On Seeing What’s Next: Netflix’s Personalized Interface Versus Users’ Personal Browsing
Latina Vidolova / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix's current interface
Netflix’s current interface.

In summer 2018, Netflix began to roll out, alongside other changes to the user interface for television devices, a fullscreen preview trailer that autoplays above sections of tiled content suggestions. This feature amplifies another interface change in late 2016 that replaced still images with video previews as users linger over a selection. The combined effect is sometimes a sensory barrage, leading director Rian Johnson to joke that his favorite console game is “navigating Netflix without triggering autoplay promos” and satire news site Hard Drive to write, “Netflix Now Autoplays Trailer If You Even Think About Opening Website Up.” Netflix Director of Product Innovation Stephen Garcia explained the 2016 change saying, “Television has decades’ worth of expectation that when you turn it on, the video and audio play. So it’s actually quite strange to have a silent experience.”

Curiously, this statement comes from a company that, as television scholars like Timothy Havens have thoroughly chronicled, “champions a disruption of scheduled television viewing” and leans on “its identity as a tech company, as opposed to a media company.” [ ((Timothy Havens, “Netflix: Streaming Channel Brands as Global Meaning Systems,” in From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels, ed. Derek Johnson (New York: Routledge, 2018), 325–326.))] Netflix has invested a lot of energy in framing its service as unlike television, as harnessing technology to create something new and better. For Garcia to say Netflix should be more like television appears out of place.

Netflix’s “Anytime. Anyplace. Instantly.” advertising campaign emphasizes Netflix’s differences from television.

Nevertheless, maybe this kind of angling should not be surprising. Ramon Lobato notes that Netflix strategically presents itself to suit particular situations. For instance, Netflix acts as a tech company when dealing with governments, hoping to evade the pesky regulations stamped onto national television, but it refers to itself as television in public relations “because of [television’s] familiarity to consumers.” [ ((Ramon Lobato, Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 34.))] Garcia’s statement, then, might be understood as encouraging subscriber comfortability with a change that he reassures is as familiar and old as television.

What is interesting to me, underneath the strategic dimension to representing Netflix as like/unlike television, is how, adjacently, Netflix imagines subscribers and their relationship to the service. When Netflix declares itself old and familiar, it presents passive positions to its users; when Netflix indicates its service is new and disruptive, more active positions open up. A conflict between empowering users or curtailing them plays out in the design of Netflix’s interface.

I want to take a closer look at the historical trajectory of Netflix’s user interface. [ ((My approach is inspired by Mel Stanfill’s discursive interface analysis: Mel Stanfill, “The Interface as Discourse: The Production of Norms through Web Design,” New Media & Society 17, no. 7 (August 1, 2015): 1059–74, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814520873.))] In different contexts on the site, Netflix seems to suggest users are in charge or users should sit back and let Netflix make their entertainment decisions. This modulation reveals how Netflix both makes users feel empowered and guides and shapes their activity in a form most productive to Netflix.

Netflix’s user interface in 2010
Netflix’s user interface in 2010.

The user interface in 2010 resembled a digital video shop, with images of DVD covers in rows under broad genre labels. At the time, a video shop aesthetic reflected both Netflix’s roots as a DVD rental company and Netflix’s desire to differentiate its service from regular television. Like borrowing a DVD and unlike watching broadcast and cable television, Netflix would allow users to control the selection and scheduling of their viewing.

In the next few years, Netflix allowed some of the granular metadata it developed for improving recommendation to manifest on the user end, transforming data into pleasurable ways to traverse Netflix: scrolling through categories with inventive names, clicking through emotive tags, discovering new media grouped with familiar. Television scholars have remarked on how Netflix promotional material from the early 2010s emphasizes their users in action; as Netflix imagines it, even when bingeing, they are dynamically seizing their entertainment on their terms instead of succumbing to the massive time suck of television. [ ((See Havens 2018; Mareike Jenner, “Binge-Watching: Video-on-Demand, Quality TV and Mainstreaming Fandom,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 3 (May 1, 2017): 304–20, https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877915606485; Chuck Tryon, “TV Got Better: Netflix’s Original Programming Strategies and Binge Viewing,” Media Industries Journal 2, no. 2 (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mij.15031809.0002.206.))] Similarly, the long list of datafied and categorized choices on Netflix encourages scrolling and sorting “as the sovereign navigator-user of an endless archive of screen content.” [ ((Lobato 2019, 33.))]

Netflix’s pleasantly categorized catalog
Netflix’s catalog layout offers intriguing categorizations and pleasing visuals, tempting users to go exploring.

However, the catalog layout has always been paired with top picks or “trending now” choices toward the top that urge users to stop browsing and press play already. Since 2018, Netflix foregrounds curated selections even more emphatically with the auto-preview feature. As Garcia explains, “sometimes our members need a little bit of help figuring out” what to watch. In an interesting reversal, then, Netflix has begun to emphasize not having to choose instead of choosing as the trait that makes users (technologically) empowered through their service. In the second half of the 2010s, Netflix further limited viewer activity on the service through eliminating user reviews, changing from a five star to a thumbs up/down rating system, and cracking down on use of VPNs to access geoblocked content and piracy after an initial attitude of permissive inattention. [ ((Lobato 2019.))]

These changes suggest a passive viewership model that resonates especially when paired with Netflix’s rhetoric of customization. Netflix justifies putting selections in the faces of users because it assures that those selections are exactly the perfect recommendation, liberating the user from useless browsing.

Frank and Oak ad
Advertising the individualization of their monthly subscription service, outfitter Frank and Oak called themselves “The Netflix of clothing” in a 2019 Instagram advertisement.

Netflix has become a symbol of granular, incisive personalization in popular imagination, with the result that its business choices are often understood as giving subscribers what they want. In March 2019, subscribers noticed Netflix was experimenting with switching the episode order of its just-premiered anthology series Love, Death, & Robots. Right after a TechCrunch article pointed out a Netflix employee’s statement that episode rearrangement was a “100% random A/B test” not based on user info, the article still concludes Netflix’s actions are “yet another step toward a streaming landscape that’s increasingly tailored to our personal preferences.” There’s a jarring elision here between personalization and Netflix experiments to keep subscribers watching.

