“Platforms” and Positioning

Thursday 11 June 2009, 4:46 pm   ///  

Tarleton Gillespie, author of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture, presented an interesting paper at MIT’s Media in Transition 6 conference – one that is helpfully available online, and which is called “The Politics of ‘Platforms.'”

Gillespie considers the way that YouTube and other companies in the business of “content hosting” have positioned themselves as offering “platforms” – a stance that has populist benefits and which at least has the potential to distance these companies from liability for material they serve up. Interestingly, Gillespie finds that the computational sense of platform pre-dates this Web 2.0 and content-delivery sense. Admittedly, that sense, too, is a relatively new way of thinking about platform, and the most recent OED sense. Gillespie quotes this fine blog post by Marc Andreessen:

The key term in the definition of platform is “programmed”. If you can program it, then it’s a platform. If you can’t, then it’s not. So, if you’re thinking about computing on the Internet, whenever anyone uses the word “platform”, ask: “Can it be programmed?” Specifically, with software code provided by the user? If not, it’s not a platform, and you can safely ignore whoever’s talking — which means you can safely ignore 80%+ of the people in the world today who are using the term “platform” and don’t know what it means.

This, by the way, is essentially sense of platform that the Platform Studies book series aims to investigate, although we don’t advocate that people ignore Google, YouTube, and so on.

The focus of the series is on computational platforms not because Ian and I disdain other uses of the word “platform” – we certainly don’t when we go to train stations – but because this is a particularly fertile area for digital media investigations, as we tried to show in Racing the Beam. Platform studies is an essentially computational as well as cultural endeavor, one that works to connect computation (not communication alone) to human creativity of various sorts.

Gillespie doesn’t buy Andreessen’s take on platforms, writing, rather, that “[p]latforms are platforms not necessarily because they allow code to be written or run, but because they afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell.” A descriptive linguist would be hard-pressed to argue with this. The concept of platform is a rich one, and Gillespie’s paper delves into the rhetoric and politics of its use by media companies. I think a better understanding of the way computational platforms work and how they have influenced culture – a better view of those obscure, arcane platforms that have been little studied from cultural perspectives but which gave their name to the communication platforms of today’s web – will not only let us learn more about computing and creativity. It will also leave us better equipped to deal with what “platform” means in other contexts, the issue that Gillespie has very usefully started to explore.

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