Media Studies and the Fluidity of Online Networking

Curator's Note


Debuting in late January 2020, Byte is (as of this writing) the latest social media platform. Founded by the creators of the defunct and much-lamented video sharing site, Vine, Byte aims to revive that site’s particular six-second video aesthetic. Since Vine’s late 2016 curtailment, however, structural elements of its super-short form video aesthetic have been adapted by Instagram, Snapchat, and the emergent platform of 2019, TikTok.

Obviously, it is much too early to determine Byte’s impact on any cultural, technological, or industrial front. However, at the standard pace of media studies, Byte may be long gone (or more likely, acquired and subsumed under a more dominant firm) before any extensive academic work has been published about it. As I wrote in the introduction to the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies In Focus taking stock of the field’s relationship to the internet on its fiftieth anniversary, while media studies, along with most of the planet’s industries, relies heavily upon the internet, it still doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

The internet’s radical scope and fluidity have largely perplexed a field still dominated by approaches that prefer relatively fixed objects of analysis (e.g., film and television texts, archival documents). While there has been a great deal of productive engagement with digital technology and aesthetics over the past few decades, there hasn’t yet been the same scale of work on the more challenging front of online networking. As any media scholar who has studied online communication can attest, texts, platforms, and codes--and therefore textualities--are perpetually in flux. Modes of communication routinely change or disappear entirely. In the meantime, the medium of online networking has an increasingly dominant role in culture and politics at every level. 

While the task is daunting, the internet and all it fosters is too central to twenty-first century culture for the field to avoid. In this environment, it serves us best to learn how to study the internet not as “a” medium or “a” platform for textuality, but rather as complex and expanding systems of expression, exchange, materiality, and control. Thankfully, there are a growing number of models for this in media studies, including provocative work that pushes the edges of the field by scholars like Nicole Starosielski, Safiya Umoja Noble, John Cheney Lippold, Sarah T. Roberts, Anna Cristina Pertierra, Lisa Gitelman, and Shannon Mattern.

From this perspective, Byte’s content is certainly worth textual analysis. As its debut-week "best of" video demonstrates, it has embraced many now-familiar design principles of expression in this era, including smart-phone verticality, punch-line brevity, selfie aesthetics, like and share buttons, swipe gestures, and embedded commentary. The predominance of people under 25 on the platform also indicates the range of its demographic identities, as does their meme-derived videos (i.e., "Bytes"). So far, along this path of analysis, those are prominent elements that define a broad social media aesthetic across the culture, rather than much about this particular platform.

However, Byte's technologies, terms of service, and relationships to social media firms and infrastructures at this particular point in time are more significant. Byte’s declarations at the outset to reward creators for their work, for example, is an attempt to counter controversial remuneration policies on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, and atone for Vine’s abrupt demise. Similarly, the post-Millennial demographics of its user base and its effective deployment of authenticity with those users are critical at its launch.

While Byte may indeed deliver a fresh and provocative jolt to early 2020s online culture, whether or not the platform ultimately thrives or fades is largely beside the point. The key mode of critical engagement media studies needs to have with online networking is not to get caught up in any particular text or platform, but always look to connect them to larger cultural, political, and material systems. 

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