Netflix works to cement the equivalence between user desires and the interface. When users reacted poorly to a 2018 test to play video suggestions for other content in between episodes of a streaming show, Netflix released a statement that they “have been experimenting even more with video based on personalized recommendations” and they “are testing whether surfacing recommendations between episodes helps members discover stories they will enjoy faster.” Simply put, what users interpreted as advertisements, Netflix defended as time-saving personalization.

Netflix’s percentage rating feature.
A blogger whose taste I like recommended this series. Rather than placing it at the top of my recommendations because it has personal resonance for me, Netflix obscures it and rates it only a C+.

Instead of commenting on the effectiveness of Netflix’s recommendation algorithms, I argue there are differences between personalized and personal. Even if the episode order of an anthology series or video promotion matches a user’s profile, Netflix is asking users to buy into a linear experience where the only concern is to “see what’s next” as soon as possible. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings dramatically stated in a 2017 earnings call, Netflix is “competing with sleep” to keep all of your attention and time on watching their media.

Gregory Steirer argues that, much like with a private collection of DVDs, actions going beyond one-time consumption give media objects personal value to people. [ ((Gregory Steirer, “The Personal Media Collection in an Era of Connected Viewing,” in Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming and Sharing Media in the Digital Era, ed. Jennifer Holt and Kevin Sanson (New York: Routledge, 2014), 79–95.))] According to Steirer, organizing, searching for, owning, or even selling a collection of DVDs will foster a personal relationship to them; because cloud-based services for online consumption have severely limited the ways in which people may interact with media beyond consumption, they’ve thereby restricted personalization.

Accordingly, playing blaring trailers when Netflix starts up may redirect subscribers toward the primary intended use of Netflix—watching media—and discourage aimless browsing that ends with users not watching anything, but aimless browsing could nevertheless have personal value for users. To me, browsing on Netflix is a fun form of mental ordering where I navigate the seas of the Netflix universe, making unknown items known, affirming my relationship to familiar objects, reveling in imaginings of future possible experiences. Though a limited form of personalization, browsing allows me to connect to the media on Netflix on my terms. The more Netflix curbs these interactions to keep attention on pressing play on its original content, the higher the risk of breaking the illusion that Netflix isn’t just another media company.

Image Credits:

1. Netflix’s current interface
2. Netflix’s “Anytime. Anyplace. Instantly.” ad campaign
3. Netflix’s user interface in 2010
4. Netflix’s pleasantly categorized catalog. Author’s screenshot.
5. Frank and Oak ad. Author’s screenshot.
6. Netflix’s percentage rating feature. Author’s screenshot.

The Kiss Heard ‘Round the World: “Juliantina” and International Lesbian Soap Opera Fandom
Kira Deshler / University of Texas at Austin

Juliantina's first kiss
Juliantina’s first kiss.

In the last decade or so, a peculiar phenomenon has begun to occur in certain corners of the internet. Soap operas, particularly of the Latin American variety, have slowly begun to feature more lesbian couples. There was “PepSi” from Los Hombres del Paco (Antena 3, 2005-2010), “Jemma” from Hand aufs Herz (sixx, 2010-2011), Kate and Rana from Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-), “Clarina” from Em Família (Rede Globo, 2014), “Flozmín” from Las Estrellas (Channel 13, 2017-2018), and most recently, “Juliantina” from Amar a Muerte (Univision, 2018-). Suddenly, it seemed, with the advent of YouTube and Dailymotion, fans from around the world were able to engage with these relationships without having access to the full series themselves. Hundreds of videos of these couples, completely detached (through editing) from the context in which they originally aired, were uploaded to video sharing sites, and an international lesbian soap opera fandom was built. These videos, what Stephanie M. Yeung has called “fugitive representations” [ ((Yeung, Stephanie M. 2014. “YouTube as De Facto Lesbian Archive: Global Fandom, Online Viewership and Vulnerability.” Spectator, Vol 34.2 (Fall), p. 43. https://cinema.usc.edu/spectator/34.2/6_Yeung.pdf))] because of the ways in which they are queerly archived and consumed, has continued to proliferate on YouTube and on other video sharing platforms, as more queer women discover and become invested in these relationships. The most recent, and arguably the most popular of these couples, is Juliantina.

Juliantina screenshot
Screenshot from a Flozmín video on Dailymotion.

Juliantina—a portmanteau of Valentina and Juliana, the two character’s names—is a relationship that exists on the telenovela Amar a Muerte. The series aired both on American Spanish-language network Univision and Mexican network Las Estrellas. Amar a Muerte follows a typically complex telenovela storyline centering on the deaths and reincarnations of Valentina and Juliana’s respective fathers. This central storyline, however, is only peripheral to Juliantina fans, who are focused exclusively on their love story. Most of this content is archived on YouTube. The most popular Juliantina channels have posted between 270 and 336 videos of the couple. These videos are between one and fiveminutes long (though usually closer to one), and span their entire relationship, from their first meeting to the conclusion of the series. Juliantina’s popularity has expanded further than the usual niche existence of these fugitive representations, with several famous lesbian YouTubers posting reaction videos, and popular queer websites, such as Autostraddle posting articles about the couple. The two actresses who portray Juliantina, Macarena Achaga and Bárbara López, even commissioned a special Juliantina photoshoot for their fans. (It is likely that López and Achaga’s enthusiastic engagement with fans has contributed to the overall popularity of the pairing). In addition, because viewers were so enamored with the couple, one fan created a fake Juliantina Netflix movie trailer, and another created and circulated a petition to make a Juliantina spin-off.

Instagram photo
Post from Achaga’s Instagram depicting the Juliantina photoshoot.

