Patrons of commerce: asymmetrical reciprocity and moral economies of platform power

Aaron Shapiro, Courtlyn Pippert, Jacob Smith & Zari A. Taylor

Information, Communication & Society

(In)Equity, Digital Infrastructures

(Research Summary by Felicity Gancedo)

Jacob Smith, CITAP GRA, along with co-authors Aaron Shapiro, Courtlyn Pippert, and Zari Taylor, explore the intricate dynamics of power and reciprocity between digital platforms and their users through the lens of "asymmetrical reciprocity," in “Patrons of commerce: Asymmetrical reciprocity and moral economics of platform power”. The authors posit that platforms often position themselves as benevolent patrons, creating a perceived imbalance where they appear to give more than they take. This perception helps platforms legitimize their authority and control, but it is a fragile legitimacy that users frequently challenge. The authors argue that platforms utilize this patronage to mask the true nature of their interactions with users, where they often extract more value than they contribute.

Case Study #1: Twitch

Changes in subscription revenue policies sparked significant backlash on Twitch; the platform's decision to alter the split of subscription revenues from a favorable 70/30% to a less generous 50/50% for top earners was met with outcry from content creators. These creators felt that Twitch, by rolling back previously negotiated terms, had violated a tacit agreement of mutual benefit and support. This vignette illustrates the precarious balance platforms must maintain between their profitability and their public image as supportive of their user communities.

Case Study #2: Amazon Kindle

Authors utilizing Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing faced challenges with scammers manipulating the platform's payment algorithms. The platform's initial reluctance to address the scamming issues effectively showed a discrepancy between the support Amazon claimed to offer to authors and the reality of their policies. This situation highlighted the tension between Amazon's role as a market leader in digital publishing and its responsibilities toward the creators who populate its platform with content.

Case Study #3: Deplatforming adult content creators and sex workers

Sex workers and adult content creators, who often face harsher content moderation compared to other users, are directly impacted by shadowbans and account suspensions on platforms. This segment of platform users regularly contends with arbitrary enforcement of policies, which disproportionately affects their ability to earn a livelihood. The response from the platforms often lacks transparency and fails to address the specific needs and challenges faced by these creators, revealing a significant imbalance in how platforms manage relationships with different user groups.

How should platforms address these discrepancies in power?

The authors argue that to rectify the asymmetries in power and reciprocity, platforms need to invest in what the authors term "legitimacy costs." Platforms can better align their operations with the interests of their diverse user communities, thereby stabilizing their legitimacy and fostering a more equitable digital ecosystem.