Monday 16th October 2017,
Televisual

Research Update: Thinking About Web Series, Independent Production and Emerging New Media

Most people who read this blog know me professionally, which is to say, digitally. And, digitally speaking, I talk about my research, but not as rigorously as I do in person.

I’m developing my reading list for my exams now, which means I’m doing a lot of big and small preliminary thinking about “who I am” and “what I do” as a scholar. Rather than bore you with my most abstract problems, I thought I’d use a public platform to test out how I’d practically organize and frame my actual project. This is really an exercise for me — so thoughts/comments are very welcome — but also a chance to introduce myself. If you’re a practitioner, however, there may or may not be anything useful here; it’s academic, not practical. Continue at your own risk!

I’m making a few leaps here, because technically I’m supposed to spend the next few months after my exam organizing how I’d proceed with my dissertation. Still, I’ve already conducted over 50 interviews with probably over 70 individuals related to the topic of my research — generally, online video — so I should have some idea by now. Should. This post is me trying to be honest about where I am, where I need to go and what I’m looking for.

Right now, because I’ve yet to do a lot of reading, my work lacks a strong argument — it’s my biggest problem. At this point, I’m starting at the general point “web series matter,” because in the academy, as in most of America, they don’t right now. So I have to make a case. (I have a very expansive view of “web series,” see my introduction on the “web series” page above.) I then have a whole bunch of interesting topics, most of which don’t have a connecting through line yet.

Basically, the dissertation, so far, is looking like (a) an early history of online video as an “emerging new media” form, (b) connected theoretically with issues of markets, capital, production and representation, tried-and-true topics in communication research. I’m hoping (b) will give it relevance and heft while (a) will bring it to life.

Am I an Optimist or a Pessimist?

I feel compelled to offer a quick answer to this question first. Much of the scholarship on so-called “new media” has been concerned, to put it crudely, with whether you “hate it” or “love it.” Some say any account of new media that suggests all the problems with 20th century will go away (corporate power and big divide between producer-consumer, really) amounts to cockeyed optimism. Others say there’s a lot of new things going on that suggest change and maybe “progress.”

Part of my problem is I don’t see anything useful in the dichotomy or the debate. I’m an optimist by nature, but I see little fault in the more skeptical arguments about new media. The skeptics basically have the benefit of history and some solid theories behind them (i.e. most of media theory), while the optimists have the benefit of looking really closely at what’s happening now (often anecdotally) and pointing out interesting differences.

I’m hoping to sidestep the debate and re-frame it, somehow. I might re-frame it as looking how “new media” industries are shaped, how various parties (corporate producers, independents, amateurs, advertisers) work and compete to shape that industry; my dissertation would focus on the contributions of independents, but would include the others.

Why Web Series Matter

In the past few days/weeks there’s been a bunch of press on the importance of web series, both to the mainstream media, major advertisers and independent producers*. Still, I find myself having to sell “web series” as important. I’m fine with it, actually, because explaining why something is important is the fastest way to get to the heart of its value.

Superficially, there are the numbers and facts. The hundreds of millions of views web series garner every month (see Visible Measures), the major advertisers supporting them (IKEA, Sprint, CoverGirl, and on and on), the major TV networks producing them (MTV, ABC, NBC, SyFy, and on and on), the thousands of dollars independents shell out to finance them, the millions the aforementioned networks and advertisers spend, the fascinating new online networks coming out to distribute them (from Atom and CollegeHumor, MyDamnChannel to Babelgum, RowdyOrbit to OneMoreLesbian). A lot is going on. Web series are serious business.

Academically, web series are an ideal case study for what happens to media in periods in transition. In this case, web series come at a time when digital media starts to pose challenges to traditional business models and cultural distinctions, a perversely well-documented phenomenon. In terms of business, we have new practices in marketing (how to reel in consumers), financing/advertising (how media is made), distribution (how to get content to people). Culturally, we have collapsing distinctions in media form (TV vs. film vs. online video), categories (consumers vs. users, producers vs. users, professionals vs. amateurs), and value (what do consumers want? what gets them excited? what kinds of media are culturally important?).

Web series bring all these debates to the fore. For me, what makes them particularly valuable is, in these periods of transition, “new” (in the academy, new is always in quotes) forms of content, production and marketing are created, and this offers chances for independents to make a go at it. I want to focus on independents because they deal with the market in more complex ways, and because most of media research has been concerned with corporations and conglomerates — I’m talking from Adorno through much of 1980s scholarship. “Independence” has almost universally been seen as an antidote. For me, the big questions are: what are the possibilities of being an independent, especially in a more fluid, open, transitory market? What are the challenges? What is meaningful, in the culture and marketplace, about independent media and their new ideas about making and marketing? What is not so meaningful?

*I should say, for me, “producers” is a general world for “people who make things.” So I’m talking filmmakers, vloggers, corporations, production companies, screenwriters, amateurs, etc. It’s just easier than restricting myself to one category that might exclude someone

History of Independence in Emerging New Media

Right now, these ideas are the second least developed aspect of my work, and what I’ll be spending a lot of time reading in the coming months. Basically, the idea is to look at the histories of radio, TV and (maybe) film, particularly in their early years, and work through what kinds of issues came up in those markets: what opportunities independent producers had, what new ways of distributing content came up, what kinds of experimentation went on (form, marketing, advertising, financing) and, most importantly, what were the consequences of these early periods. Basically the history of 20th century media is one of cooptation and conglomeration. It’s true; still I’m hoping to make it more complicated than that.