Juliantina’s popularity and the fan practices that comprise its fandom illustrate several unique factors that are central to the maintenance and production of queer female fandom online. One of the most intriguing aspects of Juliantina, and of all these soap opera lesbians, is the way that most viewers consume this content. As I mentioned above, the videos that are uploaded to YouTube and other social media sites are edited in such a way that the narrative only focuses on the lesbian relationships, while other storylines become peripheral or even nonexistent. Yeung calls this process “queer cutting” and suggests that “these capabilities [online streaming] are also allowing fans to rescue and preserve generative and meaningful lesbian representations whose value is further discounted within an already disparaged form.” [ ((Yeung, p. 44.))] This process of queer cutting complicates normative understandings of television viewership, as Juliantina fans are only interested in one storyline within the series, rather than the series as a whole. The Juliantina videos are edited in such a way as to include only scenes that involve either Valentina or Juliana (or both), so that viewers can follow the Juliantina storyline in its entirety. Understandably, viewers who only watch the Juliantina videos are often confused about the other narratives within the show (namely the reincarnation storyline), and in this case the comments section acts as a space where fans can ask questions and receive answers from more knowledgeable viewers. YouTube then acts as an archive for this queerly-constructed content, which in turn provides a space for this fandom to coalesce. However, this archive is tenuous, as videos are often flagged for copyright by the networks, which leads to them being blocked in some countries. Fans often combat this problem by making the videos as short as possible or uploading them to Dailymotion, Facebook, or Dropbox instead, where copyright issues are less of a concern.

Fan-made Juliantina Netflix trailer.

In addition to this particular style of editing, every Juliantina video is also translated into English by the Latin American fans who upload these videos. (The identities of these video creators remain unknown to most, as they are often only known by their usernames). This extensive fan labor allows for the existence of an international fandom surrounding these representations, with fans often expressing their gratitude for the video creators in the comments section as they wait for the next batch to be uploaded. (See more on translation in footnote below). [ ((While many of these videos are from telenovelas and thus translated from Spanish (or Portuguese) to English, there are some videos of pairings from English-language series, such as Kate and Rana from Coronation Street, that are translated into other languages (most commonly Spanish). There is even one channel that, with the help of several international fans, has uploaded every Kate and Rana video with English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic subtitles! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB5tqINJWAWtNSwoLC4REi5NvyqBphdNJ.))] The international reach of this fandom is made visible in the comments sections of these videos, with viewers often revealing their location through comments such as “Thank you from Thailand!” or “Watching from Germany!” Though all fandoms are now more international than ever, the international scope of the Juliantina fandom is significant in that it makes visible the labor that is involved in maintaining this fandom. Additionally, the global flow of Juliantina content is unique, as much (though not all) of queer media that is celebrated and viewed globally is American or English-language content. Furthermore, the international popularity of Juliantina and other similar couples indicates the continued lack of affirming portrayals of queer women on a global level, as well as the almost indescribable draw these couples have for fans across borders and across language.

Comments section
A portion of the comments section from a Juliantina video, with commenters praising YouTube user “All the Lilies” for their translation work.

While soaps and/or telenovelas like Amar a Muerte are often perceived as unrealistic because of their reliance on melodrama, the international popularity of Juliantina with audiences who may not normally watch telenovelas indicates that it is the content rather than the form that draws viewers to the couple. Despite the connotation of soaps as frivolous, many Juliantina fans describe their investment in the couple as predicated upon the perceived “realness” of the relationship. I don’t mean real in the sense of “existing in the non-televisual world,” but rather real for the viewer in the sense of relatability (I have felt/experienced those feelings) or aspirationality (I haven’t experienced that, but I would like to someday). Ien Ang describes this structure of feeling as “emotional realism.” [ ((Storey, John. “Gender and sexuality,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, Routledge, 2015, p. 153.))] It is queer fans’ investment in this emotional realism that produces their enjoyment of these fugitive representations, regardless of the national or generic context in which they exist, and it is sites like YouTube that allow these representations to proliferate on an international level.

Suggestions screenshot
Youtube suggestions after I watched Juliantina videos on a guest account. Many of these videos are clips of other lesbian couples from Spanish-language soaps and serials.

Though I have focused this article on Juliantina specifically, as I outlined above, there are a number of soaps from around the world that have engendered similar fan practices. These soaps, and the lesbian relationships therein, are part of what we might call the canon of queer female media. As Yeung points out, YouTube, as the disseminator of much of this content, acts as an archive for this canon, and connects these texts to one another through its algorithmic functions. [ ((Yeung, p. 46.))] YouTube’s algorithm, as well as the cultural knowledge of fans, allows for and encourages fans of one pairing to become invested in another, as fans who watch these queer soaps are pointed towards similar content hosted on the platform. These fugitive fan practices illustrate what Susan Driver calls the “queer possibilities of cultural literacy” [ ((Driver, Susan. Queer Girls and Popular Culture: Reading, Resisting, and Creating Media. New York: New York: Peter Lang, 2007. p. 13.))], wherein the meaning of a text is decoded according to its queer resonances rather than its narrative cohesion. This canon is rarely made visible to those outside the queer female community, as this niche content remains only peripheral to the broader public, despite these couples’ centrality among queer viewers.

Juliantina screenshot
Screenshot from a Juliantina video on YouTube entitled “Juliana & Valentina #47 (english subtitles)”.

The fan practices that define the Juliantina fandom illustrate the unique ways in which queer female fans create and consume content, engaging with media in a manner that circumvents problems of access. [ ((This circumvention however, also creates an ambivalent relationship between Juliantina fans and the Amar a Muerte producers, as Juliantina fans often do not consume the series in ways that are directly economically beneficial to the network.))] As Kelsey Cameron puts it, the models of fandom that pioneering fan studies scholar Henry Jenkins often engages with, models that center the practices of white men and are generally divorced from identity work, “do not necessarily translate to queer women, who lack both identity reinforcement from mainstream culture, which Jenkins’s subjects constantly receive, and the embodied sexual spaces that many position as key to the cultural lives of gay men.” [ ((Cameron, Kelsey. “Constructing Queer Female Cyberspace: The L Word Fandom and Autostraddle.com.” Transformative Works and Culture, Vol. 24, June. 15, 2017. p. 1.6. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.0846.))] Indeed, the global reach of Juliantina and the fan labor and viewing practices that define its fandom demonstrate the continued marginality of queer women on screen, and, subsequently, the lengths fans must go to in order to preserve and centralize these stories.

