Digital Producers Are Just Like You!

Curator's Note

Computer geeks and college kids have replaced the master technician and artistic visionary as the symbols of cutting edge creative labor. Digital technology has changed the cultural understanding of creative labor because the newest creative tools, computers and the Internet, are the same ones that many people use in their own jobs. Thanks to this technology, amateurs and independents produce the majority of web series, websites and digital services.

The web series Hardly Working, produced by the website CollegeHumor.com, acknowledges the blurred boundary between producers and consumers. The scripted series, shot in the New York production office’s of CollegeHumor.com, stars the young creative team behind the website. Episodes make comedic observations about modern office culture and draw heavily from workplace comedies. The series does not spend much time being self-reflexive about the creativity of digital production. Instead, it shows that digital producers are ostensibly the same as any other office worker except perhaps a little younger and more willing to cross the boundaries of political correctness.

The brand of the website plays a role in the tone of this series and its depiction of creative labor. CollegeHumor.com has developed as an online destination for young adults looking for a satiric take on current events and sophomoric entertainment content. A series which represented creative labor as a noble artistic pursuit would not match the website’s carefully constructed brand. Another reason to draw similarities between the work environments of producers and consumers is that independent production companies like CollegeHumor.com rely on their audience to distribute their content and contribute videos and commentary. It may be that these producers are attempting to maintain their relationship with their audience by representing digital production as a job like any other.

The depiction of digital labor in Hardly Working is very different than those found in digital paratexts produced by the big six media companies. Scholars have been critical of the ways that the big six use digital paratexts like behind-the-scenes featurettes and making-of documentaries. They worry that these digital texts are efforts by the entertainment industry to discipline new technologies and valorize creative labor. These same scholars rarely recognize independent digital producers and their efforts to challenge the industry’s representation of digital labor. Independent web series producers have created their own trade materials (http://news.tubefilter.tv/) and awards shows (http://www.streamys.org/) in an effort to define their own craft. Scholars have a responsibility to consider these efforts when describing the production culture of the digital media.

Comments

I agree that independent web production deserves more attention from scholars, so towards that end, I'm curious if there some important issues that must be brought into the conversation?  

While I appreciate the efforts of the digital producers, I'm intrigued by your portrait of these producers as non-technologists, non-experts.  Does the removal of the aura of the expert potentially reduce the producers to the interchangeable parts of a machine?  If producers are just like other office workers, what are the implications of this?  In other words, are there potential costs to tearing down the walls of the expert that divide the producer from the consumer? 

I also very much appreciate that nonprofessional distribution has become an effective means of disseminating media.  I wonder, though, if the depressing history of amateur broadcasters issues a caution for the idealistic rhetoric of today.  With the recent approval of the Comcast-NBCU merger and the FCC's failure to create a real protection of network neutrality, these very means of web-based distribution could become widely less traveled, if not abandoned due to increased costs.  As we discuss the value of independent production, do we also need to remember the lessons of history that document how incumbent media power tend to push out the little guy?

When scholars address these types of videos, what lessons would like us to learn and convey?

 

I think you are correct to be thinking about the history of emerging technology when looking at independent web production and distribution. I would be surprised if the nonprofessional distribution (the peer to peer spreading of content) disappeared or was some how repackaged and tamed. That activity can not be harnessed because there are too many ways for people to distribute information on the Internet. The question is what will these distribution networks discuss if the big six conglomerates push out independent production.

Your question about the potential costs from the loss of the aura of the creator is an interesting one. I think these are the questions we should be asking. I am particularly interested in the way these independent producers align themselves in their awards shows and trade materials (I think these are the things we should be studying). It seems the entertainment industry would like to keep digital production as a "farm system" or "b-movie" system, while independent producers would like to see everyone embrace their creativity and become content producers. Those people with the most creativity and most unique voices would be heard.

To return to your call to think about history, I wonder if there is an analogy to be made from the history of independent television production or independent film production. Comparing these segments of the industry to the way independent web producers frame themselves against the major networks and studios could go along way to raising important questions about digital production.

I'm so glad you brought this up! Fascinating dynamics here.

What I'm most intrigued by is this series' place within CollegeHumor's history as a independent company bought out by publicly traded IAC and as an online comedy destination whose primary audience (though this may be changing) are people at work.

It seems like this series is aimed directly at users who'd normally watch The Office but can't at their cubicles (it's too long!). CH's Streeter Seidell wrote about the "cubicle theory" of online comedy in the New York Times a few years back and evidence shows it's still true. So web video creators have an incentive to market themselves as everyday cubicle workers: that's their audience! Of course, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is really how work is at CH, especially since they have more than one series set in their luxurious offices. And hey, if they film it at work, it's cheap. Pretty smart business.

This blog contrasts nicely with the video on my post tomorrow, which parodies working conditions for indie web series creators, who have the kind of optimism Karen mentioned but have also been quite humbled by federal regulation -- or lack thereof -- of Comcast and the major cable providers. Historically it's true most of them will not see the fruits of their labor, but those who manage to get integrated into larger media companies like CH though might end up changing the game -- maybe.

I am glad to see you bring up the workplace audience. My dissertation is on workspace media, content that people engage with at work, and I am writing a chapter about producing content for the workplace that certainly influences how I think about digital production. Your point about these workers entering the mainstream and "changing the game" is an important one. While working at the Carsey-Wolf Center I have participated in an number of interviews with Hollywood executives which I feature in my dissertation. These executives claim that there are many in the industry that are hoping that they can retire before digital technology totally changes the business. If this is true then perhaps there is a place for these incoming digital producers. What fascinates me is how they will approach their work. Will they simply try to adapt existing production practices (as many in the big six companies do) or will they think of new ways of producing content - collective intelligence, participation and transmedia storytelling? I guess we will see.

Thanks for a great post, Ethan. Until reading this exchange I'd been a little unsure how to understand western corporate workplace comedy in relation to labor and production in digital culture. After all, the characters in this video--and in The Office, for example--do a lot of crazy things, but work is consistently not one of them. But now it seems one thing to say about comedic video of people not-working in these office settings is that it unfolds along a kind of reflexive path of self-production in the same way that, in my post, I argue factory work and its digital representations gets caught in a kind of feedback. To wit: the not-working of the characters in the video actually produces the not-working of the video's audience, through their spectatorship, and at the same time, the culture of not-working in the actual office place helps the creators of these videos imagine what it's like to not-work in an environment like the one they depict. All this makes me extremely paranoid about whether I'm working right now, or not.

"Workplace digital media" is an excellent idea for a dissertation.  People still joke that the Internet is "time-wasting," and of course by that they mean mostly Facebook, but also web video: FB is a major distribution node for video as well, and by implication people tend to devalue these types of media products (Zac Zimmer's great post on Youtube art video notwithstanding).  Short form video gets no respect, except at a place like ROFL.con, which acknowledges that Internet memes are distributed in this way.  (Keyboard cat is the best example I can think of.  I watched it obsessively, everywhere, for a short amount of time).  

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