Platform Imperialism in OTT Platforms

Netflix’s global dominance based on its massive amount of users has, again, continued since its international penetration started in Canada. Although there are several US-based digital platforms, such as Google, Facebook, and Instagram, people around the globe have never seen this kind of monopolistic dominance of a US-based platform, which has created an unimaginable capitalist system in terms of capital gains from user data. Several OTT platforms like Amazon Prime and Disney+ have competed against Netflix; however, their global presence, compared to Netflix’s, is still marginal. While Netflix offers users a way to enjoy cultural content, it obscures economic relations that reflect larger patterns of capitalist development in the digital era based on the socio-cultural and economic relations present on it (Jin, 2013).

Most of all, it is crucial to understand Netflix as a digital platform in actualizing global dominance. There are several previous works that defined digital platforms as merely infrastructure. For example, as Ballon and van Heesvelde (2011,703) point out, a platform is “a hardware configuration, an operating system, a software framework or any other common entity on which a number of associated components or services run.” However, as I discussed elsewhere (2013; 2015), digital platforms have commercial values, because they not only provide opportunities for users to communicate with one another but also afford platform designers and owners the opportunity to sell their platforms as commodities. Digital platforms could not be fairly understood without contemplating three major areas: technological sphere, corporate sphere, and political sphere. What they commonly emphasize is that we need to understand Netflix through not only its technological aspects, but also its commercial and cultural aspects. As van Dijck (2012, 162) argues, digital platforms can also be analyzed from the corporate sphere because “their operation is substantially defined by market forces and the process of commodity exchange.” Several critical scholars also argue that digital platforms need to be understood from a critical perspective related to a platform’s value embedded in design. Indeed, some theoreticians (Feenberg, 1991; Salter, 2005; Lekka-Kowalik, 2010; Flanagin et al., 2012) point out that technology is not value neutral, as technology possesses a certain bias that embeds the values and communication preferences of designers and developers. In other words, Netflix offers several characteristics similar to digital platforms.

Netflix as a digital platform heavily relies on the increasing number of users and data gathered from those users. Netflix has become one of the most recent digital technologies that increasingly influences people’s cultural activities. As van Dijck et al (2018, 9) point out “a platform is fueled by data, automated and organized through algorithms and interfaces, formalized through ownership relations driven by business models, and governed through user agreements.” Netflix is the largest OTT service utilizing big data and algorithms to make commercial profit, and it is not only working as an intermediary, but is also playing a role as a mediator to control the vicious chain of cultural spheres (Jin, 2021).

More importantly, it is critical to understand them as mediators, not intermediaries. As van Dijck (2013) argues, platforms play a significant role in influencing people’s daily lives as mediators, as they process big data through algorithms and massively commodify user data and user behavior (Fuchs,

2011). Digital platforms should be considered as mediators instead of intermediaries, mainly because digital platforms function as matchmakers, which is one of the most significant capitalist systems (Jin, 2017).

Of course, it is controversial to categorize Netflix as a digital platform like Facebook or Google, mainly because of their different dimensions. As Lobato (2019) especially claims:

Netflix is not a platform in the same way as social media services like Facebook or Twitter are. Netflix is not open, social, or collaborative. One cannot upload content to Netflix or design software applications to run within it. In this sense, it is fundamentally different from video sites containing both user-uploaded and professionally managed content (YouTube, Youku, etc.)... Netflix is closed, library-like, professional; a portal rather than a platform; a walled garden rather than an open marketplace (31—32).

However, it is critical to understand several of its unique characteristics, such as it being data-driven, commercially oriented, and mediated, which imply that Netflix can be identified as a digital platform (Jin, 2021). Although people or companies could not run their software programs on Netflix, this OTT service platform plays a major role in developing new forms of business models and cultural activities. Elkins (2019) especially identifies Netflix as one of the most significant “digital entertainment platforms.” Netflix has continued to transform its own major characteristics, and it is certain that we can analyze Netflix as one of the most significant digital platforms. This critical analysis of digital platforms helps determine challenges and opportunities in understanding digital platforms as a new driver of imperialism in the relationship between countries, in particular the very few Western countries as digital platform creators and owners and the vast majority of non-Western countries as digital platform users (Jin, 2015).

Platform imperialism is an asymmetrical relationship of interdependence between a handful of Western countries, in particular the US, and many non-Western countries, characterized by unequal technological exchanges and capital flows, which implies a technological and cultural domination of US-based digital platforms that have fundamentally influenced the majority of people and countries around the globe (Jin, 2015, 12). Netflix promotes “algorithmic culture as a pathway to global connection, thereby justifying it as essential to their global ambitions. At a key moment in the platforms’ play for global dominance,” this sells Netflix’s globalization “as benevolently multicultural rather than cold, techno-corporate, and threatening to global cultural diversity” (Elkins, 2019,385).

Although several countries like Japan, Korea, and China as some of the most advanced economic and technological powerhouses in Asia have developed digital platforms, including OTT platforms, it is clear that American-based OTT platforms, including Netflix, dominate the global OTT markets. A few US-owned platforms, from social media platforms to OTT service platforms, have fervently expanded their global dominance, resulting in the increasing asymmetrical gap in terms of technological growth and financial gains between the US and remaining countries. Power is not equally dispersed, and only a few countries, in particular the US, have expanded their global reach and capital accumulation in the OTT sector. The dominance of Netflix has intensified the asymmetrical power relations between the US and Asia and other regions.

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