Copyright Corner Q&A Series: Jessica Maddox, University of Alabama

Our latest installment features a discussion with Jessica Maddox, Assistant Professor of Digital Media Technology at the University of Alabama on pushing the boundaries of what we understand about influence, creators and tech platforms. Professor Maddox provided a preview to her upcoming book, The Internet is for Cats: Attention, Affect, and Animals in Digital Sociality, scheduled to come out this year. She also shared insights into current research that looks at how experts – anyone from doctors to hazmat teams – turn their day job into a social media side hustle by demonstrating their skills on social media.

Re:Create’s Copyright Corner Q&As feature conversations with leading policymakers, academics and thought leaders 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 Maddox.

Q: As a professor of social media, culture and society, what are the biggest takeaways that you hope your students get from your classes?

A: I begin a lot of my classes with the question of, “Is X (social media, outdated television shows, TikTok, etc.) good or bad?” This sparks a lot of debate in the class as students think through the positives and negatives of the issue. However, I end the lectures the same way – the problem is they should have rejected the premise of my question and not tried to pigeonhole something into categories of “good” or “bad.” This sets the stage for how I want them to approach media throughout the semester: as complex entities that can never be divorced from their larger historical and cultural contexts, as well as how they are never one thing but contain multitudes.

Q: What trends and/or platforms are you most excited about/fascinated by for 2022 and the long-term?

A: Oh man, I’m excited for a lot of things, but especially the recent changes and boundary pushing in influence. Shameless plug, in Fall/Winter 2022 my book called The Internet is for Cats: Attention, Affect, and Animals in Digital Sociality will come out, and in it I spend a lot of time talking about pet and animal influencers, and how incorporating them into the creator economy has pushed the boundaries of what we understand about influence, creators, and platforms.

For instance, a lot of brands now prefer animal or pet influencers, since their human owner/handler is relatively removed from the content creation process. As such, pets and animals are considered safer for brands to engage with than humans. Also, the number of people who now get pets because they think they can make their dog or cat internet famous is striking – and has tangible implications for animal welfare.

I’ve also spent a fair bit of time this year looking at specific types of influencers beyond pets and animals. I have some other research coming out next year that looks at how experts – anyone from doctors, veterinarians, lawyers, dentists to house cleaners, septic workers, hazmat teams – perform their knowledge on social media. By this, I mean how do individuals turn their day job into a social media side hustle? I’ve found it involves a lot of strategic engagement with the capabilities of platforms, as well as a deep understanding of how to navigate multiple audiences. Similarly, I’ve also begun to look at political influencers, or how politicians themselves act in TikTok videos or sketches to bolster their audiences.

Q: Is the creator economy here to stay? What should we expect to see next from creators as a source of revenue?

A: Absolutely. People that think creators, influencers, and internet culture just silly aspects of youth culture are seriously misinformed. The creator economy is a billion-dollar industry that merges narrative storytelling, creativity, and labor with the nuances and technologies of digital spaces.

Into the next decade, I think we’ll continue to see creators push the boundaries of what type of creativity is possible across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. We’ve already seen things like the Ratatouille musical on TikTok; the maligned YouTube Squid Games; and the Reese’s Canada ASMR movie that combined chocolate and the whispering phenomenon.

The creator economy is a bona fide, legitimate entertainment industry, and across the next decade we’ll continue to see the boundaries of this creativity and these storytelling forms constantly pushed. I’m expecting more film and musical endeavors across TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as viral trends like #BamaRushTok to captivate our attention each day, akin to turning into a nightly TV show to see what happened that day.

Q: You have focused a lot on the intersection of social media and free speech. Are you concerned about how copyright could be abused to silence speech? Are you concerned about other areas where copyright laws are abused?

A: Copyright, fair use, and speech are crucial issues that will be a big part of understanding digital content creation across the next decade. For instance, I’m thinking about the most recent lawsuit Ryan Kavanaugh, Relativity Media, and Triller have filed against YouTuber Ethan Klein of H3H3 Productions. This is the third lawsuit Kavanaugh has filed against Klein, with issues pertaining to alleged fair use violations and alleged defamation – both of which are issues in the realm of copyright and speech.

At the moment, my own interests have me closely watching cases like this, as digital content creators navigate the thickets of content that can be replicated without an owner’s consent, livestreaming, and the relationship between speech and slander. If there’s any traction in this latest lawsuit, seeing how courts rule on these issues will have wide-reaching implications for the future of digital content creation.

For instance, Klein and his wife, Hila, won a landmark copyright case back in 2017, in which they were accused of copyright violations by fellow YouTuber Matt Hoss. While the judge in that case explicitly ruled that not all YouTube reaction videos constitute fair use, the case has set precedent for YouTubers to “react” to other videos without fear of copyright violations.

All of this to say, these rulings set precedent, and even if suits get thrown out, that will tell us something about the state of digital content creation, speech, and copyright. I’ll be following this closely.

Q: What kind of impact do you think policies like notice-and-staydown or content filtering would have on today’s online creators?

A: Since these policies are embedded in the same law that guaranteed Section 230 safe harbor provisions, it’s important to remember that they protect platforms, and not necessarily users/creators. While things like Section 230 and even 512(c), which discusses notice-and-takedown and content filtering, need tweaking, increases or changes toward these types of policies undermine limited liability by shifting the burden to the platforms.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok could not exist, and their creators could have no careers, under such a move. Notice-and-staydown policies are too broad for the nuances of the internet and digital content creation, as they often assume if someone posts a violation anyone else invoking the same content must be violating it too. This is simply not the case.
And while others wish to do away with things like the Section 230 and and Section 512 of the DMCA, obliterating them is not the answer.

That being said, any changes in this area must consider the growing role of the creator and influencer economy, and making sure those individuals have a seat at the table while these issues are hashed out is paramount. This is just one of many reasons why I support creator unionization efforts, and I would hope a creator union would help give these individuals a voice in this conversation.

Q: How do you respond to some critics who decry the internet as nothing more than cat memes?

A: Of course the internet is cat memes! We just need to broaden our understanding of what cat memes are, and how the logic of cats and memes have shaped so much of the contemporary Internet, from the fun and the wholesome to the toxic and the cumbersome. Much of the underlying logics of things that plague the internet operate through the same means of the cat memes – understanding your audience through group vernaculars; using the features of social media platforms to attract viewers and increase metrics; playing with the common silliness of digital cultures to make everything seem lighthearted, even when it’s not.

When we treat the cat memes and harmful practices as separate, we ignore how the similarities between the two may offer understandings as to how to combat the latter. For instance, The New York Times published this piece about how cats may lead to misinformation content, but it falls into a trap I tackle in my research: There’s a pervasive assumption in approaching the Internet that there’s misinformation and toxic practices, and then there’s the cat memes. They are not separate, but are produced by the very same cultural logics that help organize most of our practices in digital spaces.