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6// The Trail Running Creator’s Responsibility
On the changing power dynamics in trail running media
We’re back with another post from last year that a very small portion of you saw, but is ultimately an important issue for our media ecosystem - now creators have taken a greater role in the development of our trail running community, there’s a significant responsibility on them to be the stewards of our sport.
Hope you’re having a great summer :)
The trail running media landscape is unique in that creators outnumber institutional brands. Often it is creator content that captures the most attention in trail running and drives the community conversation forward.
The rise of trail running media has come directly from trail runners creating their own outlet and answering the question ‘what would I like to read/listen/see in trail running?’ Indeed dear reader that is why I am writing about trail running media, because I believe it's a fascinating space that deserves more attention.
Digital media has opened the doors to individuals creating, distributing and commercialising their own media brands. Individuals are now at the heart of our new ecosystem.
Whilst I say new, we have always had a rich written history of trail running through the early bloggers of the 00s writing race reports and documenting their training. When we lacked the size to capture media attention, these posts served as reminders of our shared community, capturing the idiosyncrasies and feelings of what can at times be a lonely endeavour. They made you feel part of something greater.
Yet blogs back then lacked the distribution mechanisms and network effects to ever reach a large audience. They were limited to a lucky few readers who happened upon them through Google or a magazine article - the former drivers of discovery. What’s new about our ecosystem is the ease with which an individual can become a media brand.
Decades of innovation has made the production, commercialisation and distribution of media as easy as a few clicks. Smartphones brought photography to the masses, the internet brought an online education to all and social media enabled mass distribution of content. Media does not need a full bus load of people to produce content, now anyone can do it.
This has changed the power dynamics in media. Creative talent has always been there, but typically they’ve been wrapped up in institutional brands. Now media brands follow talent, not the other way around. We’ve seen this most prominently in creator-led media brands like Puck, Workweek or running’s very own Relay.
Tools unbundle media to level the playing field and allow individuals to go direct to the audience, bringing the personal front and centre.
Personal brands become the galaxy that encompass a wider array of services. From simply producing a podcast with sponsorships, or going full Mr Beast and creating a fast food chain off the back of YouTube videos. Content is the front end to everything.
It has been through these seismic changes that we have been able to diversify the voices of our community and accelerate past a lot of the growing pains that similar fringe sports went through, such as surfing and snowboarding.
It has also facilitated the growth of niches within our niche form – from FKTs, VKs and ultras, alongside geographic and platform specific communities all revolving around particular stars/creators in their galaxy. We each say we like running on trails, but we all take different paths in and around the sport.
In that way our community is fluid, more flexible than the era of institutional brands who were the primary documentarians of our culture. This both reinvigorates our sport with fresh perspectives that create more entrances and enclaves, and allows more diverse groups to feel belonging in the sport. People can self-select their community by points of view, geography, socio-economic background, aesthetic and so on.
One of the greatest things about modern media is that it's moving in a more human direction.
By coming from people we get to know through posts, tweets and comments, media becomes more about communication and dialogue, a medium through which it is easier to form interpersonal connections. It’s more of a dialogue between the individual and the community, allowing us all to have a say in where our sport goes.
All these developments should leave me with hope and excitement for the future of our sport, but I can't shake a residual unease about the consequences of a community led by individuals. When Identity becomes the prism through which we communicate and coalesce around, who is speaking matters as much as what they are saying. In spite of all the progress our sport has made, there is still plenty of work to be done in creating a more diverse and inclusive environment for more people to feel belonging. Additionally, whilst everyone can have a say, we’ve quickly discovered in modern media that it is often the ones that shout the loudest or come from a privileged position get heard.
Traditionally it has been the institutional media brands that have been the figureheads of a sport, guiding the conversation, navigating the community through the issues it comes up against and being the first port of call for newcomers. It was comforting to hear Zoe Rom’s enthusiasm for embracing this position for Trail Runner as ‘stewards’ of the sport whilst committing to giving more diverse voices a platform to speak from.
Yet, it is no longer simply up to institutions to guide the narrative in a community. With the rise of personal brands that generate more attention and influence than institutions, the balance of power is shifting to become more bottom-up. It’s well within a creator’s capabilities to bring about a change in trail running. To quote everyone’s favourite Spider-Man saying ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
As great as that quote is, I don't want to finish on something so cringe. So let me end on this - never has there been so much potential in trail running to form the media landscape and community that we deserve. Creators and institutions have a shared responsibility and investment in growing this sport. Let’s build this community on a platform of kindness and generosity, and of positivity and inclusion. Because heck, who wouldn’t want to be a trail runner after feeling that?
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