In the late 2000’s a new and exciting cultural phenomenon was bubbling under the surface. Around the world, teens in their bedrooms were turning on their webcams to film asynchronous conversations with unknown audiences and uploading them to YouTube. Online communities started to flourish on the platform and new genres began to crystallise: vlogs, tutorials, comedy sketches, video responses. In these early years being a ‘YouTuber’ was not yet a viable career and creator culture mainly flew under the radar of mainstream media organisations, or else was viewed as trivial or insignificant. Since then, we have seen the rise a new and powerful cross-platform creative industry. What began as pockets of amateur creators on YouTube has grown into a mature infrastructure of diverse and competing platforms, such as Instagram, TikTok, Patreon, Facebook and Twitch, that combine online video and social networking affordances with opportunities for content creators to earn an income.
Shifting patterns of employment in the creative industries away from stable structures, and the emergence of a new neoliberal worker-subject: entrepreneurial, flexible, self-directed and always available to work, has been the topic of much academic scrutiny over the past decade (Gill 2010; Gill and Pratt 2008; Ross 2009; McRobbie 2016; Schlesinger 2016). Studies of this type of work have highlighted the collapse of boundaries between work and play, intermittent and precarious income, and a passionate attachment to work and the identity of creative labour (Erin-Duffy 2017). The platform-native online video industry offers new sociocultural and economic formations of creative labour, fraught with ambivalence and precarity, that require critical scrutiny. In particular, the imperative for content creators to diversify income streams across multiple platforms, brand deals, merch and tour sales, advertising revenue and crowdfunding, all whilst scrutinising popularity metrics and audience feedback, marks an extension of the neoliberal worker subjectivity.
In order to research the lived experiences and labour of aspiring and professional YouTube content creators, I concluded that it was insufficient to merely watch, like and comment on videos; I needed to become a YouTuber myself. In this talk, as well as discussing my preliminary findings, I reflect on my journey and experiences of using this experimental digital ethnographic method, in addition to multi-sited online/offline fieldwork and interviews with content creators. As social media platforms have increasingly profound sociocultural impacts, researchers need to find new methodological tools for engaging critically with this changing landscape. Autoethnography has provided me with significant insights into the labour of online creators, from the ways in which they understand and navigate algorithms, channel metrics and the multi-platform environment, to the emotional highs and lows of trying to cultivate an audience.
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- Name: Zoë Glatt
- Affiliation: PhD Researcher, LSE Department of Media and Communications