How you carve things up sometimes makes all the difference. Take butchery, for example. Differences in the way a butcher carves a steak will result in different textures, variations in taste, potentially a very different culinary experience. Earlier this year, in fact, a self-proclaimed “Meat Geek” named Tony Mata demonstrated a new cut of beef—dubbed the Vegas Strip Steak—to specialists and researchers at an Oklahoma State University food research facility. Genetic manipulation might one day reshape cattle to provide for even more novel delicacies, but for the moment this sort of discovery is the result of finding new ways to carve the sort of meat humans have been eating for thousands of years.
If you find so overtly carnivorous an illustration distasteful, consider another example—this one from geopolitics. After World War II, the allied powers set about redefining the political status quo in the recent theaters of war. Perhaps no region was so lastingly altered by their negotiations as the Middle East, where borders were redrawn to the standards of European nation-states, and entire countries (like Iraq) were invented practically out of whole cloth. Much as it had in Africa in the previous century, European statecraft cut across local imperatives, creating political inequalities that would grow increasingly complicated and intractable. It’s no exaggeration to say that most, if not all, of the conflicts that currently make the Middle East so fraught with menace can be traced back to how European statesmen carved up the land nearly a century ago.
Though the consequences may not be so severe, something similar is happening online. The Web has long been a way of accessing information that might not otherwise be available. We’re accustomed to seeing it as a portal into remote corners of the world, and by the accumulation of those disparate views, we use the Web to build a picture of the world. How it gets you to that information can shape the way that you use that information, and so the platforms by which we partition the Web also ending up serving as the patterns we use to carve up the worldview it makes possible.
Wired‘s Ryan Tate has written about an aspect of that process in an article called “Mr. Zuckerberg, Tear Down This Wall.” The takeaway is that,
Though the issue of web photo compatibility was solved 19 years ago, [...] the top three social networks are putting lots of money and effort into building end-to-end pipelines in which one company’s software controls everything from activating the camera to polishing the image to uploading the photo to setting access rights and finally publishing—not necessarily to the web, mind you, but to gated-off private networks that merely resemble the web.
Changes in how we view and share pictures on the Web have consequences worth considering, but that last bit about the Web may be the more salient point. Increasingly, those “gated-off private networks” are all that most of us know of the Web. They’re part of an ongoing turning point in the development of the Web that you might call the Platform Revolution. That time Tate recalls, when people created webpages on Unix workstations to be viewed in far-flung places like California—that was a relatively short span, the pioneering days of the Web. The people who still do that—and there are a few die-hards out there—are a minority now, and most of them are professionals designing sites for start-ups and corporations. Either that, or they’re designing platforms.
By “platform,” I mean any set of web tools that empowers a user to make something functional on the Web. When we talk about social media, we’re mostly talking about the platforms that make it dirt simple to broadcast things like photos, brief messages, and links to categories of people. By making it easier to do things, platforms have opened the Web up to people who’s involvement up to then had been limited primarily to email and search.
The major challenges facing most of us now, including those who administer these platforms, are not about the nuts and bolts of making the Web work, but about the messier business of the relationships we form with the platforms we’ve built. The most consequential platforms are those that persist even after the thing is made. A lot of those platforms are essentially accounts, like the profiles we build on Twitter or Instagram. Remove the platform, and the account disappears as well.
The Platform Revolution began in earnest the moment someone realized that you could not only create software that would make the Web easier to use, but also that you could make money if you kept people plugged into those platforms. As that premise caught on, it ceased to be enough to simply empower people to reap the full potential of the Web. The modern social media obsession with capturing and locking-in users is bound to the still fuzzy notion that users are as good as currency. They’ve been frantically looking for a way to fix it to an exact monetary figure ever sense.
That search is driving many of the changes that have shaped the Web since the onset of the Platform Revolution. We’ve gone through those changes so quickly, in fact, that it’s easy to lose sight of how differently we interact on the Web versus ten years ago. Anil Dash recently stirred memories with a post to his blog, Dashes, pointing out the differences in various states of the Web over the past decade. “We’ve lost key features that we used to rely on,” Dash laments, “and worse, we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world.”
Dash’s focus is largely on social media platforms, but the Platform Revolution encompasses more than what we currently think of a social. In the early days of the Web, there was no easy way to sell your used CDs online, or set up a store for selling the candles you make by hand in your basement. One of the most significant pressures the Web put on traditional media was the introduction of platforms, like eBay and PayPal, that simplified peer-to-peer commerce. These, too, provided us with new ways of carving up the world.
As it so happens, one such platform has found itself struggling to sort out precisely how it ought to carve the world of commerce. As NPR‘s Elizabeth Blair reported last week, Etsy has recently taken stock of complaints that not all of its sellers adhere to its handmade ethos. The site’s administrators are looking for ways to ensure a higher level of transparency, but it’s not yet clear that they’ll find a way to maintain a platform that matches their public image. The result is a struggle over the soul of Etsy, as well as over the way in which it carves up the world. Will it be a platform for empowering self-employed crafters, or a site for selling products to those drawn to the mere appearance of authenticity?
“We’ll fix these things,” Dash writes of the social Web,
I don’t worry about that. The technology industry, like all industries, follows cycles, and the pendulum is swinging back to the broad, empowering philosophies that underpinned the early social web.
Likewise Tate’s “Mr. Zuckerberg, Tear Down This Wall” ends on a hopeful note. “If the big social networks keep playing empire-building games at the expense of users,” Tate writes, “the users might just decide they’ve had enough and build something unexpected that steals momentum from all the big players.” In other words, someone might create a new platform that usurps the social media throne. History seems to bear that pattern out, but history is a funny thing. Look at it from the right angle, and it seems endlessly repetitive. Seen from another angle, though, revolutions cut off some possibilities that once seemed eternal.
By opening the Web up to the rest of the world, the Platform Revolution may have done just that. It has created a critical mass of users whose involvement with the Web is defined by their reliance on platforms. Those who, like Tate and Dash, hope to preserve something of the promise of the old Web will have to contend with the millions of newer users who never saw that promise, or who found it inaccessible before the right platform came along.
Sure, it’s still possible to create new platforms, but issuing serious challenges to the social media establishment means more than just creating the hot new thing. To do that, the upstarts need, first of all, to attract legions of users, and in the second, to unlock the riddle of maintaining their independence by paying for what they’ve built. After all, Instagram started out as just that sort of upstart, a new platform to challenge the status quo—right up until it became another knife in Facebook’s chopping block.