The Political Economy of Digital Platforms
Samantha Close / DePaul University

Convening Question:

In a time of platform-plenty, researchers still tend to separate and silo discussions of e-commerce (Etsy, Patreon), social networking (Twitter, Tumblr), and streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu) by field and specialty. However, as these platforms proliferate and evolve, as these elements merge and mesh with platforms like Twitch and YouTube, it is clear that platforms of all kinds are increasingly important—for audiences, researchers, and corporations alike. In recent years, legacy media, tech, and start-up companies alike have begun to capitalize on platforms, from Hulu’s joint-network ownership, to Disney and WB’s proprietary platforms, to new start-ups like NewTV and OTV. With these developments, it is clear that platforms—in all their varied and hybrid forms—are central to media studies, both in terms of facilitating and affecting participatory cultures and shaping macro-level issues of production, distribution, and exhibition. This roundtable delves into the political economy and participatory cultures of digital platforms, considering growing concerns such as labor and compensation, celebrity and authenticity, governance and ownership, surveillance and opacity, curation and recommendation algorithms, preservation and access.

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

William Moner, Elon University
Samantha Close, DePaul University
Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University
Benjamin Burroughs, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Aymar Jean Christian, Northwestern University

Reflections

Reflections require both an original object to cast them and an unstable future medium to pick them up. It’s in this sense of speculative doubling that I offer you my reflections on the “Political Economy of Digital Platforms” roundtable at Flow 2018. The discussion between William Moner, myself, Myles McNutt, Benjamin Burroughs, Aymar Jean Christian, moderator Steve Malcic, and a standing-room only audience both lively and thoughtful, informs these reflections. Also incredibly generative were the contributions of those who brought our roundtable out into the digital space, like Rusty Hatchel, Eric Forthun, Andy Fischer Wright, and JSA Lowe, as well as those of everyone who engaged with our discussions “out there.” The overall theme that brought us all together was “Precarity, Preservation, and Praxis.” And our discussion was driven by those concerns of:

  • What are the working conditions and opportunities of people who create media on platforms?
  • How can this media ecosystem and its output be preserved, both for study and for cultural memory?
  • How do people and technologies actually create content on digital platforms?

From independent films depicting the Canadian experiences on the National Film Board of Canada’s digital space to teenage aspiring social media stars on YouTube to the overwhelmingly female crafters selling their handmade wares on Etsy, digital platforms host a vibrant ecology of content. The vast majority of people making this content receive little, inconsistent remuneration. The argument—seen most often in discussion of intellectual property and copyright—that if creators aren’t paid professionals, we won’t see any more creative production worthy of the name, has been definitively proven false. But this roundtable illuminated another undeniable truth. We are in danger of a contemporary Lost Generation.

I want to make it immediately clear that I am not suggesting the horrors of World War I are somehow equivalent to the work of media creation on platforms. They’re not. And the platform workers on YouTube, Etsy, and Vimeo we talked about are in many ways the glamorous flipside of poor and working-class people in the United States and across the globe who labor on crowdsourcing and task-based platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk or TaskRabbit. But what I am suggesting is that the current configuration of digital platforms is burning out a full generation, at the very least, of vital talent. Burnout, in the form of exhaustion, debt, depression, and a cornucopia of health issues, comes in startlingly similar fashion to whole families of toy influencers, audacious young male video provocateurs, and cheerful crafters who suddenly close their successful shops. The audience seemed startled at the dystopian picture of anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt, and dependence on spouses, second incomes, and fickle institutions that we painted. I wonder if it is the shock of recognition. Academia, these days, has a lot in common with platforms.

There are other clear takeaways for scholars. We must be specific and precise in analyzing what a platform’s product is. YouTube’s commodity is data. Vimeo’s commodity, despite looking quite similar, is content. The way these companies manage their algorithms is, correspondingly, quite distinct. We must also be clear about who we mean when we say “users.” Different user stakeholder groups play significantly different roles and have different concerns, which neither begin nor end with “privacy” and surveillance.

It is a precarious moment for anyone who cares about preserving and realizing the dream of radically expanding creative praxis that animates these platforms. Knowing what we know now about platforms, looking back at the histories of media like radio, what can be done? Should platform creators unionize? Such is the call of esports figures like Chris Kluwe and the thought of many in the audience. I’m skeptical that the political economic imaginary of union organizing, pitting workers against management, resonates now. Creating non-profit platforms like Open Television, the National Film Board, or the Archive of Our Own, has produced notable successes but remains only one degree less financially precarious than individual creators’ work. As one audience member remarked to me later, it’s evocative that the roundtable discussion didn’t even consider governmental regulation as a possibility. What we must keep firmly in mind is that these are not problems of scarce resources. They are problems of resource distribution and a failure of imagination as those with access to funding, like Netflix’s eye-popping production budgets, back away from participatory production and return to broadcast models. The explosion of user-generated content on digital platforms of the last few decades has been a glimpse of a castle in the sky. Now is the time to invest in foundations under it.