Posts about platform

Public is public…except in journalism?

Reporters and editors used to decide what was to be made public. No longer. More and more, the public decides what will be public … and that’s as it should be.

In today’s Times, David Carr concludes that he’s uncomfortable with a newspaper publishing a map of gun permit applicants. Yesterday on Twitter, Jim Willse, the best American newspaper editor I’ve ever worked with, got similarly sweaty.

I, too, struggled with this matter. But in the end and with respect, I think my friends are asking the wrong question. It is not up to journalists to decide that gun permits are public information. It’s up to us as citizens to decide that, as a matter of law. If there is something wrong with that, then change the law. If society is not comfortable with making that information public, then don’t try to make it somewhat public, public-with-effort (like TV stations’ campaign commercial revenue). There’s no half-pregnant. In the net age, there’s no slightly public.

I hate to see a news organization being condemned for trafficking in public information. I would also hate to see journalists end up campaigning to make less information public. Journalists of all people should be fighting to make more information public. In Public Parts, I argue that government today is secret by default and transparent by force when it must become transparent by default and secret by necessity. There are necessary secrets regarding security, criminal investigation, and citizens’ privacy.

Should gun permits be private then? Isn’t that by extension what my journalist friends are really asking when they want them to be less public? I say no. There is a public interest in this information being available and accessible. It allows the public, journalists and neighbors included, to keep watch on the process of government issuing permits. It enables the public, news organizations and others, to correlate data about permits with data about crime and safety. At a personal level, it enables me as a parent to know whether the homes where my children go play have arms — and to be able to discuss with the parents there whether their weapons are safely secured. These are matters of public safety, of public interest.

Now Carr and Willse are arguing that there is a difference between that information being available and making it more available by printing it in a newspaper, on a map. “Publishing is a discrete act, separate from whether something is public or not,” Carr says. “Our job as journalists is to draw attention, to point at things, and what we choose to highlight is defined as news.” That is the old editorial gatekeeping function trying to assert itself. Online, that question is becoming moot as there’s no longer a scarcity of space to control, to edit. Publishing information for all to see in print is different from making information available for those who seek it in search or by links. If the news organization doesn’t make this information more widely available, someone else can and likely will. I’ll argue that the town itself should be doing that. (And I’ll argue with Carr about the idea that journalists define news another day.)

Haven’t we heard that data viz is all the rage? Don’t we know Google’s mission to make the world’s knowledge accessible to all? Shouldn’t that be part of journalism’s updated mission? I say that news organizations should become advocates for open information, demanding that government not only make more of it available but also put it in standard formats so it can be searched, visualized, analyzed, and distributed. What the value of that information is to society is not up to the gatekeepers — officials or journalists — to decide. It is up to the public.

Now where I will agree strongly with Carr is that it is also journalism’s job to add value to that information. “And then it is our job to create context, talk to sources who bring insight and provide analysis,” he says. It’s legitimate to ask whether the paper with the map added such and sufficient value. I think this will be our primary job description going forward: adding value to flows of information that can now exist without our mediation. We should add value in many ways: contributing context, explanation, caveats (how the information can be out of date or flawed), education (how to verify the information), in some cases editing (the value The Times and Guardian added to Wikileaks data was not just distribution but also redaction of necessary secrets), and especially and always reporting: Why do all these people own guns? How are they storing them? What are they teaching their children about them? Have they ever used them? Are they trained in using them? Oh, there are many questions and answers that won’t be in that flow of data. That’s where the need for journalism and its future lies.

Both Carr and Willse want to make moral judgments about data. “Should data have a conscience?” Carr asks. It’s our use of data that needs to be governed by conscience. This is a lesson danah boyd taught me for Public Parts when it comes to privacy and data: It’s not the gathering of data we should regulate — or the technology employed to gather it. It’s the use of data we need to regulate. It’s one matter to know that I’m a middle-aged geezer, another to use that information to deny me employment. I would hate to see society and especially journalists find themselves advocating the regulation of knowledge.

Our default as journalists should be that more information is good because it can lead to more knowledge. We no longer hold the keys to the gate to that information. We can help turn information into knowledge. But we can’t do that with less information.

Again, I sympathize with Carr’s and Willse’s discomfort. I shared it. But as I tested the limits of my views on publicness and its value, this is where I came out.

