Platform Cultures (Seedcorn Funding Award)

Dr Jacqueline Ristola is a recipient of the Creative Technologies Seed Funding Award by the Centre for Creative Technologies. Dr Ristola is a Lecturer in Animation (Digital) in the Department of Film and Television at the University of Bristol. She received her PhD in Film and Moving Image Studies from Concordia University, Montreal. Her research areas include animation/anime studies, media industry studies, and queer representation. We invited her to tell us more about her event on Platform Cultures!

On July 26th, 2023, Platform Cultures, a day for networking and exploration around how platforms shape culture and creativity. The event brought together academics, practitioners, and maker-scholars from Bristol and the greater Southwest UK to share insights and experience around different platforms, their affordances, and their limitations.

This event was inspired by recent developments in streaming platforms. In my own research, I’ve examined how the streaming platform Max (formerly known as HBO Max) curates content, an example of how platform design shapes consumption. Platform elements, from interface design to copyright policies, shape the production, distribution, and consumption of so much of the creative arts today. More broadly, the intersection between platforms and cultural production has been the subject of an incisive article and subsequent book by Thomas Poell, David B. Nieborg, and Brooke Erin Duffy. With the preponderance of platforms penetrating nearly every aspect of everyday life, it felt right to bring people together across disciplines and sectors (from academic to industry) to compare and contrast research and experiences to better understand the political, social, and cultural contours of making media on platforms today. Thus, this event was part networking to bring people across disciplinary borders to talk about this enveloping object that are platforms, and specifically how they intersect with creativity. It was also part exploratory, to give people time to try out and gain crucial experiential (phenomenological) work with these platforms.

The event began with a plenary panel co-organized with Richard Cole on creating with VR & AR featuring Jo Mangan, Director at The Performance Corporation, and Robert Morgan, Creative Director at Playlines and a Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. Jo and Robert talked about their own work and creative process, touching on topics such as sustainability, working with locations, and whether self-consciousness truly is the enemy of immersion in VR. 

After the panel and a quick coffee break, we started the microtalks. These were 5, 5-minute microtalks examining how particular platforms shapes creativity and culture. One participant discussed music creation battles on Twitch, while another discussed the differences between working in the TV industry and the affordances and limitations of making content for YouTube. Also discussed was the use of locations in building walking tours and other similar interactive games, and the games industry’s (lack of) positive climate change narratives. In the case of the latter, as video games historically disavowed itself as art to avoid criticism around depicting violence, one speaker argued this has hampered the games industry in considering its impact on others, and how positive narratives about fighting climate change is a sorely needed contribution. I discussed how TikTok’s “Duet” feature seems to create a second screen experience already within its app. Instead of viewers switching their attention between a television and their phone, TikTok presents multiple frames at once within its app, creates what seems to me something akin to a second screen experience right within your phone. After these talks, the room came together for a robust discussion.

After lunch, we shifted to our next activity, a hands-on session making media with Horizon Worlds, TikTok, and Instagram. The goal of this session was to try out these different platforms ourselves, and experiment with each platform’s affordances and limitations. There was also a Playstation 5 set up with the free game Astro’s Playroom, a game that teaches the player all the affordances of the PS% and its new controller, as well as the history of Playstation as a platform. In short, it was a platformer about a platform, which was a perfect compliment to the day’s proceedings.

[Caption: Two participants discuss while one holds a Meta Quest 2 headset. Taken with a filter from Instagram to experiment in how the app encourages different forms of image manipulation.]

While many participants tried out the VR headsets and experimented with Horizon Worlds, most media was created with Instagram and TikTok. When asked in our final reflection and wrap up section, some participants mentioned that they hadn’t tried TikTok before, and were curious to try it out. The event gave space for people try our different technologies and apps that they might not have been able to try before, particularly VR headsets, which can be quite pricey.

[Caption: A participant tries on a VR headset at the Platform Cultures event, while another participant captured it on TikTok.]

Some key insights soon emerged as we experimented and made media with these different platforms. One question that kept coming up was “Why did the algorithm do that?!” In the case of one TikTok, a participant took a photo, used an TikTok filter that generated the participant as a bronze statue, and autogenerated the background, and then TikTok autogenerated a description of the resulting image, stating it showed a “bronze statue, wearing luxury clothes, on a pedestal, modelshoot.” The description got more removed from reality the further it went a long (where is this pedestal?)

Another insight that emerged was how TikTok and Instagram  automatically recommend songs to accompany your posts, to curious results. In another case of “Why did the algorithm do that?!,” I selected the first song that TikTok proposed for this video, adding a treacly soundtrack. 

To see the media produced during this exploratory session, please go the @platformcultures pages on TikTok and Instagram. If you have access to Horizon Worlds, try going to the “Platforms Cultures” world to see some of the formal experiments there.

Finally, the event wrapped up with a robust discussion and reflection on everything we had talked about and experienced. Key topics included the sustainability of digital media. As one participant pointed out, we literally don’t have enough lithium in the world to preserve all tiktoks and other forms of digital media for the future. A key question then is: Are we ok with losing (digital) things? Will we truly lose anything of value if all TikToks are erased tomorrow? This discussion topic also coincides with concerns and questions around archiving and curation strategies. Some suggested that perhaps some digital media is preserved, but such preservation relies upon careful curation strategies to demonstrate value and the need for permanence.

The event was a success in its aims of connecting people and exploring the different platforms. Discussion was constant as people connected and discussed during breaks. In the final reflection and wrap up section, it felt like we could talk for another hour, despite it being 5 o’clock! The event was impactful in provoking new perspectives in platform studies, and connecting academics with practitioners, and vice versa. In our discussions throughout the day, one suggested that a similar event could be created as a one-day symposium. I hope that this event can serve as a proof-of-concept for further platform creativity research and events to come.

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