Image Credits:

1. Juliantina’s first kiss.
2. Flozmín video on Dailymotion. Author’s screenshot.
3. Achaga’s Instagram post. Author’s screenshot.
4. Fan-made Juliantina Netflix trailer.
5. A portion of the comments section from a Juliantina video. Author’s screenshot.
6. YouTube suggestions. Author’s screenshot.
7. Image from a Juliantina video. Author’s screenshot.

“Driven By Hustle”: Uber Presents, Lyft Entertainment, and Rideshare Media Production
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

Da Republic of Brooklyn
Uber Presents: Da Republic of Brooklyn, a Spike Lee joint.

On July 11, 2018, Uber released five short films “driven by hustle” in a series called Da Republic of Brooklyn. Billed as a “Spike Lee Joint,” Uber Presents’ first original production highlights the backgrounds and stories of those contractors hand-selected by Lee himself from Uber’s thousands of Brooklyn drivers and delivery partners. All of them are linked not just through their difficult upbringings and connections to the titular New York borough, but also their part-time work for Uber and UberEats. These services provide flexibility (an oft-cited rideshare talking point) for these workers to “hustle” on the side and achieve their goals. This unstable form of labor is almost always positioned as an opportunity for, and not a burden to, drivers.

Through each episode of Da Republic of Brooklyn, the series increasingly downplays Uber’s role in these people’s lives, instead positioning Uber as emblematic of how, as Domingo explains in his episode, “the Brooklyn hustle can be brought anywhere.” Sunny, an aspiring model and actress, remarks that Uber allows her to have “such a flexible, open schedule”; Rodney, an artist and restorationist, explains how Uber grants him “clarity” and gives him “the focus” he needs to find inspiration in his other work; and Keith, a driver who wants to open a doggie day care center, remarks that Uber brings “no stress” because it provides the freedom to be “your own boss” who decides “how much you want to work.” For these drivers, Uber is not their primary occupation—as many ads for rideshare companies in 2017 and 2018 noted, drivers should “get their side hustle on” to switch between earning and “chilling.”

Uber's ad to drivers
Uber lets you “be your own boss.”

The gig economy’s “side hustle” has rapidly emerged as a necessity for many Americans, particularly as wages stagnate and the American economy overwhelmingly favors the interests of the wealthy. The “hustle” has been engrained in the rideshare industry’s ethos since its inception. A recent study showed that 48 percent of millennials say they earn extra income, pay down debt, or boost their savings through gig economy work, and the working issues that arise are often aimed at specific companies rather than the larger gig economy’s precarious and often predatory treatment of its workers. Even scripted series and films such as Insecure (HBO, 2017-) and Stuber (2019) double down on how Lyft and Uber drivers, respectively, frequently work part-time to supplement their other sources of income because it is difficult to make ends meet on just one job. I, too, drive for both Uber and Lyft part-time to make ends meet, and often find myself unconsciously recycling narratives about these companies allowing me to earn a lot when I want and as often as I want.

Da Republic of Brooklyn perpetuates the ubiquitous claim that “hustling” allows workers to achieve their own goals, even as that practice requires workers to opt out of financial security such as 401ks, work-provided health insurance, or substantial stock options in rideshare companies’ newly launched IPOs. Lyft and Uber are both incredibly valuable companies (valued around $24 and $74 billion, respectively) that continue to decrease driver bonuses, decrease mileage pay, and hemorrhage capital under the guise of staying competitive. Lee’s series does not examine how much the showcased drivers make per hour, and Uber only notes how long they have been working for the company on the information panels on Uber Presents’ website. This presentation distances Uber from its status as an employer and instead grants the rideshare company its own opportunity to position its labor as a side hustle for “partners” to eventually achieve seemingly worthier and more fulfilling career goals.

Uber Workers Strike NYC
Uber drivers’ successful strike in New York City.

For full-time drivers, working for these companies is “becoming financially untenable,” as average monthly earnings declined nearly 50 percent over the last five years as Uber’s work force increased from 160,000 Americans in 2014 to over 900,000 by late 2018. Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy employers’ deliberate decision to classify their employees as “partners” and, legally, as “independent contractors” allows companies to avoid proper compensation for its full-time workers in order to maximize profits. Just five months after the series debuted, New York City officials passed a minimum pay rate around $17.22 per hour for drivers on ride-hailing apps “to make sure drivers can earn a decent living.” The series’ debut in the months prior to these legislative changes is likely not coincidental, but rather part of Uber’s larger mission to market itself in a friendlier, less corporate light in the wake of sexual harassment scandals and their former CEO’s beratement of a long-time Uber driver for not taking “responsibility” for his own actions as drivers’ fares were cut.

Lyft, meanwhile, has always presented itself as the more colorful and friendlier rideshare company, and its original content advances this positioning. Lyft Entertainment is a media production company that began with lighthearted, celebrity-driven fare such as “Undercover Lyft,” with the likes of Kevin Hart, Danica Patrick, and Jason Sudeikis riding in disguise behind the wheel. These videos generated hundreds of millions of YouTube views, in stark contrast to Da Republic of Brooklyn‘s two million viewers for five videos. Lyft Entertainment has found tremendous success in the online space and recently ventured into original co-productions. The company brought back Billy on the Street (Fuse/TruTV, 2011-17; YouTube, 2018-) with Funny or Die, and premiered East of La Brea at 2019’s SXSW Festival. The latter is a co-production with Paul Feig’s Powderkeg, a company that aims “to tell the stories of talented, emerging and underrepresented voices in comedy” (Fleming 2019). Feig’s series, like Billy on the Street, has no obvious connection to Lyft’s products, but it carries the diverse and positive image that Lyft often produces.

