Introduction: Digital Distribution and Cultural Power

Jennifer Hessler and Juan Llamas-Rodriguez

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It has been five years and ten issues since the inaugural edition of Media Fields Journal, where the founding editors explored the changing nature of film distribution by focusing on video stores. The fact that almost half of US homes now subscribe to a video streaming service speaks to the fast rate of technological and social change in this relatively short amount of time.[1] Today, industry professionals vacillate between the glooming uncertainty that Hollywood’s longstanding methods are no longer viable and the wide-eyed optimism that Silicon Valley can “disrupt” any aspect of society it targets. Scholars likewise grapple with the implications of these accelerated changes, calling into question previous conceptions about medium specificity, disciplinarity, and methodologies. Long past the “tulip mania” phase of the new media debate,[2] it has become clear that, although digital technologies are not the watershed once prophesied, something has changed, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand. The intellectual task is now to take stock of the current moment and interrogate its possible futures. But how do we make sense of the changes of this digital era? Indeed, how can we evaluate whether, and to what extent, these changes are significant?

One place to start is by foregrounding continuities. If distribution has always been “the material ground of cultural dominance and political power,” the advent of the digital has proven this maxim all the more true.[3] The rise of so-called “platform capitalism,” for instance, is only the latest iteration of the localization of economic and social power in the means of distribution.[4] It is not surprising, then, that scholars have called for greater attention to the study of distribution itself. At a moment when many of the frameworks we took for granted are in flux, it serves us well to turn to an area that remains unscathed. The methods may have changed and the players may have multiplied, but distribution—as a material practice and cultural process—nonetheless remains a crucial loci of power. As Alisa Perren has noted, media scholars have long attended to questions of distribution in their work.[5] The challenge therefore becomes how to put these questions front and center.

This issue of Media Fields represents one endeavor to do so. Inspired by our journal’s mandate to critically explore the notion of the “field,” we assert that distribution’s complex relationship with space perpetuates its status as a locus of cultural power. The metaphors that scholars use to discuss distribution—flows, pipes, channels, and conduits—allude to movement and scale but are often despatialized. The “space” of distribution is itself discursively abstract (like “the cloud” or “the spectrum”) or supposedly invisible. The notion of distribution as “the space in-between” further obfuscates the power relations that are entangled and enabled in the process of distribution. There are multiple ways to approach the “space” of distribution. One would be to recover its “spatiality”: the physical, place-specific geographies, infrastructures, and material conditions of distribution. Another—the approach that this issue as a whole takes—is to indirectly recuperate the cultural struggles that occur in the unseen exchange or the “space in-between.” Indeed, “digitization” entails not only a material act of converting analog signals into code but also, simultaneously, a less tangible, less exact process of transferring cultural meaning. Accordingly, the essays in this issue approach distribution from four different loci where the cultural struggles engendered by distribution become apparent: at the institutional level, through content, via algorithms, and in the act of consumption.


At a macro level, the struggles in the age of digital distribution take root within institutional sites, where the staying power of erstwhile structures often lead to negative consequences. In their essays, Jennifer Holt and David Arditi suggest two ways these consequences manifest. Holt argues that the shift to cloud-based distribution forces us to rethink the contours of contemporary media economies as well as the implications of these for policy decisions. Meanwhile, Arditi suggests how this very shift has allowed major record labels to reestablish their dominance by directing music consumers to a limited number of websites. While Arditi reminds us that corporate structures often remain stable despite technological upheavals, Holt maintains that policies should adapt to these technological changes if we are to adequately regulate the newfound reach and power of corporations. Considered in tandem, Holt and Arditi suggest how often we ignore the lasting, damaging continuities of contemporary media formations because of a fascination with the potentialities of the new. In contrast, Ramon Lobato notes how past frameworks allow us to make sense of new developments. By focusing on Kim Dotcom, Lobato posits the figure of the online media mogul provides a “vernacular image” of the changing digital economy that allows us to explore wider questions about how that economy is constituted. Lobato’s account also foregrounds how structures of power in the physical domain find their analog in the digital sphere.


