Perspectives: Consequences of the Rise of Amateurism in Content Production

By Karen Frost 

Amateur. The word carries a negative connotation in the American dialect. It suggests a lack of experience or skill, a lump of half-molded clay rather than a fully expressed statue. An amateur makes mistakes. A professional delivers a polished, expert product. In point of fact, the definition of amateur carries no such negative baggage, and its linguistic origin simply denotes “one who loves [something].” In American society, in the last ten years or so we’ve seen a rise of what we might call “amateurism.” Consider the following:

Many of the most popular authors today don’t have any experience. The bestselling author of the last decade is J.K. Rowling, who was the world’s first billionaire author. Although now she’s now a professional writer, at the time she conceptualized the Harry Potter series she was working as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International. She had no training as an author, nor even a degree in English. Stephanie Meyer had never even written a short story before she wrote “Twilight,” and her only professional experience had been as a receptionist at a property company. E. L. James, in a similar vein, had never written anything before she sat down to pen the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series. 

No one listens to professional film critics anymore. Once upon a time, Roger Ebert was the most widely recognized film critic in America. In fact, he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1975. Ebert’s career in journalism began well before he’d even reached high school, and he received a Bachelor’s degree in journalism before starting a doctoral program in English. Now, however, most moviegoers don’t bother to read a critic’s reviews (instead, four out of every five moviegoers get their information from YouTube, and movie trailers influence their decision three times more than any other source). When viewers do seek outside input, they rely on aggregate reviews from regular viewers on sites like RottenTomatoes or IMDb. For TV show recommendations, viewers seem to be drawn to the opinion of friends or people they follow on social media rather than established critics.

YouTube stars are regular folks. YouTube and other social video platforms have completely revolutionized content creation and sharing for “amateurs.” The child YouTube star of Ryan ToysReview, for example, received 1.28 billion views for his video “Huge Eggs Surprise Toys Challenge” and has had 21.1 billion total views for his channel in the last three years. Obviously, Ryan has no formal training in acting, and his mother was a high school chemistry teacher. In fact, it is more than likely that none of YouTube’s top stars have any sort of formal acting training.  

The list goes on. “Fashion designers” who didn’t go to design school, American Idol winners with no formal training in music theory, part-time Uber drivers instead of full-time taxi drivers, etc. all represent the trend away from professionalization.

Social video platforms, the ease of self-publishing online, and even fanfiction sites have lowered the bar to entry for content creation, and individuals have responded en masse. Objectively, this is a wonderful development: the Internet has opened up untold worlds of opportunity to new, brilliant, creative new voices that might otherwise have not been given a chance. After all, not everyone can go to Juilliard or the Fashion Institute of Technology or NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. However, it has also opened the door to lower quality content, too, and that in droves. As a result, it may be harder to find the quality content among the mediocre content. Would Justin Bieber have gotten to where he is now if his YouTube videos had remained buried among hundreds of thousands of other aspirants? No, but not for lack of talent. In an experiment in 2007, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, sent barely modified versions of “Northanger Abbey,” “Persuasion,” and “Pride and Prejudice” to 18 literary agents and was uniformly turned down. Not because they were plagiarized, but almost certainly because of the volume of submissions that agents receive on a daily basis. Contrary to the expression, the cream doesn’t always rise to the top, and a lot of high-quality content “signal” will be lost in the overwhelming noise. 

Thus one consequence of the rise of amateurism is one of dilution. With so many competing voices, it’s difficult to find authoritative ones that span large enough audiences to have a significant impact. From 2002-2009, for example, AfterEllen was the undisputed go-to source for information, criticism, and discussion of queer female representation in the entertainment industry. In 2009, Autostraddle appeared as a competitor and eventually even overtook AfterEllen in readership numbers. However, now in 2018, neither seem to carry an overwhelmingly authoritative influence over the queer female community. Instead, queer women seem to have adopted more of a “grocery store” approach to information consumption, picking and choosing articles by topic vice by hosting site. A viewer only interested in certain TV shows, for example, is likely to visit neither site, and will instead be active in chat groups and social media conversations focused on that particular topic.           

In another example, Amazon Prime recently added 60 LGBT videos, bringing its total to 383 movies tagged LGBT that can be instantly streamed. However, other than user ratings, Amazon has not distinguished between these movies in terms of quality, meaning that the spellbinding and brilliantly done movie “The Secrets” is easily lost among the four “Eating Out” movies (which are not, as they sound, lesbian porn movies). Similarly, YouTube has so much queer content that it’s impossible to even itemize, much less qualitatively analyze in order to identify the “best” content. (And what constitutes “best” anymore anyway? A question for another time…)  

The fracturing of the entertainment industry’s social landscape, both in terms of content production and analysis of that content, empowers voices that might have otherwise gone unheard, but also makes it harder for them to build an audience. Seven lesbian book publishing companies attended ClexaCon this year, meaning they are likely splitting—to some extent—the queer female readership between themselves, rather than consolidating that readership to one or two publishing houses. In addition, viewers, readers, and listeners can easily stovepipe themselves and create echo chambers for their own thoughts and beliefs that don’t allow for cross-stovepipe conversation. As a result, quality projects must rely to a larger extent than previously on word of mouth to cross stovepipes, an imperfect and fickle method of transmission. 

A final consequence, the one with which this editor is particularly concerned, is the way that the rise of amateurism chips away at the expertise of professionalism. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly an unintended consequence. For example, why should students in the future bother pursuing a PhD in film theory on the way to becoming a critic if professional critics are giving way to podcasts by college students, personal blogs, and Twitter? Why attend Juilliard if Kim Kardashian can become a celebrity on the basis of a sex tape? Why achieve a degree in creative writing if E.L. James made more than $80 million writing “Twilight” fanfiction? The shift in favor of “amateurs” will undoubtedly change how individuals approach previously more academic professions. 

Ultimately, “amateur” isn’t a bad thing. After all, the Olympics were originally for “amateurs” and these are the best athletes in the world. Moreover, amateurs like Rowling are successful because they bring something new, exciting, and needed to the table. That said, there is still a need for professionals, and the lifting up of amateurs will hopefully not come at the complete cost of professionals. Mark Twain once said, “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.” True, but we still need some good wine, too!