JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

An amateurized media universe

by Patricia R. Zimmermann

Review of Amateur Media: Social, Cultural and Legal Perspectives, ed. Dan Hunter, Ramon Lobato, Megan Richardson and Julian Thomas (London: Routledge, 2012) 238 pages.

We are now in the midst of what feels like the amateurization of the entire media universe. It is a tsunami of user-generated, fan-produced, blogger-written, Twitter-feed practices. Developed on a wide scale over the last ten years, smartphone imaging, the user-friendly accessibilities of Web 2.0 for blogging, YouTube uploads,  game-modding, the explosion of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the proliferation of fan culture engagements and modifications of commercial products from books, television shows, films, and games—all these present a monumental shift in media structures. At this point we have to take stock of how some things are made possible and some things are ruled out in people’s widespread use of miniaturized, consumer grade technologies.

As one of my colleagues in Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications once observed over a lunch where we pondered the new, enormous challenges in creating a viable and contemporary curriculum for communications degrees, almost every film program and every school of communications could easily be renamed “The School of YouTube.” Thirty years ago, students arrived at film and communications schools looking for access to equipment in order to express themselves visually and to gain access to the communications industry, which still had full time jobs with health insurance. Now, students arrive with their own blogs, links to their short films from high school that they readily share for critique with faculty, and a wide array of media devices that facilitate production, distribution, exhibition and engagement. Despite this proliferation of access to tools, the industry has higher barriers to entry than ever, and with our now precarious, casualized, and outsourced workforce, these students now face post-college as freelancers or entrepreneurs, euphemisms for underemployment in the highly competitive and international media industries.

Amateur Media: Social, Cultural and Legal Perspectives offers a way to reconsider and reframe this massive amateurization, with the book’s eighteen essays zeroing in on the complexities and contradictions rippling through this ever-expanding terrain of the amateur. The book unpacks an important nexus of amateur activity that has been either too diffuse, confined to one interface like You Tube or Wikipedia, or ignored in other scholarship—the constellation of user-generated practices, Web 2.0 participatory possibilities/limitations, social networks, intellectual property and copyright legal cases, and the ever mutating, always fluid relations between amateur and professional. Many of the essays use case studies to show the limits of intellectual property law in countries of the Global North, with Web 2.0 and amateurism challenging previous legal coordinates and economic concerns. Amateur Media concentrates on legal, economic, empirical, and sociological methodologies and theories rather than screen studies modes, which focus more on formal, historical, technological, and contextual issues. In methodological terms, the anthology is an important contribution and expansion of media studies practice.

Proliferating, synergistic platforms support a complex web comprised of professional and amateur, commercial and noncommercial, legal and illegal, informal and formal, paid labor and free labor, makers and consumers. If previous media formations constructed the borders between amateur and professional within more rigid hierarchies, the Web 2.0 world of new technologies, new interfaces, new platforms, and new forms presents more fluidity, more blurring, and more thorny ethical/legal problems. Amateur Media explores the rich tapestry of amateurism in the 21st century. It’s a dizzying, ever-expanding list of positions, practices, and forms that spans user-generated content (UGC), pro-am, prosumer, crowdsourcing, informal economies, citizen journalists, machinima, flashmobs, fan media, whistle blowers, participants on reality tv shows, social networks like Facebook, user uploads, remixers, bloggers, flash mobbers, fan participation, cosplayers, indiegame designers. As Amateur Media sees it, these forms straddle “between the legal, the illegal and the semi legal” (126), demonstrating

“the more complex traffic between (and redefinition of) categories of amateur and professional as they are played out in this particular cultural field” (122)

Amateur Media features six very smartly configured sections, each of which addresses an important, unresolved issue lurking beneath these new amateur ecologies:

The through-line across these essays, written by sociologists, legal scholars, creative industry analysts, and media industries researchers, is that each particular formation of amateur engagement—whether blogging or fan activity or game modding or cosplay, for example—presents distinct problems of authenticity, participation, consumption, copyright, intellectual property, ownership, technology, and community that need to be carefully mapped and considered. With its focus on practices, contexts and nodes of amateurism rather than amateur images themselves, the book offers a different and important argument than those frequented in screen history circles, which tends to emphasize the image, its reuse in films, and its preservation. The book also spans a variety of interfaces and practices, bringing together subcultures of amateurism usually separated in scholarly and popular writing: fans, flash mobs, game modding, subtitling, blogging, YouTube, reality tv shows, cosplay for Japanese anime.

