Of American Idol and software platforms

Have you ever noticed that whenever you try and describe something “new”, there is a tendency to use words that relate to the “old” thing it replaces? I guess it’s human nature. The trouble is, quite often this leads to a misunderstanding of what the new thing is about. As Einstein is reputed to have said,

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them

Which is why, whenever I get a chance, I try and use an example from a completely different field to try and explain what I’m saying.

Take software platforms. A month ago I wrote this post,  describing them as multisided open marketplaces. Many of you “got” what I was talking about, many of you didn’t. So here’s a view from a different perspective.

What American Idol can teach us about software platforms:

Let us think of American Idol as a platform, and see what happens. [In the UK, if you prefer, you can use the same arguments for X Factor, there is no real difference.]

  • The platform is open to all, with no barriers to entry. You only have to watch the early stages to know this is true.
  • There are no fees to be paid by entrants. Instead, the platform makes money by advertising, and by charging for the voting process. An interesting version of The Because Effect.
  • Everyone understands what the platform is for, but not everyone uses the platform as it was intended. There is a whole industry of spin-offs generated, ranging from merchandising and out-takes through to the alternative careers that have been launched. How else can you explain a Sanjaya or an Eye-Of-The-Tiger? So no surprise, you now have American Idol video games and syndicated series as well.
  • While success has its roots in openness of access, the real value is in the quality of what emerges, which requires excellent moderation. Yes, it’s true, Simon Cowell is a 1000lb gorilla.
  • While moderation is important, it is the market that sets the standard: what really matters is what the people think. Which is why the moderators can’t start believing in their own propaganda. 
  • A good platform transcends national and cultural boundaries. It’s not just about X Factor and American Idol and Indian Idol (I understand there are 10 X Factors and ) but also Classical Idol and Country & Western Idol and Left-Handed Yodelling While Drunk Idol. Believe it or not, there is actually an American Inventor series.
  • Scalability is an essential ingredient. If people couldn’t get through at vote times, there would be no platform; if people could not choose from a variety of ways to get through, there would be no platform.

Enough said.  Just stuff to think about. Comments welcome.

3 thoughts on “Of American Idol and software platforms”

  1. Your example is good, because it underlines the two weakest spots, moderation (the platform owners whim) and scalability.

    The view most see is constructed from moderation, hence Mr Cowell channels the show and warps the results. The market and the moderator play an inter dependent dance. Neither quite recognises the value of the other.

    We now know a lot of phone votes are not actually counted, i.e. that the system can be crowd hacked. There is always an order of magnitude below and beyond which a platform no longer functions in a meaningful way.

  2. The best examination of the AMERICAN IDOL model can be found in the film AMERICAN DREAMZ, which uses satire to expose all the warts:


    I doubt that there is much difference between the production team depicted in this film and most software production teams! The “meaningful way” is just not part of the equation.

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