Amateurs Vs. Professionals – Does the distinction matter anymore?

We seem to be living in a golden age of amateur media production, a development frequently attributed to how digital media platforms like YouTube and Medium make it easier for people to create and share content online. The ongoing attention that amateur makers have recently garnered raises the question of whether or not it is still relevant to distinguish between professionally created content and the work of amateurs. If so, where should the line be drawn? Audiences recognize quality when they see it, so what does it matter if it was produced by a professional or an amateur?

The idea of a distinction

It is difficult to accurately pinpoint the distinction between amateur and professional media production because both terms can be used to implicitly and unevenly make other kinds of distinctions: between leisure and work, between popular and elite, between free work and paid labour, between ineptitude and competency—to name but a few. The distinction also varies considerably depending on the context in which it is used. For example, amateurism in sport conjures up connotations that differ considerably from those involving amateurism in video production. Thinkers like Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller also draw our attention to the fact that the distinction is not clear cut and that a category such as “amateur” has different states: from the ‘fan’ to the ‘skilled amateur’ to the ‘quasi professional’. One way to begin sifting through all of these nuances is to determine on the basis of which criteria the distinction is being made and who is applying said criteria to make the distinction.

Applying criteria to determine who is and who isn’t a professional is a way to control access to status or to certain resources by excluding those who don’t meet those criteria. There are many different types of criteria. Conventional best practices like saving content in the right file format and using proper lighting can be used to assess someone’s professionalism as a form of “quality control.” Other criteria include years of experience in the field as well as the number of credits or published works. But there are also criteria that can be used to assess whether or not someone is an amateur. For example, the same “best practices” that betray someone as a “non-professional” in video production have developed into a genre of their own. As a case in point, take the generic white room as background and the awkward desktop camera angles of online amateur footage. As Paul Ford argues in the previous link, professionals now use these stylistic conventions as part of their production toolkit. The fact that there exists a recognizable amateurish style on platforms like YouTube is in part what undermines our traditional ideas of what differentiates the professional from the amateur. At exactly what point (if any) does the level of experience and success of some YouTube personalities mean that they should no longer be qualified as amateurs?

This question leads us to those who apply these criteria. While traditional media industry professionals remain the dominant gatekeepers for who is and who isn’t a professional, those who design and manage digital platforms have progressively become the new adjudicators of these distinctions. The following section develops on how platforms like YouTube are putting into practice criteria for distinguishing between amateurism and professionalism with respect to content creation and distribution.

Putting a distinction into practice

Digital platforms like YouTube enable people to create and share videos. In February 2015, YouTube will be celebrating its tenth anniversary. Over the last ten years, it has grown from a small start-up, to being purchased by Google in 2006 in a deal worth more than US$1 billion to today having more than 6 billion hours of video viewed online each and every month. As a commercial venture, the platform has been redesigned to improve its ability to generate [impressive] revenue. This combination of time and sustained success has meant that the platform’s designers needed to develop frameworks to categorize and control the different types of people and organizations who use it.

Most of YouTube’s online documentation refers to “creators” to qualify those who upload content to the platform. This appellation conveniently avoids making a distinction between professional and amateur content producers. The platform already serves as a space for video creators to share tips and tricks on how to improve their skills[1]. YouTube’s “Creator Hub” and its efforts to train video creators suggest that the platform’s ambitions are not limited to simply being a content distribution platform; YouTube wants to become a place where budding creators can learn their craft and gain status among peers, i.e., where amateurs can become professionals.

quick look at some of the free training provided in the Creator Academy suggests that a lot of emphasis is placed on learning how to improve the social media features of the creator’s content: developing content based on the interests of known online communities, ensuring that content can be easily found by generating the right kind of metadata, recruiting and retaining large numbers of subscribers to the creator’s channels, continually monitoring how content is accessed through tools like Google Analytics. Depending on how these skills gain currency among creators and viewers, it may be that aspects of these characteristics—like the type of metadata people choose for particular content—become signs of professionalism in a similar way to the best practices described earlier. As these traits gain in importance, they may have long-term implications for content creation once we recognize that not all YouTube “creators” operate on a level playing field.

One way in which imbalances appear between creators is by the use of copyright and license agreements to control the circulation of content. While most individual creators relinquish much of this control when using YouTube, industry consortiums like Vevostrategic venture piloted by Google and the music industry that controls aspects of music licensing on YouTube—ensure that copyright and the revenue that stems from online content viewing and sharing are enforced. As the online stakes continue to rise and the level of sophistication of engagement techniques and skills on YouTube continues to increase, it seems likely that new layers of professionalism and amateurism will begin to form and solidify among content creators.

YouTube is by no means the only gatekeeper for distinguishing between amateur and professional content creators. But more and more, these types of platforms represent a different and highly influential forum for making the difference. While it is still likely that the next decade will continue to see sensations emerge among amateur ranks thanks to these platforms, the growing influence of social media and “digital-first” personalities may mean such successes will depend on a different kind of media professional to do so.

Frédérik Lesage
Frédérik Lesage (Ph.D., London School of Economics and Political Science) is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. His research interests include digital media, creative practice, and mediation theory.
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