How do you solve a problem like a Platform?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Platform?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!
Many a thing you know you’d like to tell it
Many a thing it ought to understand
But how do you make it stay
And listen to all you say
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
Oh, how do you solve a problem like a platform?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
- -Modified lyrics to the song “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
I am going to assume that you have seen the movie “Sound of Music, “and are familiar with the conundrum faced by the nuns with regard to a novitiate named ‘Maria’. While the dilemma is not the same, the lyrics do capture the sentiment that I am trying to express. In this blog post I hope to bring out the complexities of the issues around platforms.
One of the main issues concerns the usage and meaning of the term platform. Gillespie (2010) says that the term platform used to describe digital intermediaries has many meanings depending on who is using it. Gillespie (2010) examines computational, architectural, figurative and political meanings for the term. For a developer, a platform is a “foundational system that supports general purpose computing” (Bogost & Montfort, 2009). To an advertiser, a platform could be a means by which to reach potential customers. To a content creator, a platform could be a stage for self-expression. There are some who claim that a digital intermediary can be called a platform only if it can be programmed (Gillespie 2010). Despite the limitation of the computational definition, a broader interpretation of the term has gained traction amongst users and proponents. (ibid 2010). Gillespie says that the ambiguous term ‘platform’ has been chosen deliberately. The cunning use of this single term allows the owners to simultaneously convey different meanings to multiple stake holders. It allows the owners of platforms to dance around several laws and avoid obligations that any other nomenclature would give rise. In this case, a platform by any other name wouldn’t be just as sweet.
The term platform also describes the purported relationship between the digital intermediary and the users. Gillespie (2010) points to the architectural definition of platforms; “a raised level surface on which people or things can stand.” The question that I would like to ask is do platforms as structures provide support or do they imprison? Are people on top or are platforms on top?
On the surface, it seems as though that individuals derive more value from utilizing the services offered by the platforms. It is undeniable that platforms have made life more convenient. Platforms help us stay in touch with friends and family at all times. They allow users to express themselves and develop unique identities. They have given us access to unlimited information. Platforms allow individuals to buy, sell, share, mobilize support, find and create opportunities. It does seem as though people are on top. However, as more individuals use platforms longer and more frequently, platforms gain critical mass and become more powerful than the individual user. As more people freely give away personal data in exchange for free services, the platform then gradually rests on top. The rest of this blog post will show that the exchange is unequal.
The process of how platforms have gained dominance has been examined by scholars Poell, Nieborg and Van Dijck in their article titled ‘Platformisation’. In this article, the authors state that management and software studies offer differing but complementary perspectives on platforms. Management studies conceptualize platforms as two sided markets. They refer to a platform’s ability to aggregate users on one side and sellers on the other. Software studies highlight the ability of platforms to collect and process user data. These two perspectives “inform the development of platform infrastructures.” (Poell et al, 2019). One can infer from these two perspectives that platforms have been intentionally designed with the sole purpose of aggregation of users and collection of data.
