Notes on the conceptual grammar of platforms

To recognise that platforms intervene in this profoundly asymmetric way doesn’t negate the agency of their users, as Burgess and Baym’s (2020) insightful study of Twitter makes clear. They point to the many features of the social platform, such as the retweet and the hashtag, which actually began with user behaviour. As opposed to a structuralist vision which construes the platform as a fixed framework in which users are forced to operate, they highlight the co-created character of interaction which takes place on the platform. In the case of the retweet, users began to prefix “RT” to their tweets to signify it was a repetition of an existing tweet prior to the platform incorporating this feature into the interface because the operators recognised its utility. 

The point they are making with examples like this is two fold. Firstly, the use of a platform is undetermined by its interface in the sense that users will creatively respond to the possibilities the service offers them. As they observe with regards to Twitter, “With a minimalist interface, guided only by a prompt that encouraged the expression of personal real-time experience in compact form, Twitter’s ambiguity almost demanded that its users develop their own ideas about what to do with it.” Users are challenged to make sense of the platform and the possibilities it offers to them are “given form and meaning through everyday life, and through the practices of diverse individuals, communities, and publics” (Burgess & Baym, 2020, p. 18). In fact, the categories which platforms offer to their users are intended to be interpretable across a diverse range of users which means that underspecification is a virtue rather than a vice (Marres, 2018, p. 156). If categories were defined too closely in terms of a particular subculture this would risk a failure to engage other groups of users. Secondly, platform operators will often find value in these user cultures as a means to guide the evolution of a service other times. In other words, users present them with ideas which have strategic relevance for the firm. At the very least what Burgess and Baym (2020) identify as public pedagogy, in which users talk with each other about their use and suggest how it ought to be used, becomes a practical challenge for operators in building relationships with users that can be sustained over time. This presents us with a vision of platforms as “constantly and gradually changing at the hands of their designers, developers, and owners” (Burgess & Baym, 2020, p. 55). This isn’t a denial of the asymmetries we discussed earlier but simply a recognition of the interdependencies which constitute the platform. If we define the functionality of the platform in terms of the different groups which interact through it, we should remember these include groups within the firm (engineers, moderators, managers, support) as well as groups beyond the firm (influencers, entrepreneurs, marketers) who have a strategic investment in the platform above and beyond that expected of the ‘typical’ user. This dynamic is even more pronounced with regards to business-to-business and service platforms in which a commercial relationship is inherent to the use of the platform. 

  1. Platforms requires firms which operate them to maintain their infrastructure, update their software and promote their services. These firms rely on funding to initiate and sustain their operations, as platform services are rarely profitable in their early stages. Even if they were, the winner-takes-all dynamics creates a pressure to scale up rapidly in the hope the platform will become the dominant service within the sector. This reliance on fundings binds the platform to the expectations of angel investors, venture capitalists and eventually public markets with regards to demonstrating sufficient growth to justify the hope that it will become a market leader. The conceptual grammar of platforms foregrounds capital accumulation through the associated concepts of socio-technical innovation, business models and investment climates.    
  2. Platforms use data science to exploit the epistemic asymmetries which are inherent to them. The real-time data generated by users provides rich, immediate and actionable insights into every aspect of the platform. The nature of mobile computing means that updating is a perpetual process rather than something which relies on the assent of end users. This creates a dynamic ‘front-stage’ environment for users coupled with a data-rich ‘back stage’ environment which facilitates real-time experimentation through constant analysis. The pressure to scale rapidly which is a contingent feature of the investment climate translates into an imperative to accelerate growth. In this sense the data infrastructure is a matter of reporting, with a complex suite of granular metrics underpinning the public reporting of numbers like user growth, but also a means for intervention. The conceptual grammar of platforms foregrounds real-time behavioural science through the associated concepts of epistemic asymmetries, front/back stage and the imperative to scale. 
  3. Platforms depend on the agency of their users in order to sustain the service as an environment of interaction. The most basic level of this dependence is the simple fact that without such users there would be no service. However there is a much deeper dependency upon the users as evaluative and purposive agents which contrasts with the tendency of behavioural science to treat users as influenceable and persuadable.This includes the social connections of users, their responses to content on the platform, their creative capacity to generate content, their capacity to make decisions in their use of the service and their strategic orientation towards the commercial opportunities the service provides to them (Carrigan and Fatsis 2021: ch 3). Furthermore, users engage with each other through platforms and about platforms (e.g. in their casual conversations about the shared use of a service) generating user cultures which are an important object of analysis, insight and intervention for platform operators as they steer the development of the service over time. The conceptual grammar of platforms foregrounds their dynamic and relational nature through the associated concepts of platform relations, agency and user cultures.

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