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Q&A with Stuart Cunningham

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This month Policy World interviews Stuart Cunningham, Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology

Q. Professor Cunningham, you call entertainment content delivered via the social media platforms via the internet ‘social media entertainment’. Can you expand on that please? What is the difference between social media entertainment and social media?

A. My collaborator David Craig from University of Southern California Annenberg School and I have coined the term ‘social media entertainment’ to capture an emerging industry based on previously amateur creators professionalizing and monetizing their content across multiple social media platforms to build global fan communities and incubate their own media brands. Social media is a communication industry; social media entertainment is the latest example of radical converged communication and entertainment industry.

Q. And what is the difference between social media entertainment and the streaming entertainment phenomenon of the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video?

A. It is important to stress the distinction between social media entertainment content and platforms and Hollywood-like content distributed, and in some cases increasingly produced, by the major Internet-distributed television portals such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Video and Apple’s iTunes. While these portals largely specialize in mainstream long-form premium content supported by sophisticated algorithmic feedback, social media platforms offer scale, reach, technological affordance, remuneration and upskilling to previously amateur creators. We argue that social media entertainment constitutes a more radical cultural and content challenge to established media than the digital streamers.

Social media entertainment is a new industry at the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Our book, Social Media Entertainment: The new intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, is coming out from New York University Press in early 2019.

Q. You argued, at the recent Telecommunications and Media Forum in Sydney, that ‘a new creative industry has been born’, based upon the quality and diversity of engagement from those that produce content. This leads to a need for a different way of thinking from policy makers, you argue. However much of the discussion around social media is about the type of content being disseminated (for example, so-called ‘fake news’). Can policy makers afford to wait to see how these services ‘settle’? what would your recommendation be that allows innovation but protects citizens?

A. This is a complex question. The “Adpocalypse” of 2017, and its unintended but very unfortunate consequences, shows why.

In 2017, investigating journalists revealed that multinational and national brand advertising was appearing programmatically alongside YouTube videos featuring terrorist organizations, anti-semitic clips discussing a “Jewish World Order”, and Swedish neo-Nazi groups. The backlash from over 250 major advertisers like Walmart who pulled their advertising from the site was met swiftly by a response from Google/YouTube vowing to crackdown immediately on this flagrant failure of programmatic advertising to maintain baseline community standards. YouTube introduced a set of “filters: to promote more “ad-friendly content.” Creators were charged with indicating whether their content fitted a list of categories which advertisers had the option to delete from their advertising inventory. If left unmarked, these videos would remain demonetized and undergo a human review process a kind of purgatory by anonymous censors hired by the platform. Even if the video was later cleared for monetization, most creators reported losing up of 90% of the revenue they might have earned under the filterless system.

Q. You have pointed out that social media entertainment is part of the gig economy and that policy makers need to be wary of harming this still-nascent business, which is constantly undergoing change based on risk management and diversification. Many feel that the global nature of much social media entertainment is a concern – do you think that should be so?

A. Earlier, utopian accounts of the internet’s progressive or democratising potential have given way to serious concerns about its role in propagating hate speech, online abuse, and misinformation. Most recently, the centralisation of power in and uneven governance of proprietary digital media platforms have become the target of acute critique and regulatory attention. But working within and across such platforms are a large number of social media entertainment creators with significant followings who are exercising cultural leadership in the development and maintenance of socially progressive communities. It is urgently necessary to understand how such communities are operating, what challenges they face, and how they can be better supported as societies attempt to develop improved platform governance and regulation arrangements.

Q. You took part in the first IIC Telecommunications and Media Forum in Sydney earlier this month. How would you describe your experience at the IIC Telecommunications and Media Forum, and what learnings did you take away from it?

A. It is very heartening to see the revival of IIC meetings in Australia under the expert guidance of Australian chapter leaders Derek Wilding, Deb Richards and Sophie Kowald. IIC has maintained an excellent reputation for attracting key players in communications and media across industry, policy and academia. As communications and media continue to undergo roiling convergence, disruption and rapid change, opportunities for dialogue across these nodes of interest and commitment become increasingly crucial. I look forward to the IIC, with its Chatham House rules and its strong international brand, continuing to create this opportunity space.

Stuart Cunningham, Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology

Content: innovation, regulation and markets
Asia Pacific
Stuart Cunningham Stuart Cunningham Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology
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