Some of this will be original but there’s already been a lot of fantastic work on this, from the classic work of Erik Barnouw to scholars like Michele Hilmes, Susan Douglas, etc.

Making Video Valuable

This is the least developed aspect of my research. I’m basically nowhere on this. The point is to work out and theorize issues of markets, networks and capital in media as a way to understand the value of content and put the rest of the work in context. But I have a lot of reading to do and really nothing to say as of now. I’m looking toward more contemporary scholars from Henry Jenkins (who helping me out informally with my dissertation) and Manuel Castells, to mid-century philosophers like McLuhan and Bourdieu. We’ll see how meta I need/want to go.

When Individuals Meet the Market

I’m interested in looking at “personal production.” If there’s a “first wave” to web video, it’s the story of ordinary people putting themselves in front of the camera and revealing/marketing themselves to the public. This goes from your late-90s live streaming phenomenon, to lonelygirl, Chris Crocker and Fred. It’s a fascinating story that for me really brings to light the questions of what marketing means when the product is “just you,” and you have little to no money. When we look at this moment 20 years from now, what will we think of it? What will its lineage be? What does it say about identity, representation and cultural economy? I’ve already written and interviewed a couple dozen black and gay/queer vloggers, but I’m hoping to really open it up and see what connections I find.

Independents Speak to the Industry

Obviously the meatiest chunk of my research has been on web series production and distribution. I want to delve into what “independent producers” — here I’m primarily talking about makers of filmed, scripted** web series — have to say about innovation and instability within a media market.

The producers I talk to sell web series in numerous ways: as a way to “connect” with consumers/users when it’s increasingly difficult to do so, as a way to correct representations in the mainstream media, as a new way of telling stories, as a way to open up the industry to new entrants, etc. I’m hoping to examining how these things are accomplished, what they mean, whether it succeeds on the ground, and, more importantly, what all this says about theories and ideas about media generally (in communication research) and specifically (what does it say about TV, film, advertising and other industry business models and cultural justifications).

**[While the focus here is on scripted mainly to keep me sane, I’m wondering what people think about including vs. excluding “reality” web series: talk shows, reality shows, informational programming.]

Grappling with Representation

I really feed the need to talk about “identity” in its political and marketing categories, specifically women, minorities*** and gay men and women****. I’ll be trying to deal with “representation” — how media creates images of said categories — but hopefully in a different way. There are surprisingly few ethnographies of producing “minority media,” the bulk of the scholarship is about representation.

I’m hoping to talk about the tensions such web series bring up, how they cause us to (potentially!!!) reevaluate representation and “power.” The media market works differently today than it has 20, 40, 60 years ago, in ways that both open up new possibilities and pose new challenges.

***”Minorities” is outdated, but I’m talking about black as a marketing category, and hopefully will delve just as deeply into “Latino” as a category, along with “Asian-American” and potentially (but not likely) globally produced stuff, like this.

****I use “gay,” as I’ve said before, because I feel most of the web series I’ve tracked are explicitly marketing themselves as “gay” and “lesbian,” the accepted cateogories with the industry — “queer” is not a marketing category. I haven’t seen too many that are decidedly “queer,” in the way most academics accept. But this is a complicated issue I’ll be working on in the coming weeks (I’m giving a talk on it in the fall).

Corporations and Independents: Improvising When Markets Are Changing

The truth is, though, as much I will focus on independent media, the market for online video/web series has many corporate participants. By “corporate” I mean both the major networks and also major advertisers. In many ways the “corporate”***** side of the equation is more interesting, because it’s where we see important changes in dominant media histories and theories. This part would deal with how corporations and independents are forging interesting kinds of relationships and improvising different forms to make the market work for them, as has happened at other points in media history. What do these alliances mean?

I’m not sure how to frame this yet. Perhaps I’ll organize it around the changing conceptions of “mainstream” and “corporate” necessitated by a competitive, open and constantly shifting marketplace with — for now — low barriers to entry and shifting tastes and standards. What is a “corporation” in a new media marketplace? What does it want? I’m looking for suggestions on how to deal with this part.

*****Why is ‘corporate’ in quotes? Because you might have something distributed by, for example, USA, that’s written by a small start-up production co.; or something produced by a small subsidiary of a large corporation; or a major advertiser who decides to fund an amateur filmmaker. That it’s confusing is part of what makes it so interesting and important. Of course, part of the point is we’ve seen these dynamics throughout media history, but have forgotten it’s part of the biz.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

5 Comments

  1. André August 15, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Aymar,

    This is André Brock; we met at the Race and New Media Symposium at TAMU last year (and again briefly at AoIR). Can i hit you up on email with my thoughts?

  2. Aymar Jean Christian September 3, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Hey André, not sure if you got my email, but yes! Of course!