Back in my InfoWorld days (2004-ish?) I somehow woke up to the idea that media could be a platform.1 Whereas my professional media experience prior to that was all about creating user experiences that resulted in better page views and conversions, something changed in the way I perceived how online media was supposed to work.
I didn’t have language to use for it at the time (still working on it, actually), but I knew it wasn’t inspired by the “openness” and “walled garden” metaphors so much. Neither concept reflected the opportunity for me. Once I saw the opportunity, though, the shift happening in online media seemed much much bigger.
In a presentation at the Bioneers conference back in August 2000 (below), architect William McDonough talked about designing systems that leverage nature’s strengths for mutually beneficial growth rather than for conservation or merely sustainability.
He tells us to design with positive results in mind instead of using less bad materials,
Similarly, the implications around the “openness” and “walled garden” concepts get clouded by the tactical impressions those words draw for someone who has unique assets in the media business.
It’s not about stopping bad behavior or even embracing good behavior. It’s about investing in an architecture that promotes growth for an entire ecosystem. If you do it right, you will watch network effects take hold naturally. And then everyone wins.
When you look around the Internet media landscape today you see a lot of successful companies that either consciously or subconsciously understand how to make media work as a platform. MySpace created a fantastic expression platform, though perhaps unwittingly. Wikipedia evolved quickly into a massive research platform. Flickr and del.icio.us, of course, get the network effects inherent in sharing information…photos and links, respectively. Washingtonpost and BBC Backstage are moving toward national political information platforms. Last.fm is a very succssful music listening platform if not one of the most interesting platforms among them all.
All of these share a common approach. At a simple level, the brand gets stronger the further their data and services reach outside of their domain and into the wider market.
But the most successful media platforms are the ones that give their users the power to impact the experience for themselves and to improve the total experience for everyone as they use it.
My commitment to flickr, del.icio.us and last.fm gets deeper and deeper the more I’m able to apply them in my online lifestyle wherever that may be. We have a tangible relationship. And I have a role in the wider community, even if only a small part, and that community has a role in my experience, too.
The lesson is that it’s not about the destination — it’s about the relationship. Or, if you like the Cluetrain language, it’s about the conversation, though somehow “relationship” seems more meaningful than “conversation” to me. Ask any salesperson whether they’d prefer to have a relationship or a conversation with a potential customer.
Ok, so user engagement can extend outside a domain. Where’s the opportunity in that?
Very few media platforms know how to leverage their relationships to connect buyers and sellers and vice versa. They typically just post banner ads or text links on their sites and hope people click on them. Creating a fluid and active marketplace that can grow is about more than relevant advertising links.
Amazon created an incredibly powerful marketplace platform, but they are essentially just a pure play in this space. They are about buying and selling first and foremost. Relationships on their platforms are transactional.
Media knows how to be more than that.
eBay and Craigslist get closer to colliding the buying/selling marketplace with deeper media experiences. People build relationships in micromarkets, but again it’s all about a handshake and then good riddance on eBay and Craigslist.
Again, media knows how to be more than that.
The big opportunity in my mind is in applying the transactional platform concept within a relationship-building environment.
A more tangible example, please…?
Washingtonpost.com is an interesting case, as they have been more aggressive than most traditional media companies in terms of “openness”. They have data feeds for all of their content. And they have an amazing resource in the U.S. Congress Votes Database, a feed of legislative voting records sliced in several different ways. For example, you can watch what legislation Nancy Pelosi votes on and how she votes.
Unfortunately, everything Washingtonpost.com offers is read-only. You can pull information from Washingtonpost.com, but you can’t contribute to it. You can’t serve the wider Washingtonpost.com community with your additions or edits. You can’t engage with other Washingtonpost.com community members in meaningful ways.
Washingtonpost.com thinks of their relationship with you in a one-to-many way. They are one, and you are one of many.
Instead, they should think of themselves as the government data platform. Every citizen in the US should be able to feed data about their local government into the system, and the wider community should be able to help edit and clean community-contributed data (or UGC for you bizdev folks).
For example, I recently spent some time investigating crime data and how that gets shared or not shared in various local communities. Local citizens could provide a very powerful resource if they were empowered to report crime in meaningful ways on the Internet.
Washingtonpost.com is as well suited as anyone to provide that platform.
Now, imagine the opportunity for Washingtonpost.com if people around the US were reporting, editing and analyzing local crime data from Washingtonpost’s platform. They would become a critical source of national information and news across the country. Washintonpost.com would be well poised to be the primary source of any type of government-related information.
The money would soon follow.
As a result of becoming essential in the ecosystem of local and national citizen data, they would expand their advertising possibilities exponentially. They could create an ad platform (or partner with one) that is tuned particularly for their ecosystem. Then any number of services could start forming around the combination of their data platform and their ad platform.
You can imagine legal services, security, counseling and financing services wanting to reach directly into my local Potrero Hill crimewatch community. The marketplace would probably be very fluid where people are recommending services and providers are helping the community as a whole as a way to build relationships.
Washingtonpost could sit behind all these services, powering the data and taking a cut of all the advertising.
Again, it’s not just about being “open” or taking down the “walled garden”.
The “openness” and “walled garden” concepts which often turn into accusations feel more like objectives than strategic directions. If “openness” was the goal, then offering everything as RSS would be the game.
No, RSS is just step one. The media platform game is much more than that.
It’s about both being a part of the larger Internet ecosystem and understanding how to grow and design a future that benefits lots of different constituents. You can be a source in someone else’s platform, a vehicle within a wider networked platform and a hub at the center of your own ecosystem all at the same time.
I would never claim this stuff is easy, as I certainly failed to make that happen while at InfoWorld. The first place to start, in my opinion, is to stop worrying about “openness” and “walled gardens”. Those are scary ideas that don’t necessarioly inspire people to build or participate in growing ecosystems.
Instead, it’s important to understand “network effects” and “platforms“. Once you understand how media can be a platform, the world of opportunity will hopefully start to look a lot bigger, as big as the Internet itself, if not even bigger than that.
It’s at that point that you may wonder why you would pursue anything else.
1 It shouldn’t be surprising that my thinking changed while surrounded by thinkers like Jon Udell, Steve Gillmor, and Steve Fox to name a few who all waved the web services flag and sang the software-as-a-service song before many of the leading IT efforts at some of the most innovative companies knew how to put those words into coherent sentences. Those concepts can apply to lots of markets, media among them.