It’s the last week of term before Christmas and it’s also been the conclusion of the first half of the Journalism Technologies module here at the University of Huddersfield. This meant a look at the tech and media giant that is something of the odd one out among Google, Facebook, Apple and the rest: Amazon. But although it was traditionally an online bookshop, it’s rather more than that now.
In the year since I last gave a lecture on Amazon, its various reputational challenges – from the alleged poor treatment of both office and warehouse staff, to its assorted tax avoidance measures – have not really bitten the company’s bottom line as they might have done. We still can’t help but use it to buy, well, just about everything. A quick show of hands in the lecture revealed plenty of first year students doing much of their Christmas shopping with Amazon, not least because they get a free introductory spell of Amazon Prime if they sign up with their academic e-mail addresses.
On Amazon Prime, the second series of The Grand Tour has begun, notably on the same day as Netflix’s flagship The Crown began its second offering, and the market for streaming has grown ever more competitive in the last year. The announcement that Disney is buying the significant entertainment arm of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, hints that at least one old media player is bulking up to try to compete. In the short-term, the next television battleground between these players could turn out to be for the next set of rights to the Premier League, with Amazon – soon to be showing ATP men’s tennis – surely at least taking a look at picking up some of the rights now held by the soon-to-be-Disneyfied Sky, and BT. Who comes out on top in that particular auction will be one of the most interesting media stories of early 2018.
The first term of our Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield draws to a close this week as students submit their learning logs, written on either WordPress, Blogger or Medium, reflecting on what they’ve looked at so far in the lectures and practical workshops. The last lecture of the series was on Monday and was about a company a little different from the others in that it has traditionally been all about retail: Amazon.
However, it’s more than just The Everything Store these days. Amazon dominates cloud computing through Amazon Web Services with a third of the market (Microsoft is next, languishing at 9%), and the beginning of The Grand Tour – enjoyed by many of my students taking advantage of a free six-month Amazon Prime trial for those in education – is in biggest move yet into content creation. There’ll be more to come, too. Amazon is now firmly one of the ‘big four’ media and technology companies, alongside Google, Apple and Facebook.
The theory attached to this lecture was Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, first outlined in this memorable piece in Wired magazine in 2004. Part of the theory states that hits are becoming smaller as it becomes easier for consumers to find niche products more to their taste. Re-reading the book before the lecture, his section about hits notes that *NSYNC’s record for the fastest selling album in US history, set at the music industry’s peak in 2000, was unlikely to ever be beaten. Well, eventually it was, by Adele in 2015. I suppose you could even say she said Hello to the record, forcing *NSYNC to bid it Bye Bye Bye. But perhaps you’d better not.
This week in Journalism Technologies we’re looking at Apple as well as the use of apps to help us do journalism. I didn’t expect the students would have had much experience with read later apps or using browser extensions (as it happened, I don’t think any did), so giving them the choice of Kindle or Pocket and getting them to send next week’s reading from the desktop to the app using Chrome’s Send to Kindle widget, worked well as a class activity.
No bank, no oil company, no military supplier, has ever turned in numbers as Apple has, boosted by products ranging from the iMac and the iconic iPod, to today’s almost ubiquitous iPhones and iPads. Even if Apple were a company which had virtually no involvement in media and technology, it would still be worthy of a study for a room full of trainee journalists. The fact it has had and is having an inevitable impact on journalism, too, just makes it all the more relevant.
The week’s key concept was the debate over open vs closed in tech, and the increasing use of vertical integration by Apple and its main rivals, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Underlining this in the workshops, I asked students how many had ever smashed their iPhones, and what they’d done about it. Some soldiered on with a broken phone, others got a dodgy repair job from an unofficial operator, while others stumped up the not inconsiderable cost of going into the Apple Store and getting it done there. The fact that you have to pay Apple to fix the Apple phone you bought from Apple in the first place, is a good example of a hidden (but very real) cost of the vertically integrated, closed system which has helped propel Apple to such success.
Covering gaming and games culture in a single lecture is an impossible task, so by way of introduction I thought I’d give the students a quick overview of four separate areas among the many I could have chosen: games in culture (including the almost inevitable and rather tedious moral panics and stereotyping which still surround gamers in much of the mainstream media), the economy of gaming, gaming communities and games as art.
During the section on communities I got onto the subject of e-sports, and in particular Twitch, the platform bought by Amazon for almost $1bn last year. Only a couple of the students said they’d heard of the site, which was interesting, because when I did a session with some 12 and 13-year-olds last year most said they’d not only seen it but actually used it to watch gamers in action.
In her 2012 book Raising The Stakes, sociologist TL Taylor looks at the increasing professionalisation of gaming. She concludes it’s been a way for hardcore gamers to reclaim their niche, in a world now increasingly dominated by gaming on smartphones and Facebook. As more people than ever play casually, Twitch is the latest and biggest example of some gamers going further to turn their passions into something more serious. It’ll be very interesting to see how this whole area of games culture evolves, and whether more positive coverage for gaming and gamers in the mainstream media will be one result.