Copyright Corner Q&A Series: David R. Craig, USC Annenberg School

Our second installment features a discussion about “social media entertainment” (SME) with David R. Craig, a clinical professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Professor Craig helped coin the term to characterize “a new cultural industry that is most distinguished by how creators operate off of social media platforms.” He helps explain why these new SME creators are less concerned about intellectual property (IP) control, more focused on how social media fosters their engagement with online “societies,” and why they need to be better informed about our nation’s copyright laws.  

Re:Create’s Copyright Corner Q&As feature conversations with leading policymakers, academics and thought leaders, including Register of Copyrights Shira Perlmutter, to break down complex copyright issues and examine how copyright interacts with American jobs, creativity and innovation. Read below for the full discussion with Professor Craig. 

Q: Can you explain your term “social media entertainment” for us?

A: Social Media Entertainment, or SME, is the term my co-author Stuart Cunningham and I coined to refer to a new cultural industry that is most distinguished by how creators operate off of social media platforms. Like most of the platforms, we use the term creators, but other terms include influencers, online celebrities, youtubers, grammers, gamers, streamers, and, in China, KOLs, wanghong, and zhubo. As with all industry, creators are part of a complex system, rather a “new screen ecology”, that includes the social media platforms, creator service organizations, new cultural practices, online formations of massive fan communities, and diverse and new media business models, if also raising a new set of questions for scholars and policymakers. 

Q: There is a much broader understanding about how creators can earn money – even make a living online – today. Can you help readers better understand how social media can also help foster a sense of belonging? 

A: Although a few use these platforms to leverage opportunities in Hollywood, most don’t and lack any training, need, or desire to go into legacy media.  Rather, SME creators operate with vast distinction from other cultural producers, whether producers, filmmakers, television showrunners, actors, directors, writers, musicians, authors, publishing, studio, or music label executives. They do not necessarily own or care to own their IP or control their means for distribution. Rather, the key here is how “social” media allows them to build these online “societies”, e.g., to harness, aggregate, and engage massive online communities and convince them to support their creator brand through diverse and often “social” business models, like influencer marketing, virtual gifts, or e-commerce. In other words, they build relationships with the community, which affords not only the means for generating revenue but provides a sense of belonging around shared affinities, mutual interest, common values, political ideas, patterns of consumption, as well as cultural identity. 

Q: How are today’s online creators contributing to and fostering more diversity and understanding?

A: As we know from the past few years, if not the past century, Hollywood has never excelled at reflecting the diversity of the U.S., much less the world in which it has dominated distribution and content. With social media platforms scaling to billions of users around the world within the palms of their hands, creators have the means to not only see their culture, but to profit directly from representing and promoting their culture from every corner and margin.

Q: How important is the underlining terminology used to define social media influencers, entrepreneurs and organizers to the relevance of copyright policies and regulations?

A: The terms we use to define any industry have a direct impact on how policy is shaped, and law often lags far behind these developments.  But the rise of SME and creator culture may pose the most complex set of challenges because these creators are often defined by a century’s worth of terms, frameworks, and ideas coupled with a fragmented regulatory system. The Copyright Office may only develop creator policy around IP, even though creators rely more on fair use. The FTC only understands creators as “influencers” who sell products.  The FCC has yet to sort out how to govern platforms, much less advocate for or govern creators. Worse, creators, journalists, and scholars don’t even use the same terms, although we are starting to see the term “creator economy” be adopted more broadly in public and industry discourse.  

Q: What are some of the newest ways you have observed marginalized communities going around traditional gatekeepers to drive change? 

A: Our research identified how Asian Americans were, at least in the beginning, the most successful SME creators in multiple verticals, from personalities (Fung Brothers), DIY/lifestyles (Michelle Phan), gameplayers (Markiplier), unboxers/toys (EvanTube), and more. This was a decade before Crazy Rich Asians, much less Shang Chi. Likewise with LGBTQ creators here in the U.S. In fact, in almost every country we have researched, creators who might never have been afforded opportunities in their national cultural industries (film, tv, fashion, music, publishing, etc.), are often the first to emerge successfully within SME. That said, as much as we as a society have come to see the vital importance of representation, representation is but one strategy towards the larger goal of fairer, more equitable societies. So the fact that marginalized creators are able to represent their own communities and profit from them is tremendous but not the end. These remarkable new conditions for diverse cultural production do not necessarily translate into real-world political change, but it’s a vital start.

Q: Hollywood has been able to effectively wield copyright laws to protect its business model in the face of all of this disruption. Do you think this balance of power could ever change?

A: I confess. I have a blind spot around these battles, in part because they did not directly impact my career over three decades as a producer in Hollywood and I have not had to study these closely to teach or conduct my research into SME. These are vital questions, but I’ve deferred to the experts, including Joshua Lamel at ReCreate to explain this to me. My sense is these are power questions that grow less vital to the rise of SME and prove more critical in the wake of seismic disruption by streaming video and audio of every nation’s media industries.

Q: Do you think today’s online creators understand how much they could be impacted by harmful proposals to change our nation’s copyright laws?

A: Most do not, in part because they were born into what we call “the social generation” which is further distinguished by platforms. For example, the YouTube generation doesn’t fully understand the TikTok generation, much less Twitch or Clubhouse.Growing up since all the major regulatory changes in the mid-1990s, these generations never had to give much thought to the freedoms these platforms were affording them all this time.  However there are remarkable thought leaders in creator culture like Hank and John Green (Vlogbrothers) who are familiar and are trying to find ways to better educate the creator community about these laws.   

Q: What is the one key message you would like lawmakers to hear and understand when it comes to policy changes that could disrupt the ability for online creators to engage and connect? 

A: It’s hard to have one. As we’ve seen from the rise of China’s creator culture (Wanghong), creators are vital to the future of every nation’s “social economy” in which nearly all forms of consumer consumption, cultural activity, communication, and financial exchange are already occurring across social media platforms. Secondly, creators are “social media entrepreneurs” and not Hollywood producers, product spokespersons, gig contractors, or frivolous teenagers wasting time and destroying the minds of children, at least not the majority of them.

Q: What do you see is the greatest risk today to the continued growth, evolution and innovation driven by online creators and their communities?

A: Yet again, it’s hard to list only one. I’ll frame it this way. Creators are under constant peril from platforms changing their technology, services and policies, to regulators crafting well-intentioned policy that fails to recognize, govern, or advocate for creators, to creators in their own right engaging in reckless, asocial, if borderline, criminal behavior that sets terrible precedent and threatens their own lives, their fans, and broader society.