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 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?

  • A good platform is simple. The value derived from it must greatly outweigh the effort put into it.

  • Ludwig

    May I add to portability: Knowing I can take my stuff an leave reduces the risk of leaving as well. I am wondering, how you see TWiT in this context since you might have some insight there? Is it a platform or on it’s way to becoming one? Does it have to? Working for a small german newspaper I see the fear of the old (and young) farts that they are handing over a still well going business not knowing what happens if they’d follow your advice (as if they knew what happens if they don’t….)

  • Ludwig

    oh, one more thing: A good platform forms a community?

  • Ludwig

    The comment disappeared, so once again: A good platform forms/enables a community

  • tracibrowne

    You make it sound in this article as if NBC was a sponsor of Twitter…that was not the issue at all

    • Traci, NBC’s sponsorship relationship certainly was an issue. As Twitter confessed, it was a business-side person at Twitter who brought the account to the attention of NBC and got NBC to file a complaint which then led to the cancellation of the account. Twitter knows and has said that is wrong. It needs principles that make that clear throughout the culture of the company.

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  • Stephen Cunningham

    Jeff – i love your vision for how platforms should operate, but would also appreciate your thinking about the challenges associated with platform development. We created a service for high school coaches to make it easier for them to collect and distribute sports information to local media outlets, and spent many thousands of dollars creating “stat sheets” that coaches could print out before the game and then use to collect information. Within months of launching, Apple’s Ipad hit the market and the number of apps that were created in short order for collecting everything from golf to basketball to baseball to lacrosse to field hockey scores, never mind many other sports, had us recognizing that if we had waited another six months, we would have passed on the effort to create stat sheets. Moreover, as those apps get popular, we have to integrate with them so that coaches can still efficiently upload them, send them electronically, either in real time or otherwise, to the environment we have created. Since one of our guiding principles was – make it easier – that has led to more and more expense, often without having established an ROI from previous efforts. I do not know to what extent such an issue plagues Google, but as an entrepreneur operating in markets that move faster than light, i am challenged by how to build flexibility into platforms, and would appreciate your perspective on that. Thank you

  • Richard Lee

    Jeff–I have been thinking about platforms too, but from a different angle, namely from the fact that, when done well, the appear like the air we breathe, i.e., they don’t appear at all. Thus, a platform includes a number of choices of which we are mostly unaware. I suppose openness goes some distance to to making the invisible visible. But I wonder what the normative force is behind your principles. What I mean is, on what basis can we use the word “good” in relation to a platform? It seems that if I replace the word good with “financially successful” then there seems no need to discuss this, as the unsuccessful will die. If it is not (at least primarily) financial success, then why do we, the users, have any role to play in discussing a platform that others have built for us? Let me be clear, these are real questions because, as Gina pointed out on TWiG yesterday, Twitter is not a democracy. The consent of the governed, therefore, cannot be the ground of the judgment of a good platform.

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  • jonathonsciola

    Hi Jeff, In recent years Google has grown in market value, profitability, influence and power. If knowledge is power Google is omniscient. Would you say your thoughts from this article now 2 years ago have changed? Do the principles mentioned change as Google becomes more than a platform? Is it a new technological nation state? Thank you for your revised edition.

    • How’d you dig this up? Yes, I think this holds but I think given experience — things that, say, Twitter has done to developers — requires a reexamination to test these against new circumstances.