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.