Billy on the Street, co-produced by Funny or Die and Lyft Entertainment.

While Uber’s series more explicitly promotes the “hustle” of part-time work, Uber and Lyft’s media production coalesces around their depictions of a diverse, ambitious labor force. These companies and other technology conglomerates have faced considerable scrutiny and criticism for their racist and sexist practices, but these series act as a forward-facing promotion of rideshare companies’ progressiveness. The entrance of rideshare companies into the original content space might seem like another form of burning through venture capital (which it is), but it also enables these companies to “inch away” from the “significant criticism” they have faced, much like Facebook and Twitter faced in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))]. The production of series by and about marginalized voices is a welcome shift by the technology industry, even if it outwardly presents as self-aggrandizing and a distraction from more pervasively harmful practices.

Increasingly, other technology, software, and social media companies are launching or acquiring media production arms as a means of retaining online users, selling more lucrative advertising space, and guiding how users find and engage with online media. For social media companies in particular, the “stronger push into original content is an attempt to more directly benefit from activity already taking place on its platforms.” [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))] Facebook launched Facebook Watch in August of 2017, producing dozens of original programs ranging in cost from $10,000 to over $1 million an episode, with early reports that they would be willing to spend $3-4 million per episode in order to place the service on equal footing with competitors. Apple is finally launching Apple TV+ in fall of 2019, with the intention of the service competing with Netflix at original film programming on an awards level. These companies will more than likely use these services to not just keep users on their respective platforms and devices, but also to combat their potentially negative publicity along the way, like Lyft and Uber.

Whether Uber Presents or Lyft Entertainment will launch successful scripted programming in this crowded media landscape remains to be seen. However, these services will likely continue to benefit from producing polished promotional materials that perpetuate the harmful narrative that these companies are merely opportunities for “hustling” and important sites of diversity.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screengrab from YouTube.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Photo from Drew Angerer, Getty Images, in New York Magazine article.
4. Author’s screengrab.

¡Viva el monstruo! – The Gill-man as a Symbol of Latinx Resistance
Casey Walker / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Creatures Senate Protest
“Swamp Creatures” Protest at 2019 Senate Confirmation Hearings

At the March 2019 Senate confirmation hearings for David Bernhardt, President Trump’s pick to serve as interior secretary, protestors in the audience donned masks of the Gill-man from the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Referring to themselves as “swamp creatures,” the protestors were there to draw attention to Bernhardt’s reputation as a member of the Washington D.C. oil and gas establishment and the very embodiment of the “swamp” that President Trump vowed to drain. Setting aside for a moment that a swamp is very different from a lagoon, this is not the first time the Gill-man has been read as a symbol of either sociopolitical anxiety or establishment resistance. Scholar Lois Banner notes that during the 1950s, these types of movie monsters were symbolic of fears of Communism, nuclear war, and/or the African American civil rights movement. [ ((Banner, Lois W. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon: Marilyn Monroe and Whiteness.” Cinema Journal (2008): 5.))] Filmed and released during the year-and-a-half-long road to the Supreme Court for Brown v. Board of Education, the case which legally ended racial segregation in schools, scholars often read the Gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon as a racialized Other.

But with respect to the Latin American roots of the story and also the South American setting of the film, can we also look at the Gill-man specifically as a symbol of the Latinx Other? The story of the film was originally conceived at a gathering at the home of Orson Welles in 1940, during the development of Citizen Kane. In attendance at the meeting were legendary Mexican actress Dolores del Río and soon-to-be legendary Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, along with William Alland, a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater. Alland later recalled that at this meeting, Figueroa “went on and on and on” about a “creature that lives up in the Amazon who is half-man and half-fish,” according to Latin American legend. More than a decade later, Alland was working as both a producer and story contributor at Universal-International Pictures and pitched the story idea to studio executives, calling it “The Sea Monster.” In a three-page memo he wrote to pitch the story, Alland instead gave credit for the story to “a South American movie director [sic].” [ ((Weaver, Tom & David Schecter & Steve Kronenberg. The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy. McFarland, 2014, 13.))] Whether this was just a faulty memory or an intentional concealment of Figueroa’s identity is unknown, but even to this day, published material usually gives credit to this unnamed director from South America or to Welles himself for hosting the party where the story was told.

Alland’s memo was turned into a treatment by Maurice Zimm and was expanded and re-written through multiple drafts of screenplays by writers Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross. During these revisions, Alland and the writers expressed a desire to make the creature as human as possible and to create him as a symbol of “the natural.” Writer Ross later elaborated, “The more you attack what is natural in the world, the more likely it will do something to protect itself.” [ ((Ibid, 13-34.))] The authors’ creation of a human-like creature with human desires, in addition to grounding the creature’s agency in its natural impulse to protect itself, pivoted the concept of the film’s titular character from “a sea monster” to a creature of nature attempting to protect its habitat from scientists appropriating its ancestors’ remains. Later, the creature becomes infatuated with scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), although it treats her more like a desired possession than a romantic equal.

These attempts to model the creature after a human’s shape, mannerisms, and desires inspired a sympathetic reading of the Gill-man. Filmed several months after the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) most famously depicted these sympathies for the creature, when Marilyn Monroe’s character proclaims, “He wasn’t all bad. I think he just needed a little affection—a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.” Lois Banner explores the connection between the civil rights movement at the time (specifically the Brown v. Board of Education ruling) and Monroe’s defense of the Creature, concluding “it may have indicated a positive attitude toward racial difference.” [ ((Banner, 5-7.))] Reading the Gill-man as an indication of “a positive attitude toward racial difference” rather than just as a “sea monster” is partly how the perception of the creature changed over time from a symbol of sociopolitical fear to one of resistance against racial discrimination.

