Mobile content platforms: Who is watching the gatekeepers?

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SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: The exponential rise of mobile-driven (and funded) content platforms is starting to have some interesting, and potentially problematic side-effects in terms of selection (curatorship), censorship and the freedom of creative expression.

As the emergence of short form content as an industry driver becomes more and more clear, producers find themselves in a complex situation in terms of what they produce and how it is distributed.

Social media, and of course YouTube, have been the dominant platforms for sharing and monetising this content over the past decade. Brand and digital agencies have also looked to short form producers to produce impactful content around specific narratives and briefs.

Short form content then could be broken down into two main categories; firstly, creative driven short films are often developed on the hopes of securing a place and accolades at film festivals, going viral on social media or similar platforms and possibly promoting the career of the producer/filmmaker or securing funding for a full feature or TV series.

A second category of commercially driven content has been driven by brands and agencies looking to capitalise on the power and impact of social media. The prevalence of this content has opened up lucrative career paths for many young producers, but ultimately falls within the world of advertising.

The reality for purely creative driven short form producers has been that apart from niche categories at film festivals, and social media sharing, opportunities to drive or monetise their content were slim.

However, as mobile platforms start to become the primary platform for more and more people to watch any kind of video content, creative short form is now taking its place as the most lucrative and essential format on the market.

The massive hunger now being shown particularly by mobile operators for short content however must not only be seen as a positive driver of the industry. While it is true that the opportunities for exposure and monetisation, especially for young African producers, are real, there is a cost to this process.

The biggest area of concern, as I see it, is in terms of selection and curation. For all its ills and algorithms, social media, at least to a certain extent, and in certain countries is somewhat democratic. Commercial content often goes viral due to massive budgets and boosts, but often, quirky and original producer uploaded content manages to go global based purely on word of mouth and sharing.

Mobile content platforms however are heavily curated, moderated and gate-kept. Is anyone asking who exactly within the mobile platforms is selecting the content, on what criteria and for what markets? Clearly its all about expected profit. The content selected by any mobile platform, especially the content promoted within those platforms, is going to be that which is determined to gather the most eyeballs for as long as possible.

The gatekeepers of these mobile content platforms then are often found within the marketing departments – and content is selected often not for any kind of creative originality but rather on projected returns or within very narrow prescriptive norms.

As these platforms become more dominant destinations for content consumption amongst consumers, one has to consider the role of these all-powerful gatekeepers and what it means for the future of creative and perhaps even controversial content. Mobile platforms will inherently shy away from political content, or any content that offends certain governments, think Google in China. So if mobile platforms become the main source of news and information for an entire generation it is essential to look at the impact that this highly curated environment will have on both the viewers and the producers.

Already many bemoan the apparent censorship and narrowcasting of content on social media, but this will be exponentially increased when mobile operators control both the access and the content itself.

Producers will find themselves having to make more of the same – shorter and shorter bits of content aimed to please the most number of viewers without offending or taking any risks. This is the kind of content that will be rewarded financially leading to a process of self-censorship within the industry.

So while we celebrate the income and opportunities that arise from the growth of mobile content platforms – let’s also be mindful of the potential pitfalls in terms of creative, free and fair expression.

 

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