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The contemporary Internet is multifaceted and multipurpose, as it is embedded in a wide array of social activities as infrastructure. Homegrown stars are regarded by marketing and publicity practitioners as social media influencers, whose media visibility and original content can be leveraged to promote brand messages. Hearn and Schoenhoff state that the authentic and trustworthy personal brand of social media celebrities can be capitalized by companies and advertisers for consumer outreach. From one perspective, they extend traditional celebrities’ function of personalizing the process of consumption. From another perspective, marketers now search for brand storytellers instead of someone who only lend their name to the brand. The trustworthy and intimate relationship between the influencers and communities, built through narratives, helps contextualise brand images and messages.
Not only do brands seek out for celebrity influence among audiences, marketing practices in today’s converging media environment also actively contribute to the production of celebrity image. The media exposure and representation brought about by endorsement contributes to celebrity status and celebrity image. The reciprocal relationship between the marketing system and celebrity is also implicated in the quantitative models developed by marketers to identify social media influencers. Among other popular metrics such as the number of followers and reposts, the number of industry events or brand cooperations that a social media celebrity has participated in is also an important index in evaluating his or her popularity.
In order to understand the newly emerging industrial structure behind social media celebrity, we may first turn to its predecessor: traditional celebrity in the entertainment and mass media industries. The birth of American motion picture industry demonstrates the starting point of industrialized celebrity production. From then on, film stars, TV personalities, and singers become commodities manufactured and traded for the aim of profit, introducing a break from the earlier forms of theatrical and artistic fame. Rein et al. suggest that celebrity stands in the center of this business, supported by and supporting eight subindustries, including entertainment, communication, publicity, representation, appearance, coaching, endorsement, and legal and business services industry. Comparably, the business model of commercial intermediary firms operating around YouTube resembles very much this structure. Lobato finds that many tasks performed by different types of multichannel networks (MCNs) are actually extensions of existing medi work.
The industrial underpinning of social media celebrity is closely associated with the platform’s technical affordances and business model. Kim argues that YouTube used to be a ‘virtual village’, where amateurs share their user-generated content in online communities. Now, it has been institutionalized into a platform inhabited by professionally generated content. He points out that as legacy media are strategically digitalized, new media like YouTube also imitate the role of 4 Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies XX(X) television, by legally managing the distribution of broadcasting content and smoothing links between contents and commercials. The series of copyright lawsuits by YouTube have forced the platform to implement strict copyright policies, making user-generated original content a crucial revenue target
YouTube’s industrialization process is also evident in how the company discursively constructs its business as a facilitating but neutral ‘platform’, thus positioning itself strategically among users, advertisers, professional content creators, and legislative regulators. In Gillespie’s observation, the word ‘platform’ in the contemporary IT industry ‘suggests a progressive and egalitarian arrangement, promising to support those who stand upon it’. In this sense, for ordinary users, YouTube empowers them to speak and interact freely; for advertisers and professional content owners, YouTube helps them to connect with their target audience efficiently. YouTube also actively manages its legislative environment, again by discursively constructing the business as a platform. In some policy issues, YouTube emphasizes its role as the facilitator of unfettered circulation of information. In other cases, it downplays this active role, presenting itself as a mere intermediary, and thus leaving the liability of controversial content to content providers and users.
Besides YouTube’s strategic self-positioning against various constituencies, the institutionalization process can also be observed from how YouTube positions its users. In 2010, the famous ‘Broadcast Yourself’ logo was removed from YouTube’s home page. Instead of conceptualizing users as broadcasters, they are now positioned as content creators. In the ‘creator hub’ function, directions are listed to support users to ‘create and share great videos’, ‘connect with fans’, and ‘build a business and get help to grow’. The guidance presupposes that users upload videos with the intention to achieve large numbers of views and economic rewards. Both Burgess and Van Dijck emphasize the role of interface design in directing usage. As the creator hub invites professional video providers, the user-friendly, TV-like video display page invites more audience-centric users.
Cunningham theorizes the institutionalization of YouTube against a larger context of industrial convergence and the emergence of a new screen ecology. The industrial culture of mass media featuring premium content is interpenetrating with IT companies’ cultural logic of ‘scale, automation, permanent beta, repaid prototyping and iteration’. The result is a clash of business cultures between the IT industry and Hollywood’s incumbents. They point out that as both business models aim at monetizing screen content, companies like Google/YouTube and Facebook have already developed large user bases and have access to extensive behavioral data, enabling them to configure the audience precisely and deliver advertisements more efficiently. In a similar vein, Van Dijck argues that the unique selling point of YouTube, compared to the broadcast industry, is its ability to bring specified audience groups to content and advertisers. While the search engine function is the connecting force in this process, what YouTube lacks is attractive professionally produced content. Of course, YouTube also cooperates with major broadcast producers to fill their channels. Nevertheless, this premium content model meets fierce competition with other transaction- and subscription-based platforms such as Netflix and Amazon in the online video distribution ecology. Thus, homegrown creators, who can provide advertiser-friendly contents and engaged subscribers, become a strategic niche for YouTube in this new screen ecology.
Homegrown YouTube stars are professionalized with the help of commercial cultural intermediary companies like MCNs. Most MCNs ‘provide non-professional creator with technical, promotional and advertising services, in exchange for a share of customer’s ad revenue’. On the one Hou 5 hand, these services are the extension of media work done by media buyers, ad agencies, agents, and managers in the traditional entertainment industry. On the other hand, MCN’s business model aims at scale and volume by devoting more resources to top-level talents (the big personalities) and automated, impersonal services to a large pool.
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