The Problems With ‘Platforms’

Posted: March 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Social Networking, Technology | Tags: , , | 3 Comments »

It seems that every day the word ‘platform’ becomes more ingrained in the way we think about online tools to do good and address public problems. The ubiquity of the term may be due to its fundamental ambiguity, which it shares with other terms like ‘sustainability’ and ‘participation.’

In an incisive article on the subject last year, Tarleton Gillespie analyzed how the word “platform” was used by major players like Flickr, YouTube, and Google. (I mentioned his article previously but will summarize the thesis here.) In the article, he points out the contradictory ways the companies use the term as part of a rhetorical strategy to serve their interests. On the one hand, as platforms they argue for limits to legal liabilities for actions of their users. On the other, as a platform of opportunity for advertisers, they define and enforce restrictions on users’ speech and activities. He concludes “the discourse of the ‘platform’ works against us developing such precision, offering as it does a comforting sense of technical neutrality and progressive openness.”

However, as we consider how to apply innovating online technologies for community engagement or governance activities, talk of ‘platforms’ can be troubling from another point of view as well.

Discussions of sociotechnical systems argue humans are just as important as the technical artifacts. An extensive literature on usability and systems development has developed a nuanced understanding of any system as a composite of technical and social components. As a simple example, what an expert user can do with a laptop is much different than what a grandparent can do upon first receiving one. In a larger case one theorist argues “the remarkably low accident rates in commercial air transport, for example, reflect the success of vigilant organizations, legal apparatus, and social learning about accidents as much as the demonstrate the quality of aircraft design and maintenance.” Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating discussion of air safety in Outliers describes how improving air safety often entails new social rules, such as banning idle chatter in the cockpit during key times, not simply technical ones.

Just as it obscures the internal tensions between different interests, the term “platform” alienates us from this more contextual view of technology. We often jump to the position that solving the problem entails designing the platform, implying it is a neutral system equally usable by any visitor. In reality, according the theory proposed here, solving any problem involves modifying or creating both social and technical components. We are dimly aware of a first-mover advantage in a “space,” but much less aware of the process of creating a useful system. In fact, social construction theory argues technologies are mutually constructed between system designers and engineers and users. Internet “platforms” such as Facebook and Twitter are both powerful independent companies, and in a subtle dialog with their users about how their systems should evolve. The simplest examples are how Twitter has incorporated hashtags and @ tweets into their technical architecture, and Facebook has gone through a well-publicized dance about how to manage the news feed, privacy settings, and even whether you can delete your account.

Of course, this links directly to broader debates about the merits (and measurement) of investments in physical versus social infrastructures. Although it can never be fully resolved, the purpose of the post is to temper technical enthusiasm with a more nuanced view of the origin and evolution of a new category of sociotechnical systems: online platforms.

Social Media in Urban Planning

Posted: April 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Social Networking, Technology | Tags: | 1 Comment »

On Monday I participated in a presentation on Social Media in Planning at the American Planning Association’s annual convention in New Orleans. At the session, my co-presenters and I discussed example projects spanning community-based planning, transportation, and professional development. Afterwards, the attendees broke into small groups to discuss their own experience and thoughts about using social media to engage the public. Here’s some links to the cases we discussed:

In addition, many attendees shared their own experiences, and we had a lively conversation about equity, satisfying regulations, and integration with more conventional forms of public participation. We plan to propose a session on the same topic for the 2011 conference, to be held here in Boston.

On Small Step for Social Data?

Posted: July 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Social Networking, Technology, Urbanism and Planning | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

When launched in 2007 I was excited: at last, a company set themselves to creating a user-friendly platform for exploring data. However, something disappointing happened: the core software of the website hasn’t evolved much. The problems I identified in an early blog post, such as not highlighting user-created charts and the limited customization of the visualizations have not been addressed. Growth of the user community has been modest, with apparently 14,287 users today. Recently the company has launched Swivel Business, which I explored after requesting an invitation. Sadly, this application works more like a web-based version of Excel, with less emphasis on visualization and data sharing – what made the original tool unique. In April the company announced they’ll be merging both tools into one website – let’s hope it captures the best parts of both.

IBM’s Many Eyes, a similar website, has been somewhat more successful. It boasts some 70,000 datasets and allows users to experiment with a variety of sophisticated visualizations. However the site’s navigation and interface seems a bit clunky, and seems to obscure the best quality data. The site also lacks the ability to easily download or extract data, or compare between datasets.

The newly-renamed stands to finally crack the difficult space of social data sharing and exploration tools. For one, the website has de-emphasized visualizations and focused on data access. Ironically, even in the data exploration business I think this is a good move. In the rapidly evolving world of visualizations, developers are working on a host of platforms and approaches. Google has purchased some outright (see Gapminder) and quickly rolled them out as gadgets. By avoiding the visualization fray, Socrata can focus on a robust and flexible platform for storing and sharing tabular data.

The tool allows users to upload datasets with basic metadata, download it in a host of formats (CSV, PDF, EXL, XML, JSON) and embed it in a webpage. The embeddable applet includes the all-important search and sort functions, required to explore any dataset extending beyond one or two screens deep. Here’s an example of the embeddable applet, using a dataset I analyzed for a previous post:

Detroit Housing Unit Permits

The system automatically recognizes several type so fields: text, number, money, checkbox, percent, and boolean (?). The site’s not perfect, but provides for the first time a robust, free platform for sharing tabular data. Although very new, you can already find Socrata widgets sharing White House salary data on WhiteHouse.Gov, or Oklahoma’s suburban growth. Only time will tell whether Socrata stands to become the go-to website for sharing data.

APA Minneapolis Conference

Posted: April 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: eGovernment, ePlanning, Social Networking, Urban Development | 3 Comments »

I am attending the American Planning Association’s National Conference in Minneapolis. Whether or not you’re actually here, there’s a number of ways to keep tabs on what’s going on.

I’ll be posting Twitter updates at @rgoodspeed, along with several other users including this official account. Technology consultant @Ryan_Link is