Where do you go to, my lovely? A look forward to platforms in 2014

Where do you go to, my lovely? Peter Sarstedt, 1969

Where do the children play? Cat Stevens, 1970

Where have all the flowers gone? Pete Seeger, 1955

Platforms are a bit like Jabberwocky: to paraphrase Alice, they seem very pretty, but they’re rather hard to understand. I chose the songs above for a number of reasons: because I like them; because they answer the question “where” with answers that have to do with much more than just “place”; and because I could demonstrate some of the value of platforms like Wikipedia and Youtube simply and effectively by so doing. [Incidentally, Wikipedia needs your help to stay ad-free. Please donate. Now].

Platforms simplify interactions by removing frictions and latencies. By helping people connect and interact and transact, they exhibit what a good friend, Sheldon Renan, called “netness“. Sheldon describes netness as:

Screen Shot 2013-12-30 at 22.58.01

Another way of looking at platforms is by using the metaphor that another good friend, Doc Searls, gave us, when he spoke of the Giant Zero. People use platforms to do things they cannot do as effectively, as quickly or even as enjoyably elsewhere. With as little friction as possible, with the lowest possible latency. Simply. Easily. Where, when and how they want it to be.

Which brings me to my first point:

Platforms enable interactions with a minimum of fuss and bother

Now then. I use Wikipedia to try and explain my references, and use the Web at large when that is not possible. I use YouTube to connect to popular musical performances. I’m interested in many things that are essentially analog in characteristic: books, vinyl albums, photographs, memorabilia, art, recipes, musical instruments, things to do with Calcutta or India or the Raj, scientific instruments, things to do with printing and publishing, cricket, chess, it’s a long list. Those interests mean that I spend time discovering the right platforms: my alphabet goes abebooks, barneby, cricinfo, discogs, epicurious….

Why these particular services? Because they have the right “content”. And that matters. Content matters. When I worked in telcoland, people used to talk about “attach rates”. People tended to buy telecommunications and connectivity products and services from the provider who had the most interesting/compelling/comprehensive content. Which forced telcos to enter the content business or risk being disintermediated and pushed deeper into infrastructure and utility with consequent impact on competitive intensity and margins. Content rightsholders have therefore, not surprisingly, been at the forefront of copyright and intellectual property battles every time a new platform has come along and disrupted the living daylights out of part or all of their business. I say “rightsholders” because the people who get the money aren’t necessarily the people you think get the money. Take the music business for example. Some of you may remember this diagram from The Root a few years ago:


But that’s a whole ‘nother story, saved for another day. Incidentally, I love what I’m hearing about Iron Maiden. They tracked where the illegal downloads were happening: the majority in South America, principally in Brazil. And, as Business Insider put it, quoting Citeworld:

Rather than send in the lawyers, Maiden sent itself in

They figured out that they were the scarcity, that digital music was an abundance, and that they should, as George Gilder advised, make use of the scarcity as well as the abundance that was peculiar to the age they lived in. Well done Iron Maiden, more on this later. But it does bring me to my second point:
When it comes to platforms, content is king. But
That but is important. Because the world of content is itself changing, and changing dramatically. People are attracted by the content, drawn to it like the magnets Sangeet Paul Choudary speaks of. [I mentioned it in my last post, I’ll mention it again. If you haven’t done so, start following his blog, Platform Thinking. It’s excellent, and has helped me clarify my thinking on a number of these issues.]. But the content people are attracted by is not necessarily the content we’re traditionally used to. Sometimes the service per se is the content, as you could see in the core of iTunes. Andrew Savikas, some years ago, raised awareness of content as a service. Sometimes the value is not just in the content per se, it’s in the ability to access that content when, where and how you want it. If it isn’t easy to get to and use, if it isn’t simple and convenient, then even the “best” content can fail to act as a Choudary magnet. Which is why paywalls are often a bad idea, particularly when it comes to the next point about why content is different today:
Platforms are about networked content, not broadcast content
Tim O’Reilly memorably used the phrase architecture of participation nearly a decade ago. It is imperative we understand this shift and how we should view “content” as a result. Platforms enable interactions in networked rather than hierarchical ways, reducing friction and allowing new forms of value to be generated. These new forms of value tend to be the consequence of network effects, as the platform attracts more participants. Such network effects can only exist if the platform makes it easy for participants to create, share, modify, provide feedback on, and even recommend, content. The content becomes valuable because of the community that engages with it and creates new value with it. Digital infrastructure tends to commoditise traditional broadcast “static” content; as opposed to this, the same digital infrastructure can be used to enhance the value of existing content, and even catalyse the creation of whole new value streams. But for this to happen, people need to be able to engage with and around the content. Which brings me to my next point:
Platforms create value because of the “networked content” rather than with the “broadcast content”
Many years ago, Doc Searls and I spent a number of afternoons discussing this point from a variety of perspectives. We called it The Because Effect, when you make money because of something rather than with something. Broadcast models create value through scarcity; networked models rely on abundance. People who aren’t used to abundance models tend to try and create artificial scarcities, with predictably poor results. Phone locking, DRM and region coding on DVDs are textbook examples of such failures. As long as people are people, the core value is in the interaction. These interactions happen “around” the content, exemplifying what Jyri Engestrom (and soon after, Hugh MacLeod) referred to as “social objects”. Platforms need social objects to attract participants; without that liquidity, we miss the scaling that makes valuable network effects possible. Comments, reviews, ratings, recommendations, these are the lifeblood of platforms. So the platform has to be designed as openly as possible, reducing barriers to entry, providing the tools to create, edit, share, recommend, review, and simplifying access independent of location and device and timezone. That’s what people have come to expect. In fact we’ve just seen the beginning of all this, and there’s a long way to go. And so on to my next point:
To a platform, “everything is a node on the network”
First some history. Telco 1.0 was fairly crude. A directory of people. Ways of finding those people, simplifying access to the people in that directory: alphabetical listings, geographical listings, activity-based listings: groupings of different sorts and types. Means of communication between the participants. Initially post and telegraph. And a record of changes. For a century or so that was it. State-endowed monopolies with limited interest in innovation or even incremental change. [Mindsets that said: Why bother to improve on 1930s voice codecs if they worked?]. That was Telco 1.0. Then came 2.0: Microsoft. Yup, Microsoft. The telco that dominated the directories, groupings, modes of communication and records-of-changes market for all business. They were the first to realise that if you had all those, all you needed to do was to remove one more critical friction: the ability to schedule meetings: and suddenly Robert would have an avuncular relationship with you. But try as they might, Microsoft could not dominate the home in the way they’d come to dominate the office. Which left a barn-sized door open for Telco 3.0: Facebook. Who saw that they could provide the directories, the ability to group, the facility to schedule meetings, multiple means of communication between participants, and a regular record of changes. Who saw that they could provide all this while reducing the friction and latency inherent in 1.0 and 2.0, by building all this lock, stock and barrel on internet infrastructure and moving from stocks to flows, as John Hagel and JSB would have put it. After all, wasn’t a news feed nothing more than a flow-based record of changes? Actually Facebook went a lot further: Telco 3.0 had discovered the importance of allowing interactions around content, moving from the broadcast to the networked model. As explained by Sangeet, people wanted to move from the linear “process” approach of the stocks world to the nonlinear “flows” world of interactions. To create the critical mass and nonlinearity of true interactions, facebook had to simplify how people could add content to the flow, how they could enhance, comment on, rate and review that content. Remember attachments in e-mail? Remember sending MMS messages? Those were the kind of frictions that facebook, friendfeed, twitter, instagram had to contend with. No contest.
So Telco 3.0 understood about stocks and flows, about the firehose, about the stream/filter/drain model, because they had to. Which is why it is instructive to study the underlying architecture of facebook, of twitter, of linkedin, of salesforce1. These are platforms that work on the premise that everything is connected, everything is a node on the network, everything can publish, everything can subscribe. Everything. People. Computers. Embedded devices. Even tweets can tweet. “Why haven’t you read me? Three of your friends have!” Which brings me nicely on to my next point:
As everything gets connected, the platforms that will succeed are the ones that get “netness”
The “entanglement” that Sheldon Renan spoke of is what will drive the value in the platforms of tomorrow. Knowledge that comes from the information about the information that passes as content. Who has seen/read/touched this? Who plans to? What do my friends think of this? What did people who did this also do? Are any of my friends going to the concert? Where are they sitting? Who has any experience of this? Who knows the answer to this? What should I use to do this? How do I do this? Whom should I ask? How do I know that she is the right person?
These are community-based values, not just based on “network effects”, but on the principles, values and conventions that allow people to choose to share things: their skills, their time, their location, their presence, their experiences, their passions, their interests, their needs and wants, their likes and dislikes, their social network, their inventory, their capacity, everything. But only if and when they choose to share, and only with the person or people that they choose to share with. Which brings me to my final point for now:
In 2014, platforms will start to focus on filters
Yup, 2014 is the Year Of The Filter. I’ve quoted Clay Shirky often enough, I’m going to quote him again. No such thing as information overload, only filter failure. So we have to design better filters. Provide tools that allow people to personalise and prioritise their particular piece of the stream. Provide the tools of provenance and entitlement and identity. [An aside: Next year, we will start seeing things have identity as well, from jet engines through to jetsam, from filet mignon to flotsam. Who made this? When? Where? How? Who inspected this? Who checked it? When? How? What’s the part number? What’s the serial number? You get my drift. When everything is connected, everything needs an identity, a provenance, all the associated certifications of membership and joining and pedigree and fitness.
In Platform Thinking, Sangeet also speaks about negative network effects. My take on this is simple: It’s what Yogi Berra said:
Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.
Too crowded? Sounds like filter failure to me.
So here’s to 2014, the Year of the Filter. Happy New Year, thank you for the time you spent reading this, thank you for visiting, thank you for your interactions with me, and with other readers, throughout 2013.
[Next year, I plan to spend time looking more closely at the stream-filter-drain model, and to discuss the implications for the customer and for business. I plan to do this while bearing in mind the inexorable shift of consumerisation; and yes, I will major on filters.]

7 thoughts on “Where do you go to, my lovely? A look forward to platforms in 2014”

  1. JP – Filters are interesting. I agree it would help to manage information overload.

    But, the challenge is, filters are static. Once you define them as your preferences, the results would be pretty much linear and predictable. We wouldn’t hear anything new/experimental/out of our pre-defined focus areas. In a way, its good because it narrows the input. But, if the objective is to explore and innovate, filters may not be a good fit.

    Your thoughts?

Let me know what you think