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

Google’s first step as a paper platform

(this is a restored post; comments lost)

The other day (and again in my upcoming Guardian column) I quoted Telegraph digital head Edward Roussel speculating about shifting his paper’s platforms — business, sales, distribution — to Google.

Now here’s Paul Cheesbrough, the CIO of the Telegraph Media Group, making a first step in that direction. He tells CIO that he’s not updating Microsoft Office licenses and has opened up Google Apps for the entire newsroom.

“[As a pilot] we put 10 per cent of our 1400 user seat estate and allowed them to use Google Apps alongside their Office and Exchange infrastructure. Overwhelmingly, the feedback was positive and there would have been uproar if we had said we were turning it off. We were faced with the decision of whether we pursued the same [Microsoft] path and paid the price for that or put more and more internal solutions in the cloud.

“We made a conscious decision not to refresh any of [the Microsoft infrastructure]. We’re not going to remove it but we won’t upgrade it. . . . Google Apps is good enough and rich enough for us to do what we need to do. Collaboration has been very powerful [in Google Apps] and as people use Google Mail and Calendar they’ll naturally stray to use Google Docs. . . .

I think it might be time to sell my Microsoft stock.

Thinking like a platform

At OPA in London, Steve Kaufer, CEO of TripAdvisor, tells a success story from his Facebook app. Local Picks — which enables users to give their opinions on restaurants and such — attracted 1.4 million new reviews and ratings. That’s invaluable content. That’s thinking like a platform.

Yahoo as a platform

We’re finally starting to hear sensible strategic talk out of Yahoo. The Times Bits Blog reported this week that Jerry Yang is talking platform:

Mr. Yang didn’t reveal too much in terms of specific details. But the biggest new thing about Yahoo’s strategy is its plan to open up to others, and Mr. Yang spoke in general terms about his hopes for turning Yahoo into a “platform” where developers, content creators and advertisers could offer services to Yahoo’s audience.

“The ‘platform’ word has been the most overplayed and used,” in the tech industry recently, Mr. Yang said, no doubt referring to the success of Facebook in opening up its social network to third party developers. But clearly, Yahoo wouldn’t mind having similar success.

So what does platform mean to Mr. Yang?

“A business that has a set of standards that allows a set of companies to participate and find benefit from it,” he said. Mr. Yang said achieving platform status for any company is no easy task. But he said it is worth trying, because by empowering other businesses, Yahoo itself would become a more powerful business. Yahoo, he said, has been a great collection of Web sites. “I think we need to think beyond that,” he said.

Here’s what I said Yahoo should do last June:

OK, here’s what I’d do with Yahoo: I’d pull a reverse Facebook, a Zuckerberg with a twist. Facebook opened itself up as a platform for people to come in and do things there. I’d open up Yahoo as a platform for people to export instead. I would turn absolutely every — every — piece of Yahoo into a widget any of us could export and use on our own sites. I’d take all the functionality there and enable people to enrich their own sites, to build on top of it. . . .

There’s still a critical difference there. The Times says Yang wants to open up Yahoo to developers to serve its audience. That’s a platform in the Facebook model. That’s still mediathink: gathering an audience to an address and giving them stuff there. I’m talking about a platform in the Google model: let people use you to build what they want where they want. So I think Yahoo’s thinking is halfway there. But that’s better than nowhere.

: SEE ALSO: Marc Canter.

Being used

Om Malik ends a post about widget mania and measurement with an astounding quote from Fox boss Peter Chernin that I had not seen:

Peter Chernin, the big cheese at News Corp., while speaking at the All Things D conference said: “We won’t allow people to create for profit platforms on our platform…. the Wall Street Journal doesn’t allow people to sell ads on their platform.”

That’s the essence of the old media architecture: ‘I own the platform (read: distribution) and you don’t and I will get all the benefit from it and you won’t nya nya nya.’

The new media architecture: the more you help others benefit — which includes making money — from your platform, the more they will distribute it for you and develop and extend it for you. YouTube. Google. Openads. See Seth Goldstein on whether Facebook will become the social platform; he says it all depends on whether developers can benefit from building on it.

I am reminded of a meeting probably more than two years ago when I introduced Fred Wilson to Upendra Shardanand and Daylife in its very earliest days. Fred asked: “Can others build profitable businesses on top of your platform?” And without a breath or a moment for us to respond, he said: “The right answer is ‘yes.'”