In addition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1954 was an important and defining year in the history of civil rights struggles, especially with respect to Latinx citizens and immigrants. A few years earlier, The Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951 extended the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, part of the Bracero Program, which brought over 350,000 Mexican workers to the U.S. each year. This continual influx of Mexican workers, along with the growing anxieties over how to document them, led to the Immigration and Naturalization Service implementing the despicably titled Operation Wetback in 1954, an initiative designed to repatriate Mexican workers. Almost four million people of Mexican descent were deported in a four-year time frame. In the same year as the implementation of Operation Wetback, the landmark Supreme Court case Hernandez v. The State of Texas resulted in a unanimous decision which held that Hispanic Americans are equally protected under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, setting the precedent for future legal action on behalf of their struggle for equality. [ ((“Latino Americans: Timeline of Important Dates.” PBS. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/latino-americans/en/timeline/.))]

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Mexican Movie Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

These huge events were ongoing upon the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, a film that positioned the creature as a South American native whose tale was rooted in a Latin American legend as told by Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figeuroa. There is a Latinx foundation and essence to this film that cannot be ignored. The film also contains the representation of a primary Latinx character, that of Dr. Carl Maia, played by Spanish-born Antonio Moreno. Moreno was frequently cast as the “Latin Lover” character in numerous U.S. silent films, but his role in this film as a head scientist avoided conventional Latinx stereotypes of the time. The characters of Dr. Maia and that of the more stereotypical Captain Lucas (played by Portuguese descendent, Nestor Paiva) made up half of the expedition survivors at the end of the film and displayed agency, albeit limited, in the film. And while the designer of the iconic Creature costume, Milicent Patrick, was of Italian descent, she spent much of her childhood following her father around his construction projects in South America, becoming accustomed to the culture, traditions, and people of the continent where the film would be set. [ ((Fate, Vincent Di. “The Fantastic Mystery of Milicent Patrick.” Tor.com. March 25, 2015. Accessed May 24, 2019. https://www.tor.com/2011/10/27/the-fantastic-mystery-of-milicent-patrick/.))] This exposure was likely an influence on her concept and design of the Creature’s iconic look.

One person who likely never lost sight of Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s Latin American heritage was Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican filmmaker worked on different iterations of scripts for a planned remake of the film, but Universal Studios turned him down. Undeterred, he created an original story based around a Gill-man who falls in love with a janitor (who also falls for him) at a high security government facility, which became the Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water. The film focuses heavily on societal Others, such as a mute woman janitor, her black female co-worker, and a lonely, gay advertising artist, all of whom combine their efforts to rescue the Gill-man from the monstrous Colonel Richard Strickland before he can vivisect the creature for research. While the film has no obvious Latinx Other on-screen, Del Toro maintains the Latin American origin of the Gill-man in the story, positioning him as a potential Latinx Other, although not exclusively. By ultimately killing the character of Strickland in the climactic scene, the Gill-man serves as a symbolic and triumphant resistance to the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that Strickland represents. In the current political climate, where Latinx families are separated at the U.S.-Mexican border and their children are placed in cages, we need these filmic Latinx symbols of resistance now more than ever. Frank McConnell writes that “each era chooses the monster it deserves and projects.” [ ((McConnell, Frank D. “Song of Innocence: The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Journal of Popular Film 2, no. 1 (1973): 17.))] For the Gill-man and the Latinx resistance it embodies, maybe that time is now.

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A Touching Scene from The Shape of Water (2017)

Image Credits:
1. “Swamp Creatures” Protest at 2019 Senate Confirmation Hearings
2. Mexican Movie Poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
3. A Touching Scene from The Shape of Water (2017)

Toward a Critical Theory of Scooters
Andy Fischer Wright / University of Texas at Austin

Lime Scooter
An image of a scooter, the focus of this piece.

It is almost ludicrous at this point to not believe that new technology companies have widened societal inequalities. Whether this is through searching logics resulting in “technological redlining” [ ((Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism.
New York, NY: New York University Press.))] or a simple lack of access via the digital divide, there is much to problematize in the world of tech. However, one corner of technology that has been slightly under-recognized (with some exceptions) is ride sharing. Within this sharing economy exists an object of culture that hit the streets relatively recently: dockless scooters. It is my aim to develop the bones of a critical theory for the scooter as it exists in culture.

To first make myself perfectly clear, I do not want to spend a thousand words and three minutes of your time raining abuse on what some could consider an irreplaceable and life-changing form of transportation. Scooters and similar dockless rideshare technology can potentially act as tools to help people get to places in cities that grow too quickly in complex gentrifying processes, or act as a temporary solution for the classed icon of car ownership, or even be a valuable tool of mobility for those who are otherwise physically unable. My intention is not to criticize the users, but to explore the different features of these devices with a critical eye.

According to the circuit of culture [ ((Du Gay, P., et al. (2013). Doing Cultural Studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Vol. 2. London: SAGE.))], there are five interrelated aspects of a cultural object: production, consumption, regulation, identity, and representation. The production of scooters is, like all consumer electronics, highly problematic. If we look at the trends of scooter development, the three key priorities that companies reiterate in a standard press release are rider safety, hardware durability, and longer charge time. Though these are all ostensibly positive advancements, popular press tends to focus on safety without analyzing how the trend of simply releasing new scooters is highly problematic from an environmental perspective. Even without the popular social media trend of visibly destroying scooters, the model of continually replacing hardware instead of maintaining it comes with the corollary cost of an unending labor cycle for those mining rare metals, manufacturing the components, and assembling the final product. [ ((The author was unable to find any evidence specifically pointing to unethical labor practices by the companies that produce the scooters. However, he can say colloquially that the global electronics trade is known for horrific and inhumane labor practices.))]

