What is a platform?

What’s a platform?

I type ‘platform’ into Google. Ask a platform what a platform is. Google suggests a nearby bar, a train station, a Wikipedia entry. Let me try the Oxford Dictionary. The term platform emerges in the early 1500s. In basic terms it is a surface or area on which something may stand. That something might be a person making a speech or it might be a weapon like a cannon. There we go, to begin, a platform is infrastructural. A platform stands under something: a person, a weapon, software. A platform is something upon which other things happen. A stage upon which performances happen, hardware upon which software runs, a launch pad upon which a rocket is launched into outer space.

By the mid-1500s, the term platform also comes to mean something that enables other things to happen. It refers not just to a physical stage, but can also mean a plan or a scheme. To establish a platform, was to create the basis for taking some action in the world. For instance, a collection of individuals might gather together and establish a political platform. A set of ideas and a plan for executing them. By the late twentieth century a platform referred to a computer system architecture, a type of machine and operating system, upon which software applications are run. So, a platform is infrastructure. It is something upon which things happen. Platforms facilitate and enable: public speech, rocket launches, software applications, political agreements.

Platforms are also governed by technical and social rules. Think of a public stage. It is governed by technical rules. The platform can only extend as far as its capacity to amplify speech. The reach of the platform is limited to those who can hear the speaker. It is governed by social rules. Agreements form about who is allowed to take to space to speak, how long they can speak for, what they can speak about, and how people in the audience should act.

The past decade has seen the rise of ‘platform’ companies that are transforming the relationship between media and culture. The market shorthand for these platforms is the FANGs: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Think of the list of social institutions and practices that have been irrevocably changed, and in some cases, destroyed by the emergence of the FANGs: journalism, television, advertising, shopping, finding your way around the city, politics, elections, dating, gambling and fitness. For a start.

Alongside the behemoths are an array of platforms that each in their own way are the site of major cultural disruption and innovation. Twitter is remaking the speed and quality of public speech. Instagram is reinventing photography, and along with it how we portray and imagine our lives and bodies. Snapchat is collapsing the boundary between the public and intimate. And, along with it, inventing an immersive augmented reality where we see our bodies and world overlaid with digital simulations. Tinder is changing the rituals of sex, love and dating. Fitbit is remodelling how we understand our bodies.

What do these corporations make?

The simple answer is that they engineer platforms that orchestrate the interplay between the calculative power of digital computing and the lived experience of humans. If the media institutions of the twentieth century were highly efficient factories for producing content, the FANGs make platforms. Of course, some of them, like Amazon and Netflix also produce content, but their value proposition and their disruption comes from the platform.

The major platforms are a central part of a larger culture of media engineering. By media engineering, I mean the industrial process of configuring and linking together digital devices, sensors, interfaces, algorithms, and databases. Importantly, media engineering is an experimental technocultural process of shaping the interplay between digital computers and the creative nature of cultural life. What do I mean, interplay between the calculative power of digital devices and the open-ended nature of lived experience?

This is the sound of a bio-reactive concert sponsored by Pepsi at the techno-culture festival SxSW. That’s right a bio-reactive concert. What does that mean? It’s a concert where everyone in the audience is wearing a wristband that senses information about their body, and that bio-data is used to augment the concert experience in real time.

Carey Dunne, writing in Fast Company, explains:

At South by Southwest this year–at the Pepsi Bioreactive Concert, deejayed by A-Trak–event attendees donned Lightwave’s sensor-equipped wristbands, which measured their body temperature and audio and motion levels. This data was transmitted wirelessly to Lightwave’s system, which created interactive visuals that represent audience members as pixels, and which also triggered confetti and smoke machines and unlocked boozy prizes. Now, Lightwave has released an elaborate visualization of the party’s alcohol and dubstep-altered biodata, arranged in a song-by-song timeline of the concert. When A-Trak says “Show your energy,” the crowd delivers, with temperatures spiking. The moment the beat drops on Skrillex’s NRG, you see the biological effects of a crowd going wild. The hotter and sweatier they got, the more rewards they’d unlock.

This bio-reactive branded dance party is media engineering in action. We have living humans: making culture, enjoying themselves, affecting one another. And, we have material technologies that are sensing, calculating and augmenting that human experience. Those technologies are a combination of sensors, databases, algorithms, interfaces, screens, and speakers to together constitute a media platform. In this case, people dancing wearing a digital wristband that can sense and transmit information about motion, audio and temperature, a DJ standing on a stage in a specially designed tent with decks and PA. The sound goes out through the speakers. The speakers stimulate the bodies of the attendees. They move, they sweat, they scream and clap. The wristband senses their bodily expressions. That information is conveyed back to a database. Algorithms process the information. The information is visualised on an interface. The dancers can see their collective temperature and excitement, they can see the ‘scores’ of individual dancers. Algorithms decide to ‘unlock’ features for the crowd like confetti and free drinks.
In Pepsi’s bio-reactive concert we have a condensed version of the larger logic of media platforms.

Media platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram and Snapchat are all – in various ways – bio-reactive. They sense our living bodies, process information about them, react to them, stimulate them, and learn to modulate and control them. So then, in the present moment, what is a media platform? A platform is a computational infrastructure that shapes social acts. An infrastructure that senses, processes information about, and attempts to shape lived experience and living bodies. In The Culture of Connectivity Jose van Dijck argues that social media are socio-technical. What does that mean? ‘Online sociality has increasingly become a coproduction of humans and machines’.

In the Pepsi dance tent at SxSW the kind of ‘sociality’ produced, that is the shared sense of enjoyment and spectacle, is a co-production of humans dancing and DJing and machines sensing and augmenting the experience. Jose van Dijck calls this co-production of humans and machines ‘connectivity’. Media platforms engineer connectivity. According to her, we live in an age of ‘platform sociality’. A social situation where platforms shape social life. Earlier versions of the web were premised on a concept of networked sociality. Many individuals talking to each other on a relatively level playing field. The codes and protocols that governed interaction were relatively neutral, transparent and open to negotiation. This was possible, in part, because of the relatively small scale of early forms of online culture: a bulletin board, an email list, a chat room. The platform sociality of social media programs what users can do, how participation and content are ranked, judged and made visible. This way of thinking about media platforms prompts us to think not just about how they give us the capacity to speak and be heard, to express ourselves, but rather how they configure, engineer, and program social life. And, critically, whose interests drive that process.

Connectivity and Connectedness are different. Connectedness is an interaction between users that generates shared ways of life, whereas connectivity is the use of data and calculative tools that program these social connections in ways that control them for commercial and political purposes. That is to say connectedness builds community, connectivity makes money. This is also why I tend to say media platform rather than social media. The term social media suggests that these media are defined by the social participation they facilitate. The term media platforms shifts our focus in a productive direction, it puts the emphasis on the political economic project of engineering platform architecture.