PLATFORMS FOR PEOPLE, NOT PROFIT
Briarpatch|January/February 2020
Digital platforms boast that they’ve “democratized” cultural production. But what would truly democratic platforms look like in Canada?
DANIEL JOSEPH

In October, Catherine Tait, the CEO of the CBC, said in an interview that the CBC would no longer be working with Netflix to produce shows.

“Over time we start to see that we’re feeding the growth of Netflix, or we’re feeding the growth of Amazon, rather than feeding our own domestic business and industry,” she said. Earlier this year, Tait had likened Netflix’s role in Canada to “cultural imperialism,” a phrase that is rarely heard in Canada outside of media and communication studies departments at universities. The term is typically used to talk about a powerful nation imposing its culture on less powerful nations. Today, it mostly refers to the United States using its overwhelmingly dominant position in the capitalist global order to influence culture abroad – acknowledging that the United States’ cultural hegemony is part of the same project as its economic and military imperialism.

It’s not often that conversations about who should control Canadian media make it into the mainstream. We’re stuck in a catch-22 where, because of appalling levels of foreign ownership and corporate consolidation, there is little discussion of these dynamics in mainstream Canadian media. And while the left in Canada isn’t in a position to dictate new policies, Tait’s comments represent an opening into which the left can insert a radical proposal to change how we communicate with each other as well as how we create, distribute, and consume culture.

While the recent rise of “platform capitalism” involves digital technology that connects many types of workers and consumers – like Uber, Airbnb, and WeWork – I specifically research the platforms that allow us to create and consume art and entertainment and to communicate with each other. It hardly needs to be emphasized how deeply these platforms – from Twitter to Netflix – are embedded in our everyday lives; how much of our creativity and how many of our ideas are held hostage by them. Many of these digital platforms rely on mountains of free content created by users – tweets, snaps, remixes, TikToks – while the platforms peddle the rhetoric that, by doing so, they are “democratizing” cultural production. But getting to use something and having a meaningful say in its operation are two different things – and only one is really democratic.

Control of these vital channels of communication is too important to be left to the capitalists and imperialists – both the U.S.-based ones like Netflix and Facebook and our local petty tyrants such as Bell or Rogers. We need democratic platforms and democratic cultural production. These platforms would put people before profit. That means proactive community regulation and decision making; a clear path for content creators to disseminate their work while making a living; and a serious commitment to many forms of meaningful cultural diversity. Ultimately – and I’m not the first to suggest it – this could mean putting platforms like Facebook in public hands by nationalizing them and making them co-operatively managed. And if, through nationalization, we begin to reckon with how inherently exploitative these platforms are, we may begin to consider rebuilding them from scratch.

WHEN IT COMES TO CULTURAL PRODUCTION, WHO “WINS”?

The problem of platforms and democratic cultural production in Canada is double-sided. On one side: production and ownership. On the other: distribution and consumption.

We cannot talk about platforms without talking about the political economy of the media industry as a whole, so I’ll begin by addressing how content is produced and subsidized. It’s also the key to understanding why the CEO of the CBC doesn’t want to work with Netflix anymore.

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