Sometimes such a parallel between domains is not so clear, especially since the digitization of content calls into question established notions of form. Throughout media history, different media forms—music, film, home video, and television, to name a few—have constituted unique practices of distribution, access, and exhibition as well as particular modes of cultural exchange. While digital delivery doesn’t completely collapse these systems, Grant Wythoff argues that it does motivate some changes in the “discursive set of material conditions” we use to understand them. There have always been a variety of approaches to theorizing television, but online convergence compels further interrogation of established ontological assumptions, evidenced in the titles of scholarly works such as “Is It TV Yet?” and “Television After TV.”[6] Wythoff shows how interrogating these changing discursive conditions, such as the rhetorical shift from “broadcast” to “content delivery” and the evolution of the way we use the term “network,” can help us to better define the industrial and cultural properties of television.

Yet, this diffusion of content specificity is hardly uniform across media forms. While television’s online convergence has been rapid—evident in its elaborate digital lexicon: TV Everywhere, Web TV, webisodes—cinema has been more resistant to online distribution.[7] David Lynch’s viral proclamation, “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone,” serves as just one humorous example of how online distribution is often seen as a threat to cinema’s cultural experience and aesthetic value.[8] In light of this context, Dave Sagehorn and Carter Moulton examine how cinema has negotiated the cultural and aesthetic challenges of online distribution. Sagehorn argues that the marketing for the online release of Girl Walks Into a Bar (Dir. Sebastian Gutierrez, USA, 2011) emphasizes the film’s status as event cinema in order to mark it as anomalous, and thus of high value, in the online space. Thus, while some might argue that digitization collapses strict distinctions of media formats, Sagehorn demonstrates, rather, that the value of content in the digital sphere is often tied to its resemblance to analog media forms. Looking at another example of how “the cinematic event” is mobilized online, Moulton reveals how distributors intensify the temporal experience of cinema in order to make individual films stand out in the overabundance of online content. They do this through the transmedia distribution of what we traditionally know as DVD extra features, which then work as pretextual devices, shaping the film’s meaning and extending the experience of consuming it forward in time.


During the digital turn in the late 1990s, Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone famously declared that “content is king” in reference to the increased significance of Hollywood’s role as content licensor. Though content has always been a key loci for the distribution of cultural meaning, the digital age provides new features striving for this position. Undoubtedly, one of the most salient examples is the case of algorithms. The pervasiveness of algorithms in all areas of social life as a result of digital transnational connectivity has resulted in what Ted Striphas calls “algorithmic culture.”[9] Technophiles and technophobes of all stripes have been quick to argue that “algorithms shape our world”[10] or that we should be “wary of their power.”[11] Ian Bogost adroitly characterizes this obsession with algorithms and their effects as theological, noting that it turns computers into gods and algorithmic outputs into scripture.[12] That algorithms have become the new idols of computational adoration therefore necessitates a careful examination of their constitution. In this regard, algorithms represent yet another site of struggle, enabling and restricting modes of distribution in the digital realm and thus indicating the often competing interests at stake in these formations.

The essays by Patrick Vonderau, Nikos Smyrnaios, and Amanda Modell address precisely these stakes in the cases of academic publishing, news, and music, respectively. In his examination of the scholarly sharing platform, Vonderau considers how the move towards so-called open publishing models reconfigures the perceptions of academic excellence even as it replicates existing biases. Algorithmic tools such as percentile rankings or recommender systems, for instance, simulate traditional citation metrics by singling out users who achieve high numbers of views during a given time period and, at the same time, seek to revamp the traditional peer review system by appealing instead to the “wisdom of the crowd.” Yet, as Vonderau points out, these ranks often reproduce existing power structures, giving professors higher percentiles even when their profiles are inactive. Worse, the machinations behind the algorithmic composition of remain obscure to most users of the platform, producing a black box that renders its results meaningless or dangerously unchallenged.

Nikos Smyrnaios also takes up this problem in the case of what he calls “news infomediaries.” Online news distribution increasingly depends on the algorithmic sorting of infomediaries, creating a relation of mutual dependency, cooperation, and competition between publishers and these mediators. Because of infomediaries’ key role in capturing online revenue, they are in a position to set the standards for online publishing, which, in turn, influence journalistic and editorial practices. Smyrnaios uses this socioeconomic analysis to highlight the negative impact algorithms can have on the diversity and pluralism of online news. Heeding these same concerns, Modell examines how the limitations of algorithmic taxonomizing implicate identity politics. By examining the promotional materials of the Genographic Project and the Music Genome Project, she illustrates how direct-to-consumer genetic testing and music distribution technology rely on “imaginative geography,” or common sense ideas of race informed by place, while simultaneously reinforcing those ideas.


