“Platformness” – discovering a new quality in things
After posting my previous article on cupcakes and what they taught me about platforms, I had a feeling something was missing, the article was not complete and my thoughts around platforms were not as clear as I wanted them to be. Today, I think I know what bugged me, so as I’ve previously done when I feel restless about some idea, I decided to go to my writing playground — this blog — and secure my sleep by dumping what’s on my mind
To start, I’d like to tell you few quick stories that opened new perspectives for my view of the service you all love or hate — Twitter!
My list of people I follow on Twitter includes Twitter’s own Katie Jacobs Stanton (@KatieS). Yesterday, after a hard-working week, she decided to pack the kids in a car and go for camping during the long weekend. As the lack would have it, her car battery died and she got stranded on the highway between Los Altos and Mountain View, CA with three sleeping kids in the car. Most people would try to call road assistance in such a situation, but not Katie. She asked Twitter to the rescue!
Now, I don’t know if the person who pulled over and helped her jumpstart the car read her tweet or was just some kind passerby (she’s got over 10 replies in a very short time), but that is not the point! The point is that she decided to use Twitter in a novel way! She recognized that Twitter is not limited to whatever use she had for it in the past, but she can use it for road assistance too.
She recognized that Twitter has a certain quality to it that not many services have — the same realization I had since I started thinking about the missing flavor in my earlier article! Easy for Katie maybe, given her affiliation with Twitter and her history with using it extensively when working for the US Department of State, but as my stories would reveal, others had the same realization as her!
The story number two involves Kanye West. Let me start by saying that I know very little about Kanye and his music! I am no rap fan, I own no TV box, and when I listen to music where I don’t control the playlist, like on my car radio (if I am not driving the kids I usually turn on Fox – I doubt Kanye ever got air time there! Anyway, beside all this, Kanye entered my life for a brief moment yesterday through, you guessed it right, Twitter!
I learned only bits and pieces about what was going on yesterday with Kanye and Twitter, but that was enough to add to my understanding of the new quality I could smell in Twitter, but had hard time describing it.
Apparently, Kanye has been in some hot waters with his fans and the media after an incident at the 2009 MTV VMA and yesterday he decided to apologize for the past behaviour and try to right the wrongs that got him into trouble by pouring his heart out on Twitter. To use his own words “These tweets have no manager, no publicist , no grammar checking… this is raw”.
While the tweets may have no grammar indeed, I found Kanye’s action inspiring in one way — he recognized he can use Twitter in a completely novel way that no one else thought of before! Even if the whole deal was a publicity stunt invented by a team of many people behind Kanye, I think that would still not diminish the value of the action as opening new doors in understanding what Twitter really is and how it can be used. Kanye added one more experience for me that started making the taste of the new flavor I mentioned become more refined!
The third story is personal. Recently, after I’ve been complaining to my wife for the entire summer that I can’t find a pair of fine jeans I can wear in warm weather as they make them too thick, she found a good pair at RW & Co., a store we always thought of a having a relatively good quality clothing for acceptable price.
The pair looked great on me and didn’t make me sweat on warm weather — not that we have many days with such weather in Vancouver anymore — but apparently lacked one important property, it was not of as high quality as I assumed! The jeans basically ripped open after wearing them for only 5-6 times, which made me furious — it was not the money but the blow to my trust in RW & Co. as a source of good clothing.
What did I do in that angry moment? I took my phone, took a picture of the jeans and posted my gripe on Twitter Yes, I used Twitter to vent my frustration — in a moment of irrationality, I unconsciously decided to find a novel use for it!
At that moment, my frustrating experience made it very clear that Twitter possesses a very distinct quality over many other services that preceded it (e.g. think SMS, chat, forums, etc.). It is a quality that can be described with words like uber-openness, uber-usefulness, uber-something-that-encourages-novel-uses,… It is a quality I call “platformness”!
Before talking about platformness, though, I’d like to finish my Twitter stories with Arjun Basu, a writer/journalist from Montreal, Canada, who is using Twitter to create Twisters — 140-character short stories. If my previous three stories made you think that the novel uses of Twitter described in them were not so surprising — after all, Twitter is about sending messages and communicating to your network — I think Arjun should convince you that the uber-something-that-encourages-novel-uses, or the platformness is real!
Arjun might be on the path of inventing a new art form using Twitter. His 140 characters stories may turn out to be to the regular essays what haiku is to the classical poetry, but more importantly for our discussion so far is that the inspiration for such stories came from a messaging platform! I don’t think Biz Stone, Evan Williams, and Jack Dorsey ever even dreamed of their product inspiring new art forms
In my previous article, I wrote that cupcakes, and all other true platforms, are characterized with 4 key essences – openness, composability, extensibility, and usefulness. At the time, I was convinced that platforms are this distinct, recognizable and, in principle, descriptive entities that are designed to be platforms.
However, now I am convinced that instead of being designed, platforms emerge, they’re stemming from evolving products that in their strive to become open, composable, extensible and useful, suddenly acquire a new essence, that uber-something-that-encourages-novel-uses, that tips them over from being just-another-useful-product into true platforms.
That fifth essence is what I call platformness — it is a quality that cannot be designed, it is something that stems from the previous 4 essences and it is only possible when those 4 essences interact with the users of the product into a feedback loop, feeding on each other and enhancing the system through constant reaction and evolution of the functionality the product offers and the uses in which it is employed by the users.
It is only when the system reaches a certain point, a point in which the system can drastically amplify even minor changes in its input, moving it into a somewhat chaotic state, that the system settles again in a completely new level, that of a true platform that is no longer a well-designed and controlled system, but a life, evolving system that let’s its users mold its functionality in completely new ways, using it beyond what any imaginable design spec might have predicted.
Examples of this kind of emergent platformness can be found in many other places beyond Twitter!
I think this is what happened with the cupcakes — someone realized they can be used for something else than just munching them in their original form and started experimenting with them.
This is what happened to the web (and not to IRC) when additional content beyond text and images were allowed and dynamic interaction was added.
This is surely what happened to TED after reinventing itself to support the 4 essences I mentioned earlier and letting it loose in the wild to build its own network of followers. Interestingly, with TED, it is not only that the conference and the supporting technology, like the TED.com website and its streaming video capability that emerged radically changed, but the experience reshaped the users too, from devoted followers many turned into activists, a true transformation driven by technology once the potential for platformness was built into it!
There are many more examples where the platformness essence was unleashed and useful products turned into true platforms. I’ll name just few more I think are worth taking a look at to see what makes them tick as platforms:
- Ushahidi, a crowd sourcing crisis information system
- Linux, an open source operating system running not only on PCs, but found in many other devices (your VoIP phone, or alarm device might have it
- Android, a smartphone software platform, based on Linux
- the alphabet, one of the oldest communications technologies invented by humanity has been a true platform for exchanging and maintaining knowledge for millenia
I now believe that platforms cannot be designed — at least not in the classical sense — but they can only be allowed to evolve into such. Once can only design a product to support the 4 key essences: openness, composability, extensibility, and usefulness, and hope for platformness to emerge. The brave ones can also try to actively engage with the users to try and boost the evolution of the product into a true platform!
I think the key steps to take, if you choose to be brave, are to listen to your users and adapt! There’s no guarantee the platformness will emerge, but you’ll at least end up with a product that is loved by its users for being able to solve real problems for them.
But remember, for platformness to emerge, the system has to be pushed out of its current equilibrium. Once pushed, no one can tell what will emerge on the other side. Probably no lesson from any other success story like that of Twitter may help. It can be scary, but when done it may turn into pure awesomeness. Are you ready for the challenge? I am looking forward to the ride!