Who has their hand on the dial?
Talk to anyone who works at Apple, Amazon, Google, Linkedin, Facebook, etc. and they’ll be happy to give you tips on how to work on the platform to your advantage. How to get a little more attention for your podcast or your website or your photos…
Implicit in this supportive posture is an invisible bias: they have a platform mentality.
It’s the opposite of thinking about a record label or a book publisher or a newspaper. They understand that their most important job is curation—choosing what goes on the front page.
Of course, platforms have long been curators, but they have embraced the role rather than denying it. Radio station program directors decided what would be in heavy rotation, and bookstore owners knew what to put in the cash register. The leaders of these platforms understand that their campaign decisions something Instead everything was a core part of their work.
The mentality of the platform is quite helpless. Algorithms are in charge, not them. Data make decisions, they don’t.
In the short term, this bias feels helpful in many ways. This eliminates the gatekeeper error. Since everything has a chance, it seems less important to be careful as a gatekeeper. While Decca famously rejected the Beatles, it was a mistake that cost them decades. A platform executive doesn’t have to worry about this, since they can carry everyone and let the market sort itself out.
But there are two problems with this selective, learned helplessness:
The first is that it simply isn’t true. Algorithms cannot write themselves. The rise of hate speech on platforms like Twitter is possible because the algorithm rewards it. The vapid recipes people make on websites are there because Google’s algorithm rewards them And yes, there are harmful extra fees that airlines charge because travel websites rank flights with hidden charges higher than results that are honest about what it actually costs.
As platforms grow in scale, they often add hard-working, well-meaning people to engage with the public, a buffer between creators and algorithms, but they are instructed that the algorithm itself is sacred and limited. We sell everything, we don’t know how to sell any (particular) thing.
Go to a few meetings with Apple’s podcast team (who apparently make or break podcasts by promoting them) and you’ll soon realize that Apple isn’t really in the business of helping its many users find podcasts that will uplift, inspire, and educate them. Instead, they are simply feeding the platform.
Netflix, in its best moments, succeeds because they break the platform paradigm and shift to curation.
The second is that this platform-first agnostic non-curation ultimately leads to the death of the platform. The aphorism is: enough A/B testing will turn any website into a porn site. Because data-driven, short-term waves of algorithmic feedback loops inevitably make platforms generic, then junk. This is happening with Amazon – their Amazon Go stores in New York are dull. Spam the search results on their site is worse. Inevitably, the people they want to serve the most get frustrated, bored, or fed up and go elsewhere.
What to do about it? Well, if you’re a creator, it helps to understand that you’re probably not going to be treated particularly well by a platform that has a platform mindset. There isn’t a shortcut, there’s just a lot of tedious steps and then maybe some luck.
And if you’re part of a platform that has scale (or hope to build one), this is the perfect moment to learn from the curation that came before. When we talk about the people who make up the parts of our culture that we’re proud of, we almost never talk about the platforms. We talk about people who have the courage, taste and energy to help others discover things that make a difference, all while crafting and coming out of junk.
We should not be platform fed here. The platform needs to be here for us.