The aforementioned essays demonstrate the obfuscatory control that algorithms enable corporations and technicians to exert over how media gets distributed and consumed. Nowhere is this aspect more evident than in the case of the subscription video on demand (SVOD) service Netflix, the focus of Chuck Tryon’s essay. Tryon examines the role of Netflix’s algorithm in constructing the experience of the “on demand spectator,” arguing that while Netflix’s promotional discourse gives the illusion of unlimited consumer choice and a highly individualized viewing experience, it obscures the fact that the company’s recommendation system often constrains, limits, and directs consumer choices. Further, by tracking and codifying their subscribers’ viewing choices and practices, Netflix turns viewers into “monitorable spectators,” bringing questions of labor exploitation and consumer privacy to the forefront.

Indeed, Tryon’s contribution touches on reinvigorated concerns regarding the changing power relationships between producers and consumers in the digital mediascape. While some scholars have drawn attention to the new opportunities that digital technologies create for consumers to participate in the way that content gets exchanged and valued,[13] others warn about the commodification of consumer experience and the privacy concerns surrounding consumer data collection.[14] The question at stake is whether—and to what extent—distribution offers new opportunities for consumers to participate in processes of exchange, valuation, and meaning making, or whether this guise of participation is actually another mechanism of commodification and control.

Simon Lindgren’s essay argues for the ways that clicktivism and other forms of content sharing remain meaningful forms of participation. Drawing on Jenkins et al.’s notion of “spreadability,” Lindgren argues that sharing content—through linking, liking, or retweeting—in fact constitutes a form of Benjaminian reproduction. By making active decisions about which venue to use and what commentary to add when sharing content, consumers reproduce meaning across time and space, an act that has the power to bring to light “new structures of matter.” Lindgren concludes that the cynicism around participation in the digital arena actually results from a destruction of the aura of traditional notions of what participation should look like.

This issue’s artist contribution offers one such example of a digitally enabled, generative mode of participation. Lucy Hunter and R. Lyon co-direct Where, an art exhibition space staged in a large shipping container in Brooklyn. Along with being accessible to passersby on a Brooklyn street corner, Where is exhibited via 24-hour webcam stream to online viewers. Using Where to draw parallels between the old and the new, shipping containers and digital bits, material things and information, Hunter and Lyon reveal that despite technological change, the logics of mass distribution—standardization, efficiency, compression—remain the same. Like Lindgren, Hunter and Lyon present new understandings of what participation looks like in the digital age, demonstrating that digital distribution warrants a reappraisal of what constitutes authentic participation in media systems.


The articles in this issue take varied approaches to analyzing the power dynamics engendered in and enabled by digital distribution. Collectively, they demonstrate that while the digital does disrupt established practices, in many cases, it does not completely do away with them. The digital age has afforded new industry players, modes of exchange and valuation, and opportunities for consumer participation, but at the same time, existing players and practices continue to exert their influence. These changes and continuities create apt opportunities to interrogate distribution’s role as a locus of cultural power. While the articles in this issue demonstrate a variety of approaches to studying digital distribution, they offer but a small contribution to what remains an understudied aspect of media industries and culture. Therefore, this issue also extends the call made by numerous scholars for more research on media distribution,[15] while advocating particularly for further analysis on the complex spatiality of distribution. This includes recuperating distribution’s material spatiality, including its geography or material infrastructures,[16] as well as analyzing the less tangible sites and loci through which cultural value and meaning travel in the process of distribution.

We would like to thank our contributors for their participation in the issue. We also thank the UCSB department of Film and Media Studies as well as Professor Lisa Parks and Professor Michael Curtin, Mellichamp Chair of Global Media, for their generous contributions and support. Thank you to the members of the Media Fields Journal editorial collective for their work on this issue.


[1] Janko Roettgers, “Close to half of all U.S households subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu Plus,”, 6 June 2014,; Emily Steel, “Nielsen Charts Reach of Video Streaming,” New York Times, 11 March 2015,

[2] While the waning of exuberance over so-called “new media,” which Jeffrey Sconce warned about over a decade ago, has proven generative for academic endeavors, popular accounts continue to tout a revolutionary future as a result of digital technologies that often obscures their more notable continuities of power. See Jeffrey Sconce, “Tulip Theory,” New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, eds. Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell (New York: Routledge, 2003): 179–98.

[3] Sean Cubitt, “Distribution and Media Flows,” Cultural Politics 1 no. 2 (2005): 194.

[4] For Evgeny Morozov, the advent of “platform capitalism” signals a new site for the extraction of surplus value from the service economy, through the use of digital intermediators such as Uber and AirBnB. “Where Uber and Amazon rule: welcome to the world of the platform” The Guardian, 7 June 2015,

[5] Alisa Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies,” Cinema Journal 52 no. 3 (Spring 2013): 166.

[6] Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, eds, Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); William Boddy, “‘Is It TV Yet?’: The Dislocated Screens of Television in a Mobile Digital Culture,” in Television as Digital Media, eds. James Bennett and Niki Strange (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011): 76–104.

[7] See, Jennifer Holt and Kevin Sanson, “Introduction: Mapping Connections,” Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, & Sharing Media in the Digital Era (New York: Routledge, 2014), 5.

[8] A clip from the 2007 “Special Edition” DVD release of Inland Empire (Dir. David Lynch, USA, 2006). See, “David Lynch on iPhone,” YouTube, uploaded 4 January 2008, accessed 25 October 2015,

[9] Giuseppe Granieri, “Algorithmic Culture: A Conversation with Ted Striphas,” Medium, 30 April 2014,

[10] Kevin Slavin, “How Algorithms Shape Our World,” TED Global, July 2011,

[11] Leo Hickman, “How Algorithms Rule the World,” The Guardian, 1 July 2013,

[12] Ian Bogost, “The Cathedral of Computation,” The Atlantic, 15 January 2015,

[13] Nancy K. Baym, Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000); Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004); Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, eds, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York University Press, 2013).

[14] Mark Andrejevic, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (University Press of Kansas, 2007); Christian Fuchs, Kees Boersma, Ander Albrechtslund, and Marisol Sandoval, “Introduction: Internet and Surveillance,” Internet and Surveillance: The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media (New York: Routledge, 2012), 1–25; Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford University Press, 2010); Rita Raley, “Dataveillance and Coutnerveillance,” “Raw Data” Is An Oxymoron, ed. Lisa Gitelman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 121–46; Trebor Scholz “Introduction: Why Does Digital Labor Matter Now?,” Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Trebor Scholz (New York: Routledge), 1–32; Joseph Turow, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012).

[15] Michael Curtin, Jennifer Holt, and Kevin Sanson, “Introduction,” Distribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digital Future of Film and Television (University of California Press, 2014) 1–17; Holt and Sanson, “Introduction: Mapping Connections,” Connected Viewing, 1–15; Ramon Lobato, Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution (London: British Film Institute, 2012); Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies.”

[16] See for example, Michael Curtin, “Media Capital Towards the Study of Spatial Flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 no. 1 (2003) 202–28; Jade Miller, “Global Nollywood: The Nigerian Movie Industry and Alternative Global Networks in Production and Distribution,” Global Media and Communication 8 no. 2 (2012), 117–33; Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, Richard Maxwell, and Tina Wang, Global Hollywood 2 (London: BFI Publishing), 2005; Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Jennifer Hessler is a PhD Candidate in Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is working on a dissertation called, “The Nielsen Ratings: From the Audimeter to Big Data,” which is a history of the Nielsen ratings that examines audience measurement as a dynamic, cooperative, and socially implicated process of surveillance. She has presented work at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, the Cultural Studies Association, and the Popular Culture Association. She is an editorial assistant for the journal Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies and the Coordinating Editor of Media Fields journal.

Juan Llamas-Rodriguez is a PhD Candidate in Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, working on a dissertation about life in the age of narco-trafficking. His research encompasses the practices and materialities of media distribution, popular cultures of the Mexico-US border, and the precarity of contemporary labor. He is a member of the Media Fields collective, a research assistant with the Carsey-Wolf Center, and the Graduate Student Representative on the Board of Directors for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.