"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Let us begin with a somewhat contrarian premise: major Internet platforms owe much of their success to work that is only tangentially related to the actual platform. This is not to flout those platforms, but to suggest that the things which come to define the success of a site are rarely the creations of the site itself. To give two simple examples: the vast variety of moving-image content uploaded to YouTube is rarely produced by YouTube; likewise, consider Amazon a massive online retail platform that still largely relies on the content producers (publishers, studios) of old. Such work may be offered on the platform, but it is not of the platform.
These platforms provide access to material – and though they may do this in rather novel ways or in ways that are almost irresistibly affordable – the fact remains that without videos YouTube would get few visitors and few would visit Amazon if its virtual shelves were empty. It is not that such sites represent Marshall McLuhan’s famous words “the medium is the message,” but that such sites demonstrate that they may have become an important part of the message but a “medium” sans “message” will not have the opportunity to mediate particularly much (be it attention or shopping).
Time moves rather oddly in technological societies in which the highest value is generally placed on “the new.” While Amazon (founded in 1994) and YouTube (founded in 2005 [bought by Google in 2006]) are certainly new in the larger historical scheme they have today become amongst the core components of Internet enabled culture (for some countries more than others). Today it is not that YouTube is “that cool new video sharing site” it is “the” video sharing site, similarly Amazon is “the” online retailer. Though this may largely be true of how these platforms appear today, it is worth bearing in mind that these companies did not start at their current size. Which returns us to the matter of content.
The successful growth of these platforms has been directly reliant upon the willingness of others to participate. That these participants have gained from the arrangement should not be doubted; however, it is a relationship that has shifted – a flipping of roles has occurred. At first the platforms/sites are in the reliant position as they need others’ content (creative or products), second a balance emerges as the platforms/sites develop into important online hubs with both sides benefiting, third the content creators (creative or products) become reliant upon the platforms/sites once these sites have moved from being important to dominant. As a platform grows and steadily crowds out alternatives, the suppliers of content have no alternative but to cooperate.
Clear evidence of the shift into the third category can be seen of late in the case of Amazon’s relationship with publishers (such as Hachette) and YouTube’s recent demand that music labels agree to its terms for its new streaming services. The reason that these moves have resulted in any news is largely because some publishers/labels balked and were punished or threatened with punishment by the sites. In short: Amazon and YouTube were (and are) acting like bullies. The underlying – and unspoken – command from these sites being “we are now the dominant player, you need us, fall in line or face oblivion.” In fairness “oblivion” is hyperbolic – but YouTube suppressing (or removing) music videos (particularly from independent artists) is a blow to those musicians and Amazon being purposely slothful with some publishers books threatens the authors as well as the publishing houses.
There is a certain level at which it may be tempting for some to applaud the actions of Amazon and YouTube. After all, here are the technologically “with it” platforms that are daring to “disrupt” the dinosaur like gatekeepers of old (such as publishing houses and record companies). And yet, what is being revealed is not that Amazon and YouTube are gallant Davids taking on Goliaths, but that Amazon and YouTube have simply become Goliaths themselves. Arguably much bigger Goliaths, at that, as they are in the position to demand the obedience of the Goliaths of old, which now look rather small in stature. While loyalty to the “free market” might make some defend Amazon and YouTube from a stance of “it’s their platform, let them do what they like” – it is worth remembering that these platforms were able to grow thanks to the contributions (of content) from the very groups now being bullied.
It is still popular in many circles to view the Internet as a great open expanse filled with unlimited potential, but this increasingly seems to be nostalgia for halcyon days that have passed. Alas, the current case of YouTube and Amazon reveal a troubling fact about the path the Internet has gone down: it has not so much “flattened” or made things more “horizontal” as it has simply traded one batch of controllers and gatekeepers for another. Amazon may sell just about everything and they may offer it at low prices – but their size is giving them the ability not just to shut down would be competitors but to maintain firm control over their suppliers. Similarly, YouTube may have become the web’s main video sharing site (and rumor has it Google is also looking to buy Twitch) – but the platform seems to be taking inspiration from Facebook’s frequent policy shifts in order to make video uploaders fall in line. That these stories have gained any traction is because the groups being bullied still have enough clout to raise a fuss – but as these platforms become more and more tightly controlled as well as greater in size that comparative clout will diminish.
Ultimately this is a tale of consolidation of control – as platforms become ever more monopolistic. Just as a scattering of Internet platforms swell in size and steadily buy up would be competitors, so too the old conglomerates further amalgamate by merging – even many of the still “independent” labels with whom YouTube is quibbling rely on larger labels for distribution. These online platforms may escape from a certain level of criticism due to their seeming ethereality – but it may be that Amazon is just the digital equivalent of Wal-Mart and YouTube has become more like cable, than either platform would care to admit.
There are many people who still hold fast to the belief that the Internet can be an open and more participatory space. While this potential may certainly remain it is worth paying attention to the way in which it is increasingly becoming a continent viciously divided up by imperial-esque corporate control. Platforms like Amazon and YouTube are testing the tightness of their grip – and the more powerful they get the tighter they will be able to squeeze.
Internet platforms may try to push the old gatekeepers towards extinction, but the lust for power is far from endangered. It has just evolved.