Moving toward consumption, I turn to the question brought up in a recent paper [ ((Keyes, O. Hoy, J., and Drouhard, M. (2019). “HumanComputer insurrection: Notes on an anarchist HCI.” In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings (CHI 2019), May 4–9, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 13 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300569.))] problematizing technology more generally: “One must ask how emancipatory a technology is, how much autonomy it induces when, for example, it overwhelmingly remains the preserve of those who are already most free.” This is indeed the model for scooters; ‘Ridesharing 2.0’ is a philosophy that is targeted specifically at cities whose citizens need a solution for a transportation problem that is already a matter of privilege. According to a recent press release, market leader Bird is marketed as “last-mile electric vehicle sharing company” whose intended clientele are “looking to take a short journey across town or down that ‘last mile’ from the subway or bus.” This is not a device intended for commuting, but to fill a certain sub-niche within a niche.

And even if the battery lasted long enough for people who have been pushed out of city centers by gentrification to take a scooter to their old neighborhoods, the task of actually locating a device to ride is daunting. According to data collected by the City of Austin, of the 1.6 million dockless vehicle trips that began in the center of downtown Austin, over 1.1 million concluded within that same small region; it seems that scooters are intended to be within the city, for the city. And while Bird operates on three continents, the overwhelming majority of their partner cities are large cities within North America, most of which contain large universities. Though this could be interpreted as a result of the most prominent scooter companies being based in North America and less than three years old, it can also indicate that the intended consuming audience is in fact intended to be individuals living downtown in populous North American cities. All logics of a scooter’s affordability are negated by a lack of access to any except those already within the city.

Austin Dockless Data
Anonymized dockless rideshare data from the City of Austin. Higher bars and darker colors indicate rides that originate in the small downtown area stay within the downtown area. Supplemental data not included here indicate that under 10 total rides either originate or end within surrounding suburbs, such as Pflugerville or Round Rock.

Regulation of scooters is theoretically easy but practically much more difficult. For instance, the University of Texas at Austin has a series of guidelines for scooters based on the findings of a work group in December 2018. Geofencing makes the maximum speed of any scooter on campus eight miles per hour, a heavy fine for improper parking reinforces the importance of designated scooter parking zones, and there was a University-wide email claiming faculty and staff would soon be prohibited from riding commercial scooters for “work-related purposes.” Outside of UT, a scooter was famously used as a tool of regulation in locating a young Austin bank robber who made good his escape on a scooter.

However, the physical scooter proves in need of less regulation without a branded network. Without the software and connection to a corporate entity, a scooter would not be slowed down on entering campus. If the rider shared the scooter with a known community instead of trusting another anonymous app user to pick up the scooter next, they might be less likely to abandon the scooter in the middle of the sidewalk. And without the tie to the rider’s digital double, scooters might even be used by university staff to quickly get across campus without worrying about leaving a paper trail tied to their credit card and cell phone. Most regulation seems to not address scooters themselves but the issues that arise from their role in the corporatized ridesharing system.

Birds Charging
A garage full of charging Bird scooters. Image taken from an online tutorial for more efficient charging.

While the scooter has a representation in and of itself, we cannot separate it from the connected identities of those who interact with it every day. Though customers have undoubtedly grown to be more than just those riding the final mile home from the subway stop, another identity that has sprung up more recently are those connected to scooters via their power outlets. Facing high demand and a comically ridiculous logistics issue of charging tens of thousands of batteries every night, large scooter companies now use ‘juicers’ to charge scooters in down times and deliver them to key points across the city. As independent contractors, juicers are shipped chargers by scooter companies and paid according to pickup location, charge level, and a timely drop off in a convenient hub. The containment of scooters within downtown areas is further reinforced by monetary incentives for dropping scooters closer to downtown.

If this is Ridesharing 2.0, then juicers are the second iteration of drivers in an even more ruthless system. Due to the nature of their compensation, to earn a living, juicers must collect scooters in large quantities, driving rented trailers and pick up trucks to places their app tells them will yield better profits. And yet, the juicer and the rider never interact with one another. This separation of rider and juicer is highly troubling; to a scooter rider, the juicer is an even more invisible part of the process than even the most silent driver. There is a grim phantasmagoria of Uber’s autonomous fleet in Ridesharing 2.0, reminding us that inequalities continue to persist and are ignored by futurists.

And so, we come to a conclusion that dockless scooters, while potentially an affordable, ‘ecofriendly’ solution to local travel, are in execution highly problematic. Yet for all of this we cannot simply erase scooters off the face of the planet any easier than we can eradicate petrochemical dependency (though, admittedly, this would be great.) Perhaps a more practical solution is to address the structural issues Ridesharing 2.0 takes advantage of, including a lack of affordable and equitable public transportation. By providing more communal and safer options for traveling in and around cities, we can solve the issue that created scooters.

Image Credits:

1. An image of a scooter, the focus of this piece.
2. Anonymized dockless rideshare data from the City of Austin. Higher bars and darker colors indicate rides that originate in the small downtown area stay within the downtown area. Supplemental data not included here indicate that under 10 total rides either originate or end within surrounding suburbs, such as Pflugerville or Round Rock.
3. A garage full of charging Bird scooters. Image taken from a tutorial for more efficient charging.

The Cancellation of Swamp Thing and the Precarity of DC Universe
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series

On May 31, 2019, Swamp Thing premiered on the DC Universe streaming service. A week later, shortly before the release of the second episode, the series was cancelled. To date, neither DC Universe nor its parent company, WarnerMedia, have cited any particular reason for the show’s demise, although an official post on the streaming service’s Watchtower forums—the official space dedicated to DC Universe’s updates and news items—states that they are “not in a position to answer” the questions of why at this time. As can be expected with vague or incomplete media industrial news, theories regarding the cancellation soon spread across social media and fan networks.

One particular theory that gained mild traction pointed to a potential clerical error and a misunderstanding in the tax rebates Warner Bros. would receive from the state of North Carolina where the series filmed. However, Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina film office, later confirmed that the budget discussions between his office and Warner Bros. “had nothing to do with Swamp Thing‘s cancellation.”