As platforms start to gain more users, they enable third party developers to build extensions and join their eco-system. They do this by opening up Application program interfaces (APIs) and providing Software Development Kits (SDKs) (Poell et al, 2019). The operation of two-sided markets has the advantage of ‘network effects.’ Direct network effects are “dependent on the number of users on a platform with whom one can interact”. The indirect effect of a two-sided market is that “users can mutually benefit from the size and characteristics of the other side” (ibid, 2019). The network effects produced by operating a multi-sided platform leads to platforms assuming a dominant position. Having gained dominance, platforms adopt strategies that make it difficult for a user to leave a platform. (Ibid, 2019)
Although platforms suggest that they support those who stand on it (Gillespie, 2010), the strategies adopted by them can best be explained by “treating them as economic actors within a capitalist mode of production.” (Srnicek, 2017, p. 8). In his book titled Platform capitalism, the author (Srnicek, 2017, p. 23) argues that “in the twenty first century, capitalism came to be centered upon extracting and using particular kind of raw material: data.” He reasons that with their ability to extract and control large amounts of data, platforms have become the new business model (Srnicek, 2017, p. 9) and that the economy is dominated by a new class that has ownership over information (Srnicek, 2017, p. 23)
Why is data so important? According to Nick Srnicek, “data and knowledge from that data is used to optimize production processes, give insights to consumer preferences, control workers, provide foundation for new products and services.” Additionally “data serves a number of key capitalist functions. They educate and give competitive advantage to algorithms; enable the co-ordination & outsourcing of workers; make possible the transformation of low margin goods into high-margin services.” (Srnicek, 2017, p. 23)
An important fallout of the advancement in ICTs, smartphones and social networking sites is that human social interactions are being recorded in real time and stored as data. (Van Dijck, 2014) This process is called datafication (Mayer-schonberger & cukier, 2013 quoted in Van Dijck, 2014, p. 198). Information about human behaviour that was hitherto unavailable is now accessible by platforms in the form of metadata (Van Dijck, 2014). The processed data is used to predict human behaviour. Van Dijck argues that “scientists, government agencies and corporations, each for different reasons, have a vested interest in… the development of methods that allow for the prediction and manipulation of behaviour.“ (Van Dijck, 2014, p. 203) The ability to predict and manipulate behaviour puts enormous power in the hands of those with that ability. Hence, in a capitalist system, power resides in the hands of those who control the data extraction, storage and analysis. So we can infer that the seemingly benign two-sided platform is actually a two-faced monster.
This brings us to the original question; how do you solve the problem of platforms? Frank Pasquale (2016, p. 310) argues that a counter narrative to platform capitalism has to be developed which shows the darker side of platforms. The cornerstone of this counter narrative is that platforms exacerbate existing inequalities by reducing wages of workers and creating instability. The counternarrative can be used to displace the conventional narrative.(ibid, p. 311)
According to Srnicek (2017, p. 23), the ownership and management of platforms has some inherent problems. Data requires recording. Recording requires a material medium. Data has to be stored which requires massive storage systems demanding huge investments (Srnicek, 2017, p. 23) on the part of platforms in order to be dominant and successful. In the absence of a profitable revenue model and in the face of competition from other firms, such vast data collection, storage and analysis will not be viable in the long run. (Srnicek, 2017)
In the last thirty years, private tech companies have made tremendous investments in building infrastructures that are now essential for the smooth functioning of everyday life. These privately owned and operated infra-structures offer more dynamic and competitive alternatives to governmental infrastructures (Plantin et al, 2018 as quoted in Poell et al, 2019). For example, an email service provider is much more dynamic and competitive than the department of posts and telegraph. However magical they appear, these are infrastructures and have to be treated as utilities like railroads, electricity and telephones.
The multi-dimensional nature of platforms demands the development of a multi-dimensional approach to solving the problems created by platforms. Just as platforms have managed to bring together multiple stake holders, the solutions have to include all stake holders. The solutions have to result in the equitable distribution of the surplus generated (Sen, 2002) by these platforms.
Bogost, I., & Montfort, N. (2009). Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers. UC Irvine: Digital Arts and Culture 2009. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/01r0k9br (Accessed: 2 December 2020)
Gillespie, T. (2010) ‘The politics of platforms’, new media and society, 12 (3), pp. 347-364. doi:10.1177/1461444809342738.
Pasquale, F., 2016. Two Narratives of Platform Capitalism. Yale law & policy review, 35(1), pp.309–319.
Poell, T. and Nieborg, D. and van Dijck, J. (2019). Platformisation. Internet Policy Review,[online] 8(4). Available at: https://policyreview.info/concepts/platformisation [Accessed: 1 Dec. 2020].
Sen, A., 2002. How to judge globalism. The American prospect, p.A2.
Srnicek, N 2016, Platform Capitalism, Polity Press, Oxford. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [1 December 2020].
Van Dijck, J., 2014. Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveillance & society, 12(2), pp.197–208.