At the advent of the internet, businesses and professionals had to adapt to the new innovation and subsequent restructuring of industries that occurred. Among such innovations was the prolific introduction of social media and with it the inevitable changes to industries worldwide. There have been no professions untouched by such change for better or worse. Writers, and more specifically essayists are no exception. It is this media convergence, of both technological change and the change in the wider industry that gave rise to new media (Flew, 2014). With the rise of new media, essayists have confronted a variety of benefits and challenges both within the industry and to them as individuals professionals.
What was once a medium that begun in the 16th century with the release of Michel de Montaigne’s Le Essais, Essays – like all writing styles – have had to adapt to the challenges of social media. The convergence between social media and essays allowed for new media to arise, far beyond the blogging culture that preceded the online essays we see today. As the famous essayist Brian Dillon states here, “ ’essayism’… is as hale as it’s ever been”. Pieces that would once have been limited to paper publications can now be self-published through the affordances granted by the introduction of new media. Whether it be on YouTube, a personal website, or Tumblr the method by which Essays are published are no longer restricted to prestigious publishing houses. This is an exacerbation of the needs that were seen in 2001, when The Freelancers Union was founded for those who seeked to be self-employed. It is because of this that it is the fastest growing union in America in recent years (Ross, 2013).This means that for many essayists, they can explore alternative outlets for their work through being self-employed and working as freelancers; an affordance granted by the rise of social media.
Moreover, among these new media is an increase in the community around essayists in the form of network publics. These publics have formed as a result of a shared identity and commonality which revolves around the work of essayists (Boyd, 2010). The participatory culture that has arisen from social media now means that essayists can be supported through the network publics that have formed around their own content. The communities that have inevitably formed allows for greater freedom for essayists. These take many forms across all media platforms, from personal websites to YouTube. While traditional forms of publication still exist, social media has allowed for greater scalability and searchability for the content that essayists write, which in turn draws greater audiences to their content. This has created greater loyalty for essayists, furthering their ability to work independently of agents or publication houses. This is only exacerbated by the creation of crowdsourcing finance services such as Patreon, which allow these publics to support essayists they favour. This, however, means that essayists are far more reliant on their audiences than ever before. The commodification of their audiences means the income of essayists are directly controlled by their viewership (Ross, 2013). This arguably makes this position less secure for essayists than ever before. Despite this, the participatory culture has allowed people to learn more about essay writing. Due to the low barriers for both expression and engagement on many social media platforms, there has been an increase in people able to become an essayist. The low barriers have also allowed essayists to broaden the way they create essays beyond the traditional form. In doing so they challenge the fundamental idea of what an essay is.
Although a relatively new medium for essayists, Video Essays have grown in popularity on the YouTube platform. This innovative means of producing an essay has not only furthered the development of essays as a genre but redefined how they are seen. It’s the culmination of new media, self-employment and public networks that has led to this new form of essays to arise. Evan Puschak, creator of arguably the most well-known video essay channel Nerdwriter, explains in a TEDx video on how exactly YouTube changed the essay. Puschak emphasizes how video essays blur into films, journalism and documentaries and how this has allowed for greater expression and depth for essay writers. However, they still relate heavily to academia in their conveyance of information and curated knowledge. It is because of these impacts of social media that these new forms of essays and essayists have arisen. Interestingly, video essays are a medium that has yet to be utilized by more traditional publishers. As Conor Bateman explains here, very few of these publishers produce video essays when compared to the independent creators on YouTube. Instead, they stick to more traditional methods of publishing. It means, however, that this rising trend of video essays is more readily available to independent creators and consumers alike. Despite this increased accessibility, the adaption to social media for essayists has not come without its challenges.
Social media audiences and creators face a glaring issue, especially video essayists who operate on YouTube. This problem is the algorithm. All over the internet, websites that curate content for their audiences use algorithms to determine what is seen, and by who. While useful when working, often times these algorithms will not operate as intended, create biases, or even ostracize entire demographics because of the way in which they filter content. Video essayist channel Coffee Break emphasizes this in his video in which he talks about the YouTube algorithm. “YouTube wants to suggest videos that it know you’re already likely to enjoy, but the only thing it knows you already like is what you’ve already watched”. Because of this algorithmic behaviour, content from niche creators like essayists is becoming inaccessible to the larger audience. Currently, there is little that can be done by the users of the platform. So, while social media, on the whole, has increased the spreadability of content created by essayists, under specific circumstances this is being inhibited by platform algorithms. Likewise, the low barriers of participatory culture, as well as the spreadability of certain content has concerned some about the overall integrity of the art form. This is due to the ability for fans and consumers to actively influence the work produced by essayists (Fuchs.2014). Essayist Christy Wampole highlights in her piece titled The Essayification of Everything, that it suffers from “meditative deficiency”. She states “today’s essayistic tendency – a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of though – doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration”. This is in part due to the need to alter content according to an ever-evolving algorithm, as well as the increased participatory culture surrounding essay writing. This is because the existing participatory culture has led to a wider spectrum of quality as essayists no longer have to go through the filter of publishing houses.
Social media in all of its facets has redefined the way essayists work. With the introduction of new media beyond that of mere blogs, affordances have allowed these writers to exist as independents. No longer are they dictated by publishing houses to have their work exposed. With this, the barriers surrounding the profession have fallen, allowing for greater accessibility from essayists and their audiences alike. This has allowed for public networks to form around writers and their content, an impossible task without social media. Because of this, a new type of essay has arisen in the form of the ‘video essay’. This has expanded the possibilities for essayists and challenged the conventions of what an essay is. However, because of the participatory culture that has developed, the overall standard of quality has been challenged. Moreover, many essayists struggle to cope with the ever-changing algorithms that mediate online content. Despite all of this, it can be seen that essayists and their writing have not only adapted to the advent of social media but have also evolved to better utilize the affordances it offers.
Bateman, C. (2017, February 20). Publish and Perish: Video Essays in the Age of Social Media. Retrieved from Four Three Film: https://fourthreefilm.com/2017/02/publish-and-perish-video-essays-in-the-age-of-social-media/
Boyd, D. (2010). Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications. Networked Self: Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites, 39-58.
Coffee Break. (2017, April 13). Youtube's Algorithm is Broken. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmgPEAERwoc
Flew, T. (2014). Chapter 1: Introduction to New Media. In T. Flew, New Media (pp. 1-17). South Melbourne: Oxford University Media.
Fuchs, C. (2014). Social Media as Participatory Culture. Social Media: A Critical Culture, 52-58.
Humphreys, J. (2017, October 31). What future has the essay in a social media age? Retrieved from The Irish Times: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/what-future-has-the-essay-in-a-social-media-age-1.3268308
Ross, A. (2013). In Search of the Lost Paycheck. In T. Scholz, Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.
TED. (2016, June 9). How YouTube Changed The Essay | Evan Puschak | TEDxLafayetteCollege. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ald6Lc5TSk8
Wampole, C. (2013, May 26). The Essayification of Everything. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/the-essayification-of-everything/