Living in the Gray: When Does Content Creation and Commentary Become Promotion?

Stock-Asso/Shutterstock 2mProject/Shutterstock Jarould/Wikimedia Commons SAG-AFTRA/Facebook Remix by Caterina Cox

In this edition of Lon Harris’ weekly Passionfruit column, we’re exploring how to navigate the blurry distinction between fan, influencer, and spokesperson during the SAG-AFTRA strike.

With the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joining the Writers Guild of America (WGA) TV and film writers on strike, we’re now looking at the widespread shutdown of many sectors of the American entertainment industry. This could have significant long-term impacts beyond just a lack of new “Stranger Things” episodes. A new piece from The New York Times suggests that unless production starts gearing back up around Labor Day, U.S. movie theaters could run out of new films to screen sometime in 2024. 

But it’s not just movie theaters, streamers, and studios that will feel the impact here. An overall pause in movie promotion has major network effects for all kinds of workers. 

These creative laborers may not be SAG-AFTRA or WGA members in good standing but nonetheless engage with studio and streaming content as part of their everyday jobs. Many digital creators, particularly those in the “geek culture” or entertainment journalism-adjacent spaces, are themselves members of one of these guilds or hope to become one someday. 

And the strike has drawn attention to just how vague some of these distinctions between digital content creators have become in the world of online media.

We’re Going Striking!

On July 17, SAG-AFTRA posted a detailed FAQ for members, outlining specifically what kinds of actions and responses are expected of members and non-members alike during the strike. 

Essentially, entertainment journalists and critics are encouraged to continue doing their jobs as usual. Actors are barred from promoting any of the projects affiliated with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). And lastly, influencers who want to one day join SAG-AFTRA are also being asked not to engage with “struck work,” either for pay or otherwise. (If influencers already have contracted agreements with brands, SAG-AFTRA suggests the union will make exceptions).


SAG-AFTRA’s first day of being on strike included 4 simultaneous NYC pickets, all packing the sidewalks with SAG-AFTRA & WGA members. Check out some scenes from the lively picket lines. We’re both fighting for similar contract improvements with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, including protections from AI and fair pay for work featured on streaming services. #WGAstrong #SAGAFTRAstrong #WGAstrike #sagaftrastrike #writersoftiktok #hollywoodstrike #actorsstrike #writersstrike

♬ original sound – wgaeast

So this answers most of the pressing questions about how to join the strike. Still, some people might be wondering where they fit into this world of media. We all may assume we know what we mean when we use words like journalist, critic, reviewer, influencer, reactor, creator, fan, and so forth, but the definitions have become blurred over time, and everyone might not always understand these ideas in the same way.

But in terms of groups of people engaging with entertainment and media online, we can now essentially divide “people who regularly discuss pop culture on the internet” into four categories.

Critics, Journalists, and Broadcasters

Category #1 is critics and journalists. These are paid professionals who work—either full-time or on a freelance basis—for media outlets writing about films, TV shows, and the industry that produces them. 

Some members of this group, particularly if their primary focus is hosting, broadcasting, and reporting on television or radio, are already in SAG-AFTRA, though many others who do their work primarily in print are not.

Though they often also have a presence on social media and video platforms, their primary role is to inform, interpret, and enlighten rather than promote, and thus they wouldn’t take on any kinds of sponsorships or brand deals because it might lead to concerns about unfair bias or favoritism. This group will be able to continue business as usual during the strike.

Who Are Influencers, According to SAG-AFTRA?

Next, it’s one of those relatively muddled categories that’s difficult to entirely encompass with one simple definition: influencers. On the most basic level, obviously, this term just refers to someone with a reasonably sized internet audience that considers them an authority about a particular niche or topic. What makes the “influencer” category so tricky when it comes to the SAG-AFTRA strike is the prevalence of brand and sponsorship deals.

Some influencers, as well, are already members of SAG-AFTRA. According to SAG-AFTRA rules, if influencers perform alone (that is, they don’t share their primary distribution channels as part of a duo or group), are incorporated, own their intellectual property, and have direct relationships with brands, they are eligible for membership. 

