Your talent, their profits – the political economy of silliness

One of the greatest joys about the Internet is its continued silliness. Specifically, the ability of user-generated silliness to often be more successful than carefully crafted, professionally produced content.

The academic John Hartley has noted (in an essay in Jean Burgess’ very good book on YouTube) that the Internet “is the means by which ‘bottom-up’ (DIY consumer-based) and ‘top-down’ (industrial expert-based) knowledge-generation connects and interacts.”

But who wins as a result of this interaction? Hartley, to a degree, sits in the optimistic camp, whereby user-generated online silliness is in fact a useful form of identify formation and citizenship-shaping activity. Better this than traditional media citizenship whereby we learn how to behave through the often staid output of public service broadcasters.

And it’s clear silly citizenship is popular. By way of example, 25 million people have watched Isaac’s carefully choreographed lip dub marriage proposal to Amy since it was uploaded in May 2012.

But silliness is also lucrative, probably not in this case for Isaac and Amy, but for the record companies the who own the music the lip dubbers lip-sync to. A recent report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has identified the importance of user-generated content on YouTube as an increasingly important income source.

The report notes how: “Google’s ContentID system (and other systems used by other platforms) has made it easier for rights holders to differentiate between video types, allowing the streaming of non-official user-generated content such as mashups to be licensed and monetised, rather than removed for infringing copyright.”

Francis Keeling, the global head of digital business for Universal Music Group, has claimed that fan created videos are outstripping the income they derive from official music videos.

Christian Fuchs is one of many academics whose position sits counter to Hartley’s ‘silly citizenship’ argument. Fuchs argues that such participation “would be better understood in terms of class, exploitation, and surplus value.” In short, we joyfully make our lip dub videos and mashups for free without realising that we’re being exploited as free labour, making profit for the ‘man’.

No matter what either academic camp thinks, it’s hard to see the trend for the creation of such silly fan created content declining. Our desire to create and share is hardly likely to abate, but the increasing adeptness of systems such as Content ID to auto-detect copyrighted content means that the financial gains from your creative endeavours are accrued elsewhere.

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