On November 2, 3, 4, 2023, the Université de Montréal held an international conference on digital platforms. Bringing together 50 participants from a variety of backgrounds, exploring the media and audiovisual industries, as well as education, the video game industry, and how they relate to work, the conference highlighted the paradoxical nature of our relationship to digital technology: platforms are useful, as they allow us to connect to and access content with unprecedented ease. By the same token, however, they impose a host of structural rules on us, by homogenizing products and discourses, or by placing an injunction on visibility often linked to an increased sense of fatigue and frustration. Are we passive when engaging with platforms, or do we use them actively? What practices have we not yet considered?
The study of production cultures, consumption practices and industrial rhetoric surrounding platforms reveals their role in how they connect public and industry. By quickly providing content adapted to contemporaneity, they become knots which reorganize power and as a result generate contradictory affects.
An ever-changing area of study, platforms are characterized by their adaptability and constant mutation. Their evanescent definitions are observable in studies on platformed media. The varied approaches, such as that of Lotz on internet-distributed television, Khazoom on Netflix as an assemblage, Wagman on the innovative potential of circulation, or Delaporte on the intermedia mimicry between television, platforms and cinema, illustrate just how robust the field is.
The pragmatic approach of the conference, centered on the uses of platforms, is echoed in the accompanying exhibition entitled “L’espace des plateformes” (Platform Spaces) developed by Christine Bernier, Marta Boni, and Zaira Zarza, which features an array of topics, such as environmental impacts, intimate relationships with platforms, and forms of user resistance. Displaying creative, alternative, and individual uses, the exhibit demonstrates the substantial consequences of these seemingly light infrastructures.
In the exhibition, the piece de resistance, a Roku TV remote, is displayed at the center of a red-lit vitrine as a symbol of the convergence between linear television and streaming models, with a direct reference to Netflix, the platform that has stood out as a disruptor to the industry, as it set the trend in SVOD (subscription video on demand) practices. This exception has become an influential visibility model that has permeated a vast swath of communications. The conference highlights, for example, the attention given by Netflix to the diversity and inclusivity of content, establishing progressive norms unparalleled by traditional broadcasters (Ceuterick, Delpanno, Ravary). A market study completes the analysis on platformization by contextualizing it within industrial interests and power relations (Nieborg). Convenience culture (Steinberg) and the continuous availability of tailored services leads to a reflection on cultural specificities that characterize our relationship to platforms.
The link between platforms and intimacy is also explored in the exhibition by marking our attachment to home, which was bolstered during the pandemic. Pictures displayed from the private lives of students and colleagues illustrates the ways in which we shape our intimacy within the spaces that encompass platforms. At the same time, the images discern the industrial manipulation of their sleek ergonomics and a surfeit of content—a result of powerful industrial designs, characterized by strong supply and demand strategies exploited by major industrial players.
To exhibit meant scouring the forgotten corners and disheveled desk drawers of our offices. By uncovering the hardware that enables platforms (and these existential bubbles) to exist, this process made tangible a reality (platforms) that gives us, for the most part, a feeling that it would be invisible and immaterial. Old keyboards, computers, phones, and other outdated objects bring the obsolescence of devices to the fore, forcing us to reflect on the fact that our relationship to usage, tinged with enthusiasm and constantly-renewed hope (an interest for novelty, a utopia of hyperconnectivity, and continuous access to content), inevitably creates an environmental impact. The speed and comfort with which we connect to platforms (represented in the exhibition by a connected, comfy office) has a physical dimension as well. The price paid for these personalized pleasures, in terms of energy consumption and pollution to the planet, is laid bare. Furthermore, the issue of access is raised, which is not available to all: poverty, a lack of literacy resources and electricity perpetuate a digital divide that makes it so one third of the world’s population has never browsed online. In the exhibition, satirical vignettes by Darién Sanchez introduce us to the Cuban practice of sharing series and films via hard drive, or “paquete,” in a context without high-speed internet.
Accomplices in these spurious schemes, we are in a paradoxical condition in which we “desire something that is not good for us,” according to the cruel optimism of Lauren Berlant. How can we make sense of this desire for comfort as we waste precious minutes (hours?) scrolling through short reels of cute kittens, whereas everyday life demands performance and productivity? This may be a set of practices akin to a state of ennui, which helps soften difficult moments in an era of crisis, as Scott Richmond suggests. We also examined the rewatching of TV shows or the complex forms of fondness shown toward fictional characters (Thoër, Niemeyer).
Is there not, however, already an embryo of reparative or resistant forms in user practices that confronts the power of platforms? The emphasis on the margins, and the construction of situated responses cannot be expressed without the help of queer and decolonial studies: this reading chooses opacity, inspired by the work of Edouard Glissant (Sundén), or the study of identity performances and oppositional readings generated by fans (Stein, Cimper, Blanc, Cornillon, Boisvert et Gagnon) that allow us to account for the place of platforms in a universe fluctuating between possible deconstructions. The presence of reception traces (either engaged or playful) reveals identity affiliations, forms of self-staging, gestures and community practices, which sheds light on platforms as spaces of discourse. Power is established, built and broken down through strategies and tactics of communication; from these emerge consumption rituals and institutional reactions, especially in the French audiovisual landscape (Alcaraz et Mercier). Minor platforms, such as Tënk (Dupuy-Salle et Schmitt), and practices stemming from video game culture (Therrien) are also discussed. Space is also carved out for contributions on television from countries outside the North American cultural sphere (Outtara, ElKadib, Miller, Tsei). Analyzing the margins, forms of critical reactions, and strategies deployed by the traditional sector allow us to measure the impact of these subversions, although timid, while restoring a more complex mediasphere by outlining its dynamic contours.
In selecting acts of deliberate reinterpretation, the exhibition, in turn, celebrates extant online creative content. Establishing ad hoc platforms to create an experience in augmented reality allows Tara Karmous and Clémentine Brochet to develop a feminist critique of Picasso’s oeuvre, giving voice to the women-objects depicted in his works. We also exhibit precise analyses of public reactions by leveraging sociological tools (Thoër and Niemeyer, or the collage of images of ballet fans on Instagram by Neuvillliers and Rivière), as well as reappropriations, whose reuse is very subjective (videos of YouTubers collated by Cimper). The digital realm allows us to reconsider intimacy’s place: how we express attachment and taste, habits and nostalgic souvenirs when content (the TV series) is thought of as a component of an autobiographical narrative or a source of visual and auditory experimentation.
The project invites us to reflect on the nature of the digital realm, our ongoing relationship with these technologies, and the emerging creativity within these platforms, all while encouraging us to consider forms of resistance in the face of ubiquitous power, and to confront affects, including and especially those which contain a paradox. To conclude, we have to consider the paradox in the distance education relationship (Laborde) during the era of confinement, which becomes a series of reparative exchanges, bordering on outreach, when looked at from a “better than nothing” point of view.
Marta Boni is an Associate professor at the University of Montréal, Department of art history and film studies. She is specialized in TV fiction, fan studies, and world-building: on these topics she leads the Labo Tele, at UdeM, organized or co-organized conferences, and edited World Building. Transmedia, Fans, Industries (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and Formes et plateformes de la television à l’ère du numérique (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2020). Her recent work on uncertainty and television series came out as a book, Perdre pied. Le principe d’incertitude dans les series télé, Presses Universitaires François Rabelais, 2023.