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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash CC0

Beyond the disruptive power of platformisation

This is the third blog of the MicroMemberships project. Read blog 1 and blog 2.

We have discussed the recurring platformisation dynamics in two previous blogs. This dynamic is not only found in big tech platforms, but also in services that run on cryptocurrencies. In this blog, we discuss the consequences of platformisation on online content, on the relationship between creator and audience, and on online revenue models. We uncover a number of recurring problems that ultimately call for a fundamentally different approach to earning models for creative makers.

With the arrival of the Internet, content has become fragmented. Where articles used to be part of a newspaper and songs part of an album, the internet has made these storage media less common. The specific properties of the storage media are lost through digitisation.

To consume this content you no longer need a book, record or film, but can rely on a single device, such as your mobile phone. Internet activist John Perry Barlow once criticised this development in the foreword to a book by Corry Doctorow. The type of medium has an unmistakable influence on the content itself, which means that the experience of different forms of content is now more similar. The popularity of vinyl can be seen as a countermovement. Large, fragile and expensive, records are a far cry from consuming the fragmented Spotify content that is almost free.

And then, of course, there are the big, powerful platforms that have an undeniable influence on the way online content looks. As discussed in the first blog, platforms offer their services in such a way that the work and the relationship between the artist and her audience is forced into a mould: creators must conform to platforms that use simplified, universal parameters to categorise and qualify the behaviour of each user.  

The fragmentation of content continues with the arrival of large platforms, this time driven by the revenue models of these platforms. Platforms are the new intermediaries that determine how the content is organised and made accessible to large groups of users. The form of the content has to conform to the uniform user interface of the platform. The platform also wants to hold the attention of a large group of users; online content must therefore be easily accessible and immediately consumable and hold the user's attention for as long as possible. The user is reduced to a one-dimensional human being who is looking for nothing more than instant gratification.

A seasoned content creator or a company that works for content creators knows exactly what they have to produce in order to be in the spotlight for a large number of users and organises its revenue model around it. With the broadening of the concept of content, content creators therefore not only include artists and other creatives, but also people and organisations who simply know the revenue model of platforms. Platforms with such revenue models turn the Internet into an uneventful place where content starts to look more and more alike.

Platformisation not only affects the content, but also the relationships between users (or creators). The fragmentation of content leads to a situation where creative makers are more often left to take care of themselves online, where they could previously rely on a record label or publisher. Platforms facilitate an online culture in which individuals ('entrepreneurial selfs') compete by introducing quantifiable criteria such as likes, and provide little or no insight into the algorithms that explain that success.  

One of the logical consequences is that creators will look for new revenue models that circumvent such powerful platforms. Creative makers and also others like open-source developers want to ensure that users or admirers can reward their work directly. Users can also pay per product, for example, based on the time they spend on a website. We experimented with this last year in the 'Microdonor' project. We used the Coil standard to research micro-donations for journalists, open-source developers and artists.

During that project we came across a greater, social risk aside from the question of whether such a revenue model is viable for the maker. With the rise of this so-called pay-per-use consumption on the Internet, we are putting a price tag on online work that we can now see for free or very little money. This makes sense, as we should actually pay for some services that are now free.  

This 'new form' of consumption can lead to further commodification of online (and sometimes offline) goods. This reinforces the conditional, transactional nature of the relationship between creator and user. For example, it is sometimes suggested that micropayments should be used to finance public goods. At first sight, this seems like a nice idea. But it could also lead to a scenario where all kinds of work that are currently not capitalised would be at the mercy of the whims of the market. Not only the revenue model of platforms, but also the microdonations model (as well as other similar transactional models) have an effect on the way 'content' is presented on the platform. An important difference, however, is that micro-donations do not enforce one mould, as platforms do.

In short, the Internet has become a homogeneous place, where due to the fragmentation of 'content' and the disruptive power of platforms, creators and users are increasingly on their own. In our search for new revenue models for creative makers, we run the risk of arriving at revenue models that indeed leave room for a way in which makers can present, but further promote commodification.

We will therefore have to approach the question more fundamentally: how do we want people to interact online, what does that mean for the relationship between the maker and the audience and the 'content' they exchange, and what revenue models and technology can then support our choice?




This project has received funding from Grant for the Web.