The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor. Henry Holt, 2016.
Astra Taylor poses a question early on in her book, The People’s Platform. Is the internet a democratizing force where all voices can be heard and can participate equally? A cultural leveler? Or rather, is the internet now reflecting real-world inequalities? She argues for the latter.
Taylor has an axe to grind; she is an author and documentary filmmaker; and it is not clear how those professions will fare in our digital future. The internet, she argues, straddles two economies: a “gift economy” and a “market economy.” Those who are creating the cultural content for the internet are not bringing home big paychecks; they are expected to do their jobs without a fair compensation: the gift economy.
The companies and platforms which dominate the distribution of that cultural content on the internet – Google, YouTube, etc. – are making the big bucks. And many of those technology companies are, in turn, being acquired by the ‘legacy media’, companies such as Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Comcast, and AT & T. And there are even bigger bucks to be made through an old capitalist phenomena, mergers and acquisitions.
This mixture of the two different economies is not unlike the much older issue of copyrighted material. How long does a person own his or her work and receive the benefits of that ownership? Cultural content is constructed on the work of other scholars, artists, etc. who have been the creators of earlier cultural content. And none of them are compensated.
Taylor talks about “search engine success.” The internet is a contest for attention. But the rewards from internet users are clicks rather than dollars. The result, sadly, is a race to the bottom; celebrity affairs, fake news, and the trials and tribulations of ordinary folks “gone viral.” Few web sites have succeeded well enough to be sold for large figures. But don’t forget the Huffington Post. It was launched in 2005 and after six years was acquired by AOL for $315 million.
The “people’s platform” is being constructed just as we are experiencing another new phenomenon. Our smartphones and the internet have made us into citizen journalists. We have become the documentarians of this new media. Crime scenes, for example, are being recorded by witnesses and posted to a network of internet users. Anything can be posted on a web site and there are no challenges. Where are the “gate keepers” of old? Fact checkers we have but with little of the authority that editors have had over what gets said in the print media.
The recent presidential election has demonstrated that the internet – and specifically Twitter – can be an effective means of political communication. Is the press conference with its constraints and safeguards being replaced by short communications on Twitter (140 characters)? These factoids are now passed around without the usual questioning by professionals.
The internet creates echo chambers and reflecting mirrors from the choices we make in the sites we visit. We cooperate with these invisible filter bubbles to sort through the voluminous internet traffic to provide us with “the daily me.” We marvel at the freedom the internet holds out to us; yet we retreat mostly to our comfort zones.
Yes, the Internet is free but not without costs. Those are born by users, and more-and-more by those who advertise on the sites that we visit. Taylor argues, however, that the revenue generated is considerably less than the advertising revenue enjoyed by the broadcast and print media in their heydays. We have begun to replace them and their traditional advertising sources with a medium that is far less able to finance its programing. This pattern of compensation, Taylor contends, is not a sustainable arrangement for the future of the internet.
There is a related phenomenon of inadequate compensation in the recording industry. As music fans chose to copy files rather than buying CDs, musicians saw the revenue stream on which they had counted shrivel. They were forced to take to the road again and earn their money through performances. That parallel situation will require those creating cultural content on the internet to seek other sources of reimbursement.
Taylor is apparently less concerned with two additional threats to a viable future for the internet that have surfaced in recent years. Europeans, at least, were shocked to find out about the extent of international surveillance. Spying on German politicians! While we Americans are told that the internet of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees were hacked by Russian cyber-specialists, and that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, may have used information gained from that hacking to assist Donald Trump in his run for the Presidency. We can’t respond in kind because Russia has nothing like our American electoral cycle and the attendant partisan politics.