EDIT: It is worth noting that News UK has teamed up with The Fifth to undertake exactly the point of this article. Read the Digiday article here.
In around 2017, Mike Williams and I had a few beers (can I say that?) in one of the studios at the ABC with a view to thinking through what was happening in the media at that time.
Instagram was ‘blowing up’, YouTube was going nuts, and a swag of micro platforms such as Vine, Musical.,ly, and others were fuelling the rise of branded content producers – otherwise known as solo content producers, otherwise known as influencers.
Both Mike and I had, and still do, have our favourite content producers, as I’m sure many readers do, and we often refer to their channels to see what they are doing, how they are reacting to certain global events, of what the latest trends might be.
But what we were interested in that night was understanding how this exploding creative industry was running alongside the existing media organisations, or was it all – where we both had a keen interest in how the ABC was shaping up in comparison.
One of the concepts we started throwing around was this idea that social media content producers now make their celebrity-ness online, build these massive audiences (or highly engaged audiences), and then often make the jump to traditional media. At the time, #7dayslater had just finished season 1 and I thought it was going to be a new production model the ABC would indeed pursue (but then, funding cuts).
What #7dayslater did represent however, was the praxis between online content producers and media organisations such as the ABC. And so was born the first concept of the Digital First Personality.
Of course this concept only raised more questions that night, like:
- Why would a content producer become popular with their own style, and then switch over to somewhere like the ABC (with a remit for public service)?
- How could they maintain their platform salary if they were to go off brand with their audience (suddenly start talking about the ABC as part of their suite of everyday-ness)
- Should online content producers be trained by media organisations, and if so does that mean traditional celebrities should ‘learn’ social media?
- Does the digital first personality become the new cultural intermediary?
- Now that we have finished several beers, shall we go and have dumplings?
I’ve been thinking, researching and developing these questions for the last few years (beyond the call for dumplings), and have developed the concept of the digital first personality significantly. I first took it for a test drive with my MECO3602 Online Media students who bought into it and then also pulled the idea apart. I have presented the idea at a few conferences and have received some great feedback from colleagues along the way. Recently, I have resubmitted an article with major revisions to an A ranked journal, and am hopeful it will be published soon.
The last round of revisions with that journal really pushed me to think through some of the fundamental and theoretical concepts of the digital first personality. More broadly, I am beginning to draw connections between the digital first personality and microplatformization as part of the Digital Intermediation research project – how online content producers craft their skills as cultural intermediaries that are both experts at social influence and understanding platform automation, i.e. recommender systems. This is now starting to feed into the infrastructure work I am undertaking within the automated media space.
Here’s a basic introduction to how I am approaching the framework of the digital first personality:
Intermediation has traditionally been undertaken by a number of stakeholders including institutions, humans and non-human actors, to transfer information from one group of individuals to another. Recently, two new actors have emerged within the digital media ecology through cultural intermediation: social media influencers and automated media systems engaging algorithms. Cultural intermediation as a framework is a useful way to understand emerging social and cultural forms as a result of new media technologies. Cultural intermediation (Bourdieu, 1984) that describes how social capital can be exchanged between different stakeholder groups also incorporates market economics (Smith Maguire and Matthews, 2014) and expertise exchange. The latest iteration of cultural intermediation includes the agency of platforms, social media influencers and increasingly algorithms. Understanding this new form of cultural intermediation is crucial to enable items of public importance to remain visible.
Social influencers, which have previously been referred to as microcelebrities (Marwick, 2013; Senft 2013) and digital influencers (Abidin, 2016), are a particular subset of cultural intermediaries. Through their developed expertise to identify ‘cool’ boundary objects, they are able to engage in multiple media production practices to demonstrate the value of those objects to their large audiences. Examples of this practice include Zoella who often engages her audience with the products from her latest shopping haul (revealing the contents of one’s shopping bag), Evan’s Tube who engages his younger audience with an ‘unboxing’ of the latest Lego kit, or Fun for Louis who is often travelling to exotic locations to reveal its most appealing side. In each instance of these social influencers producing content, they engage in high levels of media literacy to transfer the value of the chosen product or service to their large fan base: a trustworthy, word of mouth news sharing technique. They will typically do this across a number of social media platforms, including their TikTok channel for the behind-the-scenes content, the Instagram platform for the ‘hype’ photo or Insta-Story, and a YouTube video to engage their largest audience.
The second emerging aspect of cultural intermediation is the algorithmic arena, which to a large extent describes how automation is undertaken across digital media platforms. As Gillespie (2014: 167) notes, algorithms “are encoded procedures for transforming input data into a desired output, based on specified calculations”. Within a media ecology that sees significantly more content produced than can be consumed, algorithms, in one sense, are seen as mechanisms to assist users in finding and consuming content that is relevant to their interests. In most cases, this manifests as a recommender system, which is represented as ‘Recommended for you’, ‘Up Next’ or ‘You will Like’ types of automated mechanisms. However, there is an increasing body of literature, which is described in detail below, that challenges the bias, power and relationships with content, society and culture that are represented by automated media systems.
Cultural intermediation that combines both social influencers and algorithms, then, acts as a process for media visibility across emerging networked platforms. What has become the process of blending private with public media (Meikle, 2016) has, as Turner (2010) highlights through the demotic turn, enabled ordinary folk to become key influential media producers. However, these key actors within cultural intermediation are typically engaging with the content production and distribution process for the social media entertainment (Cunningham and Craig, 2017) benefits such as increased social and economic capital. This cultural intermediation process is operationalised by what I argue is the digital first personality: those individuals that produce digital content for maximum visibility by engaging social influencer publication strategies that appease platform algorithms. In many cases, their media production focus is on commercial products and services to increase their social and economic capital. Within the social influencer genre that excludes fake news and disinformation, public issues, public affairs, news and current affairs, are often ignored in lieu of highly profitable alternatives.
So here is a beginning for a new area of research. I feel as though I have completed my fieldwork in digital agencies for now, but i can see a new space opening up that looks at the intersection of microplatformization and digital first personalities as the backbone of digital intermediation.