Additionally, the show was reported to be suffering from creative differences between various heads of DC Entertainment and WarnerMedia, the latter of which formed as a reorganized conglomerate after the completion of an $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner by telecom giant, AT&T. For reference, the completion of the WarnerMedia deal in June 2018 occurred a month after DC Universe had given a script-to-series order for Swamp Thing, marking the series as one of the last to be ordered and announced for production under pre-AT&T Time Warner. One evidential sign that the series was suffering from creative differences occurred mid-production in April 2019, with WarnerMedia reducing the planned thirteen episode season down to ten episodes and abruptly halting production of the series, much to the shock of the cast and crew of the series.

Despite the varied yet possibly related theories on what led to the demise of Swamp Thing, fans have begun to worry that the cancellation news is pointing to a precarity of sorts for the streaming service dedicated to all things DC Comics and DC Entertainment. Shortly after the WarnerMedia deal was finalized, plans to develop and launch a major streaming service to compete against streaming giant Netflix as well as rival development plans for streaming services from Apple (to launch late 2019), Disney (to launch late 2019), and Comcast’s NBCUniversal (to launch early 2020) were announced. Additionally, in the year since WarnerMedia was finalized as a new parent company, smaller and niche streaming services under the WarnerMedia umbrella of companies—including Filmstruck, Super Deluxe, and Drama Fever—have been discontinued. This is part of Warner’s new strategy to consolidate “resources from sub-scale D2C efforts, fallow library content, and technology reuse.” [ ((John Connelly, “WarnerMedia to Launch Direct to Consumer Streaming Service in Late 2019,” Variety, Oct. 10, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/biz/news/warnermedia-direct-to-consumer-streaming-service-john-stankey-1202975598/.))]

Disney Plus
Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs

Thus, many comic and superhero media fans may find that their go-to space for DC-branded content might be doomed before it can find its footing. Indeed, DC Universe has not been without their own missteps since the service was first announced in April 2017. Imagined as a central digital hub for all entertainment related to DC, including live-action television and film, animated television and film, as well as the comics and graphic novels that inspired such content, DC Universe currently still does not offer any content from DC’s two most profitable and most-visible media franchises—the DCEU franchise of feature-length films and the television franchise of DC properties airing on the CW network (colloquially referred to as the “Arrowverse” in reference to the franchise’s flagship series, Arrow). DC Universe’s plans to “supplement the lack” was to develop original programming to help lure fans to the service. Yet, the service launched without any original content readily available; DC Universe’s first original title, Titans (a live-action retelling of the Teen Titans run of comics as well as the popular Teen Titans animated program and subsequent films), released its first episode over a month after the service launched in September 2018. Nearly a year after the launch of the service, there are only three live-action series for viewers to watch, with a fourth (Stargirl) scheduled to debut in early 2020.

DC Universe Originals
DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

Even as comic book and superhero properties have become highly lucrative for the contemporary media industries, superhero television has become interwoven into the tangled web of industrial strategies employed by many of the major media conglomerates, particularly Walt Disney’s Marvel brand and WarnerMedia’s DC brand. The precarity of the DC Universe service calls into question the ways media scholars have tried to understand the post-network era of television, a periodization made popular through Amanda Lotz’s The Television Will Be Revolutionized. While Lotz considers the shift of control from the networks to the viewers who “now increasingly select what, when, and where to view from abundant options,” [ (( Amanda Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, 2nd edition (New York City, New York University Press, 2014), 15.))] it might help to also note the ways in which networks—through their reorganized media conglomerates—are attempting to regain control in the distribution of their respective libraries, especially as the media industry enters what has been has been commonly noted as the “streaming wars.”

Assessing that media scholars “should consider this a period of transition for the medium,” Mike Van Esler notes that “greater emphasis and attention can be placed on the role that major media conglomerates play in developing, funding, and legitimizing new forms of television distribution, in addition to co-opting disruptive technologies and business models and at the same time hindering others.” [ (( Mike Van Esler, “Not Yet the Post-TV Era: Network and MVPD Adaptation to Emergent Distribution Technologies,” Media and Communication 4, no. 3 (2016): 132-33.))] While the streaming ecology of the early 2010s was quickly dominated by Netflix, the announcement of corporate strategies over recent months have forecasted a pending wave of conglomerate domination in streaming media. Subsidiaries and independent media companies are either bought and dissolved (in the case of Machinima) or repurposed to fit the (re)organization and (re)prioritization of parent companies (in the case of Turner Broadcasting).

In the case of DC Universe, only time will tell how WarnerMedia fits the streaming service and its productions within its larger goal of launching their still-unnamed streaming service. While DC’s rival, Marvel Entertainment, has been announced as one of five major content hubs for Disney+, it’s unclear to what extent WarnerMedia’s streaming service will include DC branded entertainment. So far, WarnerMedia’s plans have shifted from a three-tier system that would allow users to pay for specific types of content (notably categorized by form rather than brand) to one that would cost $16-17 a month (notably more than any other existing or planned streaming service) and would include HBO and Cinemax content as the central element of the bundle as well as recently-released DCEU films, such as the 2018 Warner Bros./DC film, Aquaman.

As Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia continue to develop their streaming services for launches in late 2019 and early 2020, it is clear to see that there will be major casualties in this new period of the streaming wars. Media scholars should continue to keep their eyes on what is still a transitory period for streaming, moving from the niche and subsidiary-oriented strategies to the broad and aggressive pushes by tech giants and media conglomerates themselves. The demise of Swamp Thing suggests that we as media scholars should be cautious in simplistic and reductive logics and analyses—in this case, the sustainability and profitability of comic and superhero properties for major media companies, particularly when DC’s industrial struggles are perpetually placed in conversation with Marvel’s economic successes. Rather, we should continue to view contemporary superhero television as an ephemeral moment in the transition toward a new era of conglomerate-controlled streaming media.

Image Credits:

1. Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series
2. Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs
3. DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library