At the Murdoch newspaper confab in Monterey where I ran a panel with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, I got him to talk about turning your business into an API so people will use it in more than one sense of the verb. I said that we need to turn news organizations into APIs. Nick Denton, also on the panel, disagreed; I may have been alone in the room thinking that. But I’d say that the more people can use news and build on top of it the better off news organizations will be.

The platform paradox

Six Apart is grappling with the inherent conflict in providing a platform (MovableType) and a service (TypePad). A most unhappy post from Suw Charman dissecting with a rusty scalpel SixApart marketing messages versus her experience with the company — and a defensive response from the company and a response, in turn, from its chief competitor — make this clear. And I think there are lessons in this for other platform companies — potentially even for the news industry as, I believe, journalism begins to look more like a platform .

I saw this conflict coming back in May 2004, when I wrote a post arguing:

You can’t be a software company and a service company under one roof, for you will inevitably end up competing with your customers. And that will not work. So I suggest that SixApart, the software company, divest TypePad, the service company, so that each can serve its customers optimally and so that each can become as profitable as possible.

The issue then was the limitations Six Apart put on Movable Type, the platform software, so as not to enable others to compete with Typepad, its service company using that same software. The issue today, in Charman’s post, is distraction: Who is being served first and best, platform or hosting customers? Doesn’t matter how the problem erupts, the cause is the same. There is an essential channel conflict here when you want to provide a platform for all to use and then when you use it yourself.

I said all this back when then in my blog post and I said it again when I advised one of the VCs who invested in WordPress.com (without pay, sadly). They could have put the platform and the service in one company but I advised strongly — among others, obviously — that they should be separate. The platform now resides with the open-source WordPress.org and WordPress.com, the VC-backed and for-profit hosting service, is merely one of any number of companies that use that software. The fact that WordPress.org is open-source has the benefit of motivating a community of developers to contribute to the platform. Back in 2004, again, I wrote:

I’ve seen other companies go through this and the answer is either to drop one line of business or to divest. I suggest divesting. Then SixApart, the software business, will come up with licenses that serve its customers well and will sell as many as possible. Rather then having your entire customer base scream in protest — as they are now — they would beat a path to your door to pay for your mousetrap (whenever your customers are screaming in protest, you know you are doing something very wrong). Meanwhile, TypePad — a licensee of Movable Type software — would offer no-hassle and reasonably priced hosting and would compete with other licensees. Competition would lead to more business for the two companies and happier customers and probably market dominance for Movable Type and its standards (e.g., TypeKey and Trackbacks). . . .

There is another advantage to divesting: The management of each company will not be distracted as the management of this one company is. I’m not a VC, but I have seen this in many companies as a corporate investor, board member, and corporate customer: Startups always try to do too many things and that means they will end up doing nothing extremely well. SixApart started by developing a damned fine product in Movable Type but it has neglected that product (as I’ve whined) as it built its hosting business at TypePad; now it is handicapping the software company to advantage the hosting company; and when the protests get loud enough, it will surely neglect the hosting company in turn. The company is small with extremely limited resources and management focus and trying to run these two very different businesses is difficult unto impossible.

I’m not linking this to beat up on SixApart three years later but to see the larger lessons in this. Being a platform is a powerful position but it also means that you will find yourself necessarily serving rather than competing with those who use you. That, I believe, is why Google has been smart enough not to be a content site in any meaningful way — contrasted once again with Yahoo — and even its announcement today about distributing content companies’ video inside advertising units on a distributed network of sites is a stellar example of creative platform thinking.

As I noodle around with the notion of a new architecture of news, I wonder whether news organizations start to look more like platforms and less like closed content compaies, enabling news to be gathered and shared across a wide network of contributors, owners, and distributors rather. And so you start to ask whether you are a platform or a creator and you ask whether it’s possible to be both.

Just noodling.

: LATER: In email exchange, Fred Wilson responds:

Is youtube a platform or a media property?

Is flickr a platform or a media property?

Is feedburner a platform or a media property?

In my view, the best way to create value is to be both, but give away the platform to any and all takers and monetize the resulting media property that is created in the process.

He asks whether I agree and I say, uncharacteristically, I’m not sure. Perhaps media is different from technology: You get to use one to build the other. But still, you have to be careful not to fall into channel conflict. Yahoo created that conflict by becoming a media
destination using others’ stuff. YouTube became a media destination by enabling others to distribute their stuff, eh?