In “Histories of user-generated content: between formal and informal media economies,” Ramon Lobato, Julian Thomas and Dan Hunter, the editors of this volume, argue that what they call contemporary “small scale production” operates within diverse economies so that such production moves “back and forth between formality and informality over time.” (4). For them, amateur modalities represent not one practice but a spectrum best identified by its dynamism and complexity. Using concepts of the informal economy, outside the state, is critical in this volume for situating amateur work. The essays that follow chart this complexity of practices and kinds of movements between different poles of corporate-produced professional media and amateurism. Megan Richardson and Jake Goldenfiend, in “Competing myth of informal economies” ask how WikiLeaks publication and peer-to-peer sharing functions in the legal context of whistle blowers, noting that U.S. law has not sided with content providers. They contend that collaborative artistic productions and informal economies are “important drivers of creativity.”(23) In his “Amateur creative digital content and proportional commerce,” Steven Hetcher asks how amateur creative digital content (ACDC), on You Tube—sometimes infringing commercial content— underscores how recent court cases “pave the way for sties that can more openly combine commercial and non-commercial uses.” (46) On YouTube, “commercial and noncommercial content are intermingled.” (41) Jean Burgess, in “YouTube and the formalization of amateur media,” asks how the “boundaries between amateur and professional media has shifted and blurred.” (53) While YouTube has the promise of cultural participation, it also enacts copyright protection technologies and takedowns. (56)

In reality TV shows, amateurs cross the border into commercial media. Kathy Bowrey asks whether participants in MasterChef Australia , who sign strict nondisclosure contracts, have actually engaged in legal “servitude or voluntary enslavement,” (81) where amateurs facilitate an “extended brand narrative.” (88) She points out that law

“is supporting the shift in commercialization of amateur labor and facilitating a greater personal identification with brands.” (89)

Amateur Media also engages the often-heralded terrain of fan participation, figured in most literature as either emancipatory or as cultural duping to intensify consumerism. David Tan, in “Harry Potter and the transformation wand” looks at a suit brought by author J.K Rowling against Steven Vander Ark, creator of the fansite and book Harry Potter Lexicon, which highlights the contradictions between fan participation and author control over content (100). In one of the most eye-opening essays in this volume, “The simulation of ‘authentic” buzz: T Mobile and the flash mob dance,” Marc Trabsky shows how a phone company ad co-opted the user-generated idea of the flash mob with amateur dancers to simulate authenticity circulating through mobile technologies. The ad represented a shift from the command and control approach of marketing and branding to ransacking guerrilla marketing strategies for large corporations (107). The last section of the book, “Anonymity, identity and publicity,” features three essays analyzing U.S. and British court cases that developed from debates about the parameters and protections of anonymity and privacy in blogger and social media postings as bloggers’ words and images move between platforms, often without the consent of the person who posted or where litigants have later pressed for revealing the name of an anonymous blogger. Lisa Austin argues that notions of the public and private sphere are misguided in the new media ecologies, which she determines are much more complicated since

“different people seek to reach different audiences with different types of communication” (213).

Several essays explore the question of the mobilities, blurrings, and fluidities between the amateur and the professional media industries in intriguing case studies of music bloggers in Australia, Swedish fan subtitlers who go on strike, modders in the Minecraft game, and cosplay (costume and play) where people dress up as characters from Japanese technoculture. In one of the key essays in this volume, David Hesmondhalgh, a specialist on creative labor and the media industries, probes the politics of amateurism in terms of free labor, a point often ignored in the numerous salutations of the amateur as the savior of agency in a globalized media sphere. In “Have amateur media enhanced the possibilities for good media work?” he interrogates the question of the amateur’s free labor in the IT and cultural industries, especially as these industries increasingly transform media work into “casualization, precarity and overwork.” (137). He points out that in all the debates about the amateur, prosumers, networked media, and participatory media, the question of labor, paid and unpaid work, and worklife experiences, are rarely raised.

The rigor of this volume contributes to the burgeoning academic fields probing the amateur, the user-generated, and the networked. The essays reject the often simplistic celebrations circulating through many discussions of amateurism that figure its images and practices in utopian or disruptive terms, whether in the worlds of film, YouTube, piracy, or networks. Instead, the essays in this volume prefer to set their sights on areas of contradiction and unresolved problems, a very useful and provocative strategy. Authors here raise questions about contracts for participants in reality TV shows, the use of product placement in TV shows like Master Chef, the mobility of music industry bloggers to become professionals, T-Mobile’s corporatization and marketization of amateur flash mobs, the legal questions of anonymity in blogs. In this way, all these essays opt for close readings and analyses of the particular rather than the grandiose.

As ambitious as it is in dissecting the gnarled intersections between intellectual property laws, Web 2.0 and emerging formations of amateur engagement, Amateur Media is one of those books that has both assets and liabilities. On the positive side, since it charts a complex geography of amateurism across a variety of platforms and interfaces, it’s a welcome reprieve from books that focus on only one platform like YouTube or Facebook or social networks or mobile phones. It also shifts the decade-long debate concerning proprietary intellectual property and anti-copyright piracy into more complexity and movement by focusing on specific court cases and platforms, unraveling these issues in particular case studies rather than in abstract theorizations or manifestos.

For scholars and graduate students, Amateur Media: Social, Cultural and Legal Perspectives contains some of the most detailed and complete endnotes and bibliography on amateur media, intellectual property, piracy, crowdsourcing, UGC, and participatory culture available. The lists of court cases in the US, UK and Australia throughout the endnotes to each chapter is an incredibly useful compendium in this often daunting, labyrinthine landscape of suits, countersuits, authors, corporations, citizens. The interpretations of these cases in the various essays are readable and accessible to the non-legal scholar.

However, the book also evidences some liabilities and challenges. Most of the examples from the book detail media practices in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, countries of the Global North where these technologies and platforms are imbedded deeply in corporate media. At the same time that I am reading this impressive volume, social media networks and amateur practices propel citizens into the streets in Cairo, Rio de Janiero and Istanbul, document human rights abuses and deaths in Syria, chronicle environmental devastation by oil and mining companies in Indonesia, and generate dissident protests against press crackdowns in China. I wonder why a book on amateur media has focused almost exclusively on amateur engagements with corporate media forms, where the questions of copyright infringement, intellectual property, and privacy are paramount because they are in fact the primary product of transnational capital.

For example, nongovernmental organizations like WITNESS (based in New York City), Sarai  (India), and EngageMedia (based in Indonesia and Australia) offer a different view of amateurism, linking the proliferation of consumer media technologies and the relations of social networks to human rights and environmental struggles in the Global South. In this other context, which works in conflict zones around the globe, there is a different set of both technological and political possibilities, risks, and limits in the realm of the amateur. People working in these struggles face the following problems—questions of ethics, rights of the subject, human rights protocols emphasizing do no harm, circulation, aggregation, curation, risk and security issues, ethics of remixes that delete context, advocacy works that narrowcast for public policy changes, and capacity building for marginalized communities. Here, the amateur is not an agent in the infiltration of consumerism, brand identity, and unpaid digital labor, but is a contributor to social and political change, documenting stories and people outside the purview of transnational global media reality shows, news, and games. As many human rights activists have pointed out, it is not possible to search “human rights” on YouTube. That is, if political works chronicling unrest and problems in the Global South are there, they can be difficult to find. While Facebook and user-uploaded media has served important mobilization functions in Iran, Egypt, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, it also can be used by security forces to identify and then imprison activists.

For readers interested in thinking through new media in relation to social and political struggles or interested in books for courses exploring participatory media from a more politically engaged vantage point, I would suggest investing in two landmark volumes published by Zone Books: Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism, edited by MegMcLagan and Yates McKee (2012) and Nongovernmental Politics, edited by Gaelle Krikorian and Yates McKee (2007). Sensible Politics, at 664 pages, and Nongovernmental Politics, at 696 pages, sell for $36.95 and $39.95, much more extensive and wide-ranging for the price, where one book could set the stage for an entire undergraduate course. The $48.95 price tag from Routledge for the slim 238 pages of Amateur Media will impede any undergraduate or graduate course adoptions, relegating the book to university library purchases.

Despite its emphasis on amateur engagements with corporate media formations in the Global North and its absence of engagement with new social movements around the globe using new media, Amateur Media: Social, Cultural and Legal Perspectives offers a different and distinctive point of view in the scholarly discourse of amateurism, one quite different from The Moving Image, the journal of the Association of Moving Image Archives, which addresses historical preservation and usages of amateur film in other production. In contrast, Amateur Media probes the complexities of the continuum between amateur and professional, legal and illegal, and informal and formal economies. Its focus on the nexus of intellectual property, amateur practices, Web 2.0, economics and legal cases provides a way of considering amateurism not as an isolated activity of hobbyists, but as a practice operating within and around and in between transnational corporate media.


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