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Platform Power in Turbulent Times

The second keynote speaker at ECREA 2016 today is Rasmus Kleis Nielsen from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He begins by noting the rise of platforms such as Google and Facebook as new digital intermediaries: these major global companies enable interactions between at least two different kinds of actors, host public information, organise access to it, and give rise to new information formats, and influence incentive structures around investment in public communication (including journalism).

News organisations are both empowered and controlled by these platforms. The platforms themselves, we should note, are usually still very young businesses; they often began as technology companies and have since expanded into many other areas including media, advertising, software, mobile telephony, and social networking. Within a comparatively short span of years, they have become very large, highly monetised global economic leaders, and have also begun to acquire a range of other emerging companies, platforms, and technologies.

These are large and powerful companies largely also because of their immense userbases, measuring in the billions of unique users, which are still continuing to grow; no media company in human history has ever had such a comprehensive reach across humanity. Users are generally using them every day, and tend to enjoy doing so. These companies also command an immense share of the global advertising market, further cementing their controlling market position.

More and more, these companies are also key sources for news information. Increasing number of users are drawing on search engines and social media as one or even the most important pathway to the news; this is a form of distributed discovery, but increasingly also represents distributed content, as users of these platforms no longer even need to leave them in order to access news information.

Publishers have reacted to the rise of these platforms in a number of ways, and these responses highlight key institutional and organisations questions. Different kinds of news organisations across different countries have reacted quite differently, and this needs to be understood in more detail: publishers like Buzzfeed pursue off-site user dissemination strategies while legacy media like The Times, but also new models like Mediapart, are still relying on on-site access.

There are three broad responses here: some platforms have accepted that they need Facebook, but Facebook does not need them; some describe them as content kleptomaniacs and thieves that need to be locked out of their own sites; some have embraced active collaboration with these platforms, often upon invitation by the platforms.

Rasmus now introduces a strategic but anonymous case study of a partnership between publishers and platforms, which highlights some of the issues inherent even in a relatively collaborative approach. This proceeds from a generally constructive and collaborative relationship, which is nonetheless fraught with tensions between operational and strategic concerns in the media organisation: there is an interest in trying out new technologies and new approaches, but at the same time there is also concern about handing over yet more control to the platform itself.

The fundamental driver here tends to be a fear of missing out, even if the exact nature of and benefits to be derived from new approaches remains very unclear. It is difficult to evaluate a priori what the benefits of new models might be, and there is therefore also a very asymmetrical power relationship between platform providers and media organisations. This is so even with major media organisations in their own right; smaller media organisations are even more likely to be unable to change the nature of their relationships with the platforms, therefore.

The implications of such constellations of collaboration are profound. There is a need to explore media use and literacy in more detail; political and regulatory questions; but also the industrial frameworks that are emerging here. This includes for instance new forms of platforms publishing where media organisations no longer point to their own Websites, but publish within the platform itself; this moves away from a control of publishing venues by media organisations.

Media organisations are thus both empowered by and dependent upon these platforms – there is an increasing institutional reliance on disembedded technological systems that are developed by individual, private, for-profit companies. It is increasingly true that every organisation is also a media organisation, but each of these organisations now also increasingly come to depend on these platforms as crucial intermediaries.

These platforms now have both hard, economic power and soft, cultural power, but they also have a great deal of platform power: power to set standards, power to make and break connections with in these networks, power of automated action at scale, power of operational and commercial secrecy, and power that operates across different technological domains or sub-platforms within the same commercial concern. Such power is perhaps even self-reinforcing as it also is a power to eliminate alternatives through commercial and technological interventions.

This power is not unlimited – witness the failure of Google Buzz, Google Plus, and Google Glasses – but it is nonetheless broad and profound. It is not necessarily inherently good or bad, not will it inevitably cause the end of journalism and democracy; we simply don't yet know what these transformations will lead to, and there is a great need to research these developments in considerably more detail. What does gatekeeping mean here; how does information travel; how is news being framed now; how do users engage with all of this content; how do we analyse the overwhelming multitude of content in any meaningful way; how do we do meaningful qualitative research with well-selected informants in this context?

We are now living through a historical juncture not unlike the political, economic, historical, and social turmoil of the 1930s, and our field of research has a crucial role to play in making sense of this all. Importantly, this requires also a willingness to do and share research in Internet time, rather than at the much slower pace of conventional scholarly publishing.