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The impact of digital platforms on Canadian media production

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About the project

This report critically assesses the state of knowledge on how burgeoning digital platforms are affecting the nature of media work in Canada and elsewhere. The focus is on for-profit cultural production. This means professionals working in the media industries, either as company employees, freelancers or individual content creators. It is widely established that the rapid adoption of digital platforms owned and operated by U.S.- and China-based companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Tencent, ByteDance and Amazon are profoundly reconfiguring media industries in Canada and elsewhere. Over the last decade, cultural producers have become increasingly platform-dependent, a process theorized as the “platformization of cultural production.” Longstanding or legacy media industry sectors, such as journalism, film and broadcasting, are experiencing tremendous upheaval as livestreaming, social-media influencing, podcasting and other new practices develop at breakneck speed.

This knowledge synthesis is structured by four overlapping research themes: 1) platform economics, 2) platform governance, 3) platform labour and cultural citizenship and 4) geopolitical considerations. The research asks how media workers negotiate the often-opaque regulatory frameworks set by platform companies and how platform governance picks winners and losers by setting new regimes of visibility. Platform companies may have lowered costs in terms of production and distribution, but have their efficiencies translated into sustainable business models and a more equitable distribution of revenue among media workers? When asking these questions, particular attention will be paid to the Canadian dimension of platform-dependent media production.

Key findings

  • Platform economics. Point of departure is recent work in critical political economy of communications and in business studies. There is general agreement about the disruptive nature of platform companies in any industry sector they enter; transportation, health care or media industries. This research posits that the structure of platform or multi-sided markets is different from legacy markets. The former, driven by so-called “network effects,” are subject to a winner-take-all dynamic. As a result, the markets operated by platform companies have resulted in striking economic asymmetries and inequalities among cultural workers. The economic literature is unanimous in its verdict that cultural producers are severely compromised in their ability to find sustainable mechanisms to market and monetize platform-dependent cultural products and services.
  • Platform governance. Despite being a widely reviewed concept, there is no real consensus around the notion of platform governance. The fact that platforms govern is glaringly clear, whereas knowledge around methods of governance and the effect these methods have on cultural production is muddled. Mainstream media and academic literature routinely cover platform governance as it pertains to mis- and disinformation, rarely cultural production.
  • Platform labour and creativity. Research on cultural labour (e.g., the labour practices of novelists, artists, filmmakers and musicians) highlights its profoundly precarious nature; for workers of all stripes, unemployment looms constantly. For many Canadian teenagers, becoming “TikTok famous” has become a life goal. However, qualitative inquiries into platform labour suggest that precious few new entrants rise to the upper echelons of financial success. To what degree lower barriers to entry in creative careers translates into a viable, long-term profession is a vital, yet unanswered, question in platform scholarship. There remains a noticeable gap in research on the experiences of BIPOC cultural workers in the North American context.
  • Platform regulation. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep inequalities and structural insecurity faced by media workers. One of the main challenges facing cultural producers in platform markets is that dominant players in the platform economy tend to remain dominant. That said, so-called legacy media conglomerates in broadcasting industries (e.g., Rogers, Bell and others) should not be counted out and remain a significant force in the creation and control of intellectual property in Canada. Since platform companies are also evolving rapidly, and since research on platform-dependent media work is embryonic, now is the time to formulate a comprehensive, interdisciplinary future research agenda tailored to Canadian media industries.

Policy implications

  • Platform economics. The economic incentives of for-profit platform businesses clash with existing social and cultural norms, such as an inclusive and equitable digital future and federal and provincial government regulation. The ability to engage in collective action should be safeguarded. The distribution of revenue in platform economies is highly, if not notoriously, uneven and subject to very strong winner-take-all effects. For new entrants and small- and medium-sized businesses, the ability to generate sustained long-term revenue is heavily uncertain, if not compromised. Regulatory intervention should aim at setting minimum prices and wages, or at least redistributing attention and revenue more evenly.
  • Platform governance. Platforms rarely structurally involve workers when devising new modes of governance. Without access to independently verified platform data, devising effective policy interventions will be challenging. Platform companies should be compelled to share key data on worker diversity and safety, revenue distribution and visibility metrics of cultural goods and workers.
  • Geopolitical considerations. A global perspective is helpful in formulating policy options and interventions. Canada should take advantage of its diverse population and support local talents. Having a culturally diverse workforce will help address local demands and make Canadian media innovations appeal to other emerging local markets.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

David B. Nieborg, Assistant Professor of Media Studies, University of Toronto: david.nieborg@utoronto.ca

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, the Future Skills Centre or the Government of Canada.

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