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DI Webinar – Rachel O’Dwyer, School of Visual Cultures, NCAD
A Token of….
Money is being replaced by online tokens. By tokens, I don’t just mean the NFTs that are driving headlines at the moment, but all the various ways in which digital platforms are issuing new kinds of money-like instruments from airtime, to loyalty, to gift cards, wishlists, rewards, customer data and everything in between. Tokens are often a way for platforms to capture new forms of value in identity, data, and parasocial relationships, and, just as frequently, a way to navigate the regulatory issues surrounding issuing money or providing financial services without actually becoming a bank. But tokens, and how users negotiate and earmark them in practice, are also lively and excessive; they trouble distinctions between categories like payment and gift and compensation, as well as distinctions between communication, data and payment, in ways that are often quite subversive.
This talk will explore some of the multiple uses of platform tokens by examining their use in the Amazon owned streaming site Twitch. Following the development of off-channel donations and gifting mechanisms by streamers on the site, Amazon developed an in-channel payments mechanism known as Bits in 2016. Audiences can purchase bits in a denominated currency using PayPal or Amazon Pay and use these to ‘cheer’ for streamers that they like. Streamers get a cut of these tokens while Twitch/Amazon also take a percentage of the value. Bits flirt with the distinctions between payments, tips, donations and messages. For Amazon, in-channel payments mechanisms provide a way in which value is extracted back from users as well as a way to monetise various services in the platform without formally dealing with the issuance of money. But at the same time, the use of in-channel payments and Wishlists by audiences and streamers are also excessive to the platform. Users use and ‘earmark’ them in creative and subversive ways, not only to be paid, but also to communicate and negotiate boundaries between markets, money and intimacy in online spaces.
Rachel O’Dwyer is a lecturer in the School of Visual Cultures in NCAD, where she lectures in digital cultures. She is an associate researcher in the Orthogonal Methods Research Group in Connect, the SFI Centre for Future Networks, TCD, a former Government of Ireland Research Scholar and Fulbright Alumni. She is the founder of Interference a Journal of Audio Culture (2009 – 2017) and co-editor of Neural Magazine for Critical Digital Cultures and Media Arts. Her research centres on the intersection between digital cultures and digital economies with a particular focus on surveillance capitalism and artistic modes of resistance to online surveillance. This is the topic of a forthcoming manuscript. She frequently curates events on digital cultures including DATA (2007 – 2016), Openhere (2012 – 2014) and Ascend: artist methods for engagement with algorithms (2019-)