YouTube is a platform for videos. Uber is a platform for cars. Facebook is a platform for socializing. Google is a platform for information. Amazon is a platform for retail. This very website is a platform for words! The word “platform” has become omnipresent in the technology industry, almost as ubiquitous as the broad-to-the-point-of-meaningless term “technology” (the “study of mechanical and industrial arts,” established around 1902) itself.
Referring to the “platform” has become particularly popular among media companies trying to find their way to success on the Internet. A recent article in Digiday collected definitions of the word from a group of digital media professionals. “It’ll be different for everyone,” said Eva Chen, the editor-in-chief of Lucky. “To me, it’s as simple as how you reach your audience.” “We think about a platform as a set of tools that ensures consistency in the creative work that our editors engage in every day,” said Matt Sanchez, CEO of Say Media. “One of the most important things about a platform is, it’s as frictionless as possible,” said Matt Bean, editor of Entertainment Weekly.
It all suggests a smooth, flat, expansive surface on which to pile products or content about products. Pretty vague, right? What isn’t a platform? Look to this past week’s biggest media industry vagary. After his move to remake the masthead of the New Republic, owner and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes argued repeatedly that the magazine is on its way to becoming a profitable “vertically-integrated digital media company.” When I saw the phrase, I immediately thought of it as just another way to define platform.
Successful platforms are made of people, who are attracted and then kept in place with various incentives.
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, may have hit on the most useful definition. “It’s the digital infrastructure that other products, applications or content run on top of to reach the end consumer,” he told Digiday. This idea of “digital infrastructure” is what undergirds many of the biggest companies emerging today—businesses like Uber and Amazon, where sky-high valuations ($40 billion after a recent round of $1.2 billion of continued investment and $144 billion, respectively) are driven not by the products they sell, per se, but on the platform they use to connect to the consumers that Kint referenced.
In the sentence, “YouTube is a platform for videos,” the first part of the equation is far more important than the second. After all, the videos are not the product, though YouTube has stated that it might experiment with a subscription-style service a la Netflix or Hulu in the future. The product is the viewer who watches the advertisements that Google sells on YouTube’s videos, and brands and corporations are the customer. YouTube is a surface that people are stacked on top of, ready to be sold.
Similarly, Uber is highly valued not necessarily because it has access to a lot of cars, but because it has created a network that reaches a mass number of human beings, both drivers and consumers, willing to produce and consume goods in an exchange that Uber has enabled—though it has not entirely manufactured its contents. Uber profits from the transactions happening on its platform, skimming off a cut each time users traverse it, profiting from the closed economy that it has created. Uber’s ballooning valuation is a result of the possibilities of this platform, that it will some day enable not just car trips but also the movement of any physical object from one place to another place on command—Uber as a space of real-time wish fulfillment.
Successful platforms are made of people, who are attracted and then kept in place with various incentives. These range from YouTube’s videos to Uber’s transportation, magazines’ informational narratives, and Amazon’s low prices. Amazon’s status as a platform business is apparent in its expanding introduction of its own, self-branded generic goods. As John Herrman of the Awl recently noticed, the company is quietly selling its own uncanny-valley versions of popular products like diapers, baby wipes, headphones, and patio furniture, which it can manufacture more cheaply itself and use to undercut the external retailers it currently stocks and promotes through its site. Amazon, it must be said, is an actual model of vertical integration.
The Everything Store already has already cultivated the trust of its audience; now, it is time to monetize its access to them as it tends to its ever-growing platform. Herrman writes that the goal of the generics is “not profit or even loyalty, exactly, but momentum above all”—in other words, continued growth, and the continuing potential of value. Media companies love to compares themselves to technology companies, but lately it seems more apt to say that many tech companies now function more like media companies, cultivating audiences first by spending money and then selling them later.
As the New Republic transitions to a digital-first publication, it will compete to grow its own online platform of fair-weather viewers rather than paying subscribers. The “vertical integration” Hughes cites is the integration of those readers with the company’s more significant clients, the advertisers that will pay to access the magazine’s followers. As with Uber, Amazon, or YouTube, the platform is the product.