These professional influencers are a bit like a combination of celebrity spokesperson and ad agency. They’re hired by companies to produce campaigns, which are then distributed through their self-owned social media channels. SAG-AFTRA rules do also require them to disclose when they’re producing content as part of a sponsorship.

If these influencers are not affiliated with SAG-AFTRA and have no future plans to become professional actors and join, the union has no real power over them. They’ll be unimpacted by the strike unless they choose to support writers and actors by switching up their content.

But for others, who fear future retaliation or the dreaded label of “scab,” it’s probably wise to pull back from the ceaseless promotion of new and upcoming AMPTP shows and films. Some channels, podcasts, and creators have already signaled an intention to move at least some of their new content away from Hollywood studio releases and over to international shows and films, video games, independent productions, content that’s already in the public domain, and so forth.


STRIKE! SAG-AFTRA announced they’re going on #STRIKE effective July 14th. Here’s a look at the WGA strike featuring a lot of celebrities/ #SAGAFTRA members. Filmed & edited by #bwaySHO #WGAStrike #sagaftrastrike #mandypatinkin #adamscott #linmanuelmiranda #AmberRuffin #nickkroll

♬ original sound – bwaySHO

Reactors Blur the Lines Between Critics and Influencers

Next is a group that doesn’t always get singled out as its own category (and doesn’t get separated out by SAG-AFTRA) but remains distinct in some important ways when it comes to engagement with third-party media. The “reactors.” We’re using this term to refer to those (mostly YouTube) channels that watch shows and films in real-time, capturing their in-the-moment reactions to what’s happening on screen.

In most senses, reactors are clearly also both critics and influencers. Like influencers, reactors are self-employed, manage their own channels and Patreons, and decide for themselves what kinds of new content to view and explore. But perhaps most crucially, unlike influencers, many reactors don’t engage in brand deals or other direct sponsorships with the content they’re watching on their channels.

Reactors also have a much more fraught, confrontational relationship with the studios and streamers than their influencer counterparts. Not only is there the possibility that an honest reactor will give a new piece of content a negative review, but they’re also constantly doing battle with copyright holders over their rights to keep their content online and monetized. 

Though it’s clear that studios and content producers are benefitting from the enthusiasm and passion of reactors, as of yet, it’s a one-way relationship without the expectation of any reciprocity. As such, it seems likely that most reactors will continue producing similar content to what they’ve been making all along, as it’s not intended directly to promote AMPTP projects but rather to offer commentary and analysis.

Fans and Boycotts: SAG-AFTRA’s Guidance

Finally, that brings us to fans, who currently aren’t being asked to do anything in response to the strikes other than verbally (and perhaps financially, if they care to donate) supporting actors and writers.

For the time being, at least, neither SAG-AFTRA nor the WGA are calling for public boycotts of films, TV shows, or streaming platforms. SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland explained to The Washington Post that, for now at least, the union’s focus is on “shutting down production.” He did suggest that calls for a boycott may arrive at a later date.

Filmmaker Boots Riley (whose latest series, “I’m a Virgo,” is now on Amazon Prime and is recommended by me!) has been speaking about this on Twitter, suggesting that boycotts are largely ineffective and were presented in the 1960s and ‘70s as a more corporate-friendly way to protest than striking. Regardless, for now, there’s no need to stop paying for Netflix or going to see movies.

Living in the Gray Area

Obviously, categorizations like these aren’t written in stone, and many creators live in the gray areas between these boundaries. Most influencers would probably call themselves fans, after all, while some reactors would likely self-identify as critics, and no one is here to tell them they’re wrong. 

Sometimes, however, there are real distinctions of significance to be made between various kinds of online creators. It’s become an extremely diverse and robust group, working in a variety of fields, disciplines, and niches over the last few decades. It’s helpful to make our language a bit more precise if we can.

What’s your definition of an influencer? Did we miss any categories of creators? Email to share your thoughts.

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