advertiser-friendly concerns hasn’t changed, we’ve recently improved the notification and appeal process to ensure better communication to our creators,” the spokesperson went on to say. “Creators are the lifeblood of YouTube and we’re totally committed to ensuring their growth and success.”
So, what’s a creator who wants to make a living on the internet, without fear of their business model being pulled out from underneath them, to do? Chernikoff says across networks, many creators are realising the need to diversify their portfolio and not limit their business model to one that’s entirely dependent on a single social network, be it an ad-revenue share model such as YouTube or a more indirect, brand-building route such as Instagram. Indeed, prominent YouTubers such as Philip DeFranco have spoken publicly about intentionally tapping other revenue streams, which can include merchandise, direct crowdfunding, brand deals, and other partnerships, to financially underpin their channels.
Frankie Greek is a Snapchat journalist who frequently speaks about these trends and helps brands make sense of them as a consultant. She said much of creators’ discontent stems from how much the internet has changed in a short amount of time.
“People are super resistant to change and there was a time when the internet was in a way this counter-culture, underground thing,” Greek said. “Now, a network like YouTube has grown into an enormous community and business model. As much as people might think otherwise, YouTube is mainstream media now.”
For her part, Greek says that watching the evolution of making a living online has influenced her career strategy. In addition to her large Snapchat following, Greek has a professional background in TV and radio production and skills ranging from video editing to hosting live streams and event coverage. In a sense, she serves as a kind of poster child for this online diversification strategy.
“I’m kind of glad that this is the wave of content creators that I’m on. I’ve been a part of this world for so long as a viewer and you get to see people build these empires,” Greek says. “Snapchat has been so helpful as shortcut, but I’m also using my skills in a lot of other ways – the best advice I can give to other content creators is to diversify your revenue streams and get out on as many platforms as you can until you find the right formula for you.”
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