Jon Herrman’s column on The Awl, The Content Wars, has tackled the variously obscure partnerships and product developments in the ongoing struggle between publishers and platforms. One piece in particular—“Access Denied”—grounds the entire series by situating it in a greater historical context, synthesizing a wide range of emergent media practices in the worlds of celebrity, politics, sports, social justice, and gaming. Herrman uses each of these cases to show how platforms disintegrate the access-oriented media model—based on the mediation between audience and subjects—by giving would-be subjects greater agency.
People demanded fairness from their local papers because it may have been their only local paper; people were sensitive to bias in network news because it was one of a few options providing a relatively scarce type of information. Their audiences afforded them powers: to talk to the powerful, to dedicate resources to investigations, to collect and summarize the news. These powers created a sense of obligation which, of course, they were free to fail to meet.
One’s expectations of fairness and fullness have transferred from editors and producers and their products to engineers and developers and their products. The trick, this time around, is that these products are designed in such a way to reflect such expectations back to the user: we are persuaded that our feeds are our fault, which minimizes the systems through which they are continuously created. (Don’t blame us! Your feed is made of your choices. Choices you make within a framework that we’ve built!) Neutral editors or publications were always an illusion. They’re people, or made of people! Neutral feeds are an even trickier one. They’re the products of systems. Systems designed by people…
Platforms shirk the responsibility of mediation, seeing it instead as a barrier to pursuing narrow but seductive objectives of growth, such as the scale of the active user based and their narrowly defined activity. This arrangement is suited to flat networks, and the platforms often establish themselves initially by enabling peer-to-peer connection between individuals as such. But networks are not truly flat, and this arrangement is severely distorted by inconvenient and inevitable deviations from ideal theoretical flatness:
Trump is able to deny access to publications and channels that criticize him because he doesn’t need them. This is true. But one of the reasons he doesn’t need them is because his type of power is compatible with the platforms they share. Where a publication’s tendency to curate or present itself as a coherent package seems out of place on a social platform, Trump’s inability not to say whatever he feels like is better suited to Twitter and Facebook. Or: Where a news organization concerns itself with a set of self-imposed rules stemming from a sense of responsibility as a complete Source of Information, Trump concerns himself only with the material rules of his context, saying things that he knows will get the most raw response out of the most people.
This phenomenon is not isolated to politics. Herrman find the same forces evidenced by celebrity couples that withhold access from gossip magazine and opt instead to announce the birth of their child on their personal Instagram accounts, which command a greater, more directly engaged audience. Video game producers are also found to be reconfiguring their relationship with the traditional industry press, to whom they would have previously provided advance copies for review. In response, one such publication, Kotaku, has now adapted their coverage to focus on stories that come after the release of a game, by “embedding” reporters within games and their emergent communities for at least a month following their release (“The Future Of Kotaku's Video Game Coverage Is The Present”). But even this evolved strategy in threatened (again, from Herrman):
...consider a game like League of Legends. This online game is played by more than fifty million people a month. It is consumed as a spectator sport by countless more. It has its own stars, who are paid through a league owned by the game’s creator, Riot. These stars, and the widely viewed tournaments they play in, are covered by a “simulacrum of ESPN in the form of analysis and commentary desks, staffed by astonishingly young former players and surprisingly polished hosts” that is also owned by Riot. Its nearest precedent might be… the WWE? Idk. In any case, there isn’t a whole lot of adjacent territory left for media.
The film and music press face similar challenges. Studios increasingly withhold advance screenings of movies, thereby maintaining close control of pre-release buzz by way of their own complex marketing machinery. After Beyoncé’s surprise album in 2013, it has become more common for top-selling recording artists to release their work with no notice and therefore no review copies. This strategy is in step with the evolution of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, where the music is instantly available to fans and directly linkable on the same online social channels through which the news and excitement spreads.
Finally, the phenomenon is traced back to political action, to focus on grassroots activists rather than would-be presidents. The same logic of access explains the skepticism shown toward photojournalist by student protesters at the University of Missouri. Whereas protesters previously relied upon the press for legitimacy through visibility, that goal can now be achieved through social media. Protesters want to protect themselves from being exploited for sensationalistic or discriminatory stories that threaten their cause. Herrman refers to this as the press’s “residual need to critique or dominate the subject.”
None of this is to say that access-bound media was ideal, or anything close. A reporter that depends on access to a compelling subject is by definition a reporter compromised. A publication that depends on cooperation from the world that it specializes in is likewise giving up something in terms of its ability to tell the truth about it. And nearly the entire media as it exists today is built around these negotiations. By giving subjects—powerful or weak—the ability to bypass organizations they used to have to work with, platforms alter the terms considerably. That’s why so many disparate media parties are descending into panic at the same time. That’s why their subjects are asserting themselves.