Infrastructural Approaches to Streaming Media Cultures: A Starter Kit

Streaming media platforms purport to offer frictionless delivery of programming, sent via the miraculous ethers that compose the cloud. The companies behind these platforms would prefer for streaming to remain a “palatable abstraction” in the eyes of their users, and their visions of the infrastructures that power their services gloss over the site-specific intricacies of these systems (Holt and Vonderau 72). This starter kit considers what can be gleaned by adopting an infrastructural approach to streaming media cultures, thinking across streaming industries to engage with the uneven maps of streaming infrastructures created by corporations and researchers. Focusing on streaming video and streaming music, this starter kit concentrates in particular on case studies of Netflix and Spotify, two streaming services that aspire to global availability and which have been investigated by scholars who have begun to peer inside and think around the black boxes that obscure their infrastructures. Taken together, these texts and representations of streaming infrastructure begin to sketch an approach that cuts across industrial and disciplinary boundaries, and which could prove fruitful in relation to other streaming cultures, including livestreaming, online multi-player gaming, Esports, and user-generated media distribution.


Foundations: Media Infrastructure Studies

Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, eds., Signal Traffic (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Especially:

  • Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderau, “Where the Internet Lives’: Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure,” in Signal Traffic, ed. Parks and Starosielski, 71–93.
  • Christian Sandvig, “The Internet as the Anti-Television Distribution Infrastructure as Culture and Power,” in Signal Traffic, ed. Parks and Starosielski, 225–245.

Lisa Parks, “‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures,” in Between Humanities and the Digital, ed. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg (MIT Press, 2015), 355–373.


Flows, Streams, and Clouds

Raymond Williams, “Distribution and Flow,” in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Routledge, 2003), 77–120.

Benjamin Burroughs, “A Cultural Lineage of Streaming,” Internet Histories 3, no. 2 (2019): 147–161, https://doi.org/10.1080/24701475.2019.1576425.

Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT Press, 2015).


Infrastructural Approaches: Industries

Jeremy Wade Morris, Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture (University of California Press, 2015).

Amanda Lotz, Portals: A Treatise on Internet-Distributed Television (Michigan Press, University of Michigan Library, 2017), open access, http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mpub.9699689.

Ramon Lobato and James Meese, eds. Geoblocking and Global Video Culture (Institute of Network Cultures, 2016), open access.


Infrastructural Approaches: Platform-Specific Case Studies

Spotify

Maria Eriksson, Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau, Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music (MIT Press, 2019).

Jeremy Wade Morris, “Music Platforms and the Optimization of Culture,” Social Media + Society (July 2020), advance online publication, https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120940690.

Netflix

Ramon Lobato, Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution (New York University Press, 2019).

Timm Böttger, Felix Cuadrado, Gareth Tyson, Ignacio Castro, and Steve Uhlig, “Open Connect Everywhere: A Glimpse at the Internet Ecosystem through the Lens of the Netflix CDN,” ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review 48, no. 1 (January 2018): 28–34, https://doi.org/10.1145/3211852.3211857.

Elia Margarita Cornelio-Marí, “Digital Delivery in Mexico: A Global Newcomer Stirs the Local Giants,” in The Age of Netflix, ed. Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski (McFarland, 2017), 201–228.


Environmentalist Approaches: Streaming’s Environmental Costs

Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, Denise Oleksijczuk, and Lucas Hilderbrand, “Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact,” Media+Environment (October 2020). https://doi.org/10.1525/001c.17242.

Matt Brennan and Kyle Devine, “The cost of music,” Popular Music 39, no. 1 (February 2020), 43–65, doi:10.1017/S0261143019000552


Streaming Imaginaries

A collection of sites, images, and videos that display corporate imaginaries of streaming infrastructures.

Technical Blogs

These blogs are useful repositories for tracking developments in software and infrastructure, but they also showcase the ways in which corporations tactically position infrastructure as proof of innovation. On these blogs, infrastructure is a solution rather than a problem. When infrastructure is no longer useful in constructing a corporation’s brand image, it is offloaded, as in the case of Spotify, wherein its data traffic was offloaded to the Google Cloud Platform.

Netflix Technology Blog

Netflix Newsroom

Key posts:

Spotify Engineering Blog

Key posts:

Technical Visions
A video announcing Spotify’s migration to the Google Cloud Platform. “Spotify uses Google Cloud to unlock infinite capacity and faster innovation”
Netflix VP of Content Delivery Ken Florance introduces the Open Connect system. “Quick Guide: What Is Netflix Open Connect”
An Open Connect device, a component of Netflix’s proprietary content delivery network. Gadgets 360, “Dynamic Optimiser is Netflix’s Secret Weapon Against Buffering,” 2 March 2017.
Open Connect Devices allow Netflix to locate their entire library more proximate to users. The library is updated at off-peak traffic hours. Ken Florance, “How Netflix Works With ISPs Around the Globe to Deliver a Great Viewing Experience,” Netflix Innovation, 17 March 2016.
Global Visions
Spotify’s Listening Together feature allows users to see where in the world two users played a song at exactly the same time.
The feature positions Spotify as a truly global service that enables simultaneous connection across vast distances.
In reality, the service is only available in approximately 93 countries.
Clips from the Netflix keynote at the 2016 CES event. Reed Hastings announces Netflix’s launch in nearly every country in the world.
Netflix imagined as an omnipresent service. Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, “Netflix CES 2016 Keynote,” CES, January 6, 2016.
Netflix’s streaming video service is available in every country except for China, Syria, Crimea, and North Korea. Netflix Help Center, “Where is Netflix Available?”
Netflix’s world looks a bit smaller when glimpsed through the lens of infrastructure. Green dots represent ISP locations that house Netflix Open Connect devices, and orange dots represent internet exchange points where Open Connect devices are housed. Servers are concentrated in North America and Western Europe, and to a lesser extent, Brazil and Australia. Ken Florance, “How Netflix Works With ISPs Around the Globe to Deliver a Great Viewing Experience,” Netflix Innovation, March 17, 2016.
Netflix has created an ISP Speed Index Map, which allows users to view speed rankings for ISPs in each country. Red areas represent countries that have been indexed, whereas pink areas represent areas that have yet to be indexed. On this speed index, Ramon Lobato writes: “Its apparent transparency (it claims to provide a purely technical diagnosis) belies a wider policy by Netflix to name and shame underperforming ISPs—and the internet infrastructure of entire countries—to encourage scrutiny, advocacy, and investment in internet infrastructure” (Lobato, Netflix Nations, 86). As of December 2020, the rankings have been suspended, following Netflix’s reduction in traffic to ease strain on telecommunications networks during the pandemic.
Calculator developed by Laura Marks, Stephen Makonin, and Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva to roughly determine the carbon footprint of a streaming video. In Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, Denise Oleksijczuk, and Lucas Hilderbrand, “Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact,” Media+Environment (October 2020). https://doi.org/10.1525/001c.17242.

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