The Problems of Platforms like Uber that Act as Media Production Companies

Platforms fascinate me. Scholars from my field often study them as “new media”, even though platforms themselves often frame themselves as being merely “tech companies”. But they are media in at least two ways. They host the original content created by users, and they create their own original content.

While user-generated content is widely studied by different fields, we hardly focus on how platforms themselves produce media. Platforms are increasingly operating as media production companies. This is an important trend. Here’s a table (2019) I drew up with some examples:

Platform Media Entertainment
Apple Apple TV + (Streaming film/TV)
Google Stadia (Streaming games), Niantic Inc (Game development)
Amazon Amazon Prime (Streaming film/TV)
Facebook Facebook Watch (Original web series)
Uber Where to, Britain? (Documentaries funded by Uber)

I’ll discuss a few of the examples from this table, most notably Uber. Let’s see if our ideas of what media is, and is not, still hold up.

Correcting your reputation with entertainment  

Channel 4’s Where to, Britain? (2018) was funded by Uber and offers an intimate look at the professional lives of its drivers. Its narrator is Dawn French, and the image is positive and exciting. Here’s an episode that shows many laughing, happy passengers sitting in Uber cars, including the team of Manchester United who are big fans of the ride-sharing service, apparently.

The critique on Uber’s documentary series was substantial, and rightly so. The Guardian speaks of a PR stunt to wash Uber’s “toxic image” clean. It diverts our attention away from their reputation and the rights of employees by influencing us in subtle ways:

“…Uber hasn’t offered us much in the way of shiny advertising campaigns. It has instead put its resources into influencing those in power not to mess with a business model that rests on eroding workers’ rights.

Of course entertainment companies themselves also depict platforms in certain ways.  Films like The Social Network, for instance, or shows like Black Mirror offer a critique of social media and the app economy, how such companies treat their users, and how their data leads (in the worst cases) to dystopian scenarios.

In this sense, the relationship between platforms and entertainment companies is blurring. While platforms shape their own image and initiate content, like Uber does, entertainment companies also create certain images of platforms. For instance, this summer Stuber is released, a comedy that about an Uber driver that gives a positive and comedic image of the company. Working for Uber is not framed as precarious, bur adventurous. Just check the trailer here and judge for yourself.

Correcting your business reputation with a positive narrative is the oldest trick in the book, as any communication or media expert can tell you. It is widely deployed by governments, healthcare services and yes, platforms. There’s nothing like a good story to divert people’s attention away from what really matters – your business model, your financing, and the ways in which you exploit your users and employees.

An upbeat narrative lifts the pain and makes our investment in a company seem worthwhile. Let’s also not forget many users in the platform economy outsource their labor to users. The curation of the gaming platform Steam is completely driven by the gamers themselves and third-parties who get the role of “Steam curator”. Is that a good thing?

How does this relate to media and audience studies?

Interdisciplinary work is key today. To study these increasingly complex phenomena we need to collaborate across media, technology and business studies, amongst others. As you can see in the table above, the lines between media, entertainment and technology companies is fading. Media scholars in particular should be alert right now and look beyond typical channels (e.g. film, television). A closer look at platforms is needed, even if they frame themselves as not being media companies (looking at you Facebook).

As these companies become more influential, by creating more services and assets, they also influence the media discourse. Media studies needs to engage more with these companies and look critically at their business models. Platforms do not portray themselves as media, also to avoid guidelines. This leads to problems. Many of these problems pertain to content and have deep political and social consequences. For example:

  • Fake news circulation and altered/manipulated content on Facebook
  • YouTube’s algorithm and why it, for instance, allowed for a spread of alt-right content
  • Steam’s policies and regulation, which allows for clones of existing games as well as an increase of poorly produced fake games

Users are always on the losing end in these examples. And I am not even talking about how their data and content is used yet.

This also means that we need to update our concepts. Doing an analysis of transmedia storytelling, for instance, used to imply examining film, television series, comics and different social channels. Today transmedia storytelling means unpacking the power and strategies of these platforms.

A platform is a wildly different “source-text” or “inter-text” to examine than the fiction that media scholars often scrutinize. Analyzing The Matrix connects to SF/F genres. Analyzing Stuber connects to the narrative of an actual company, its PR and societal impact.

Here’s a fan studies example: Suppose a film like Stuber draws an avid cult fan base? Such a fan base could not be disconnected the business of Uber and its reputation

As a scholar of audiences, fans and content, I think these are important times. Like I said before, we can’t restrict ourselves to theories on production, audience and text. Money, business models and platforms have a big stake in this. They are shaping user engagement tremendously today. I said this before, and I am writing about this a lot at the moment, but we live in an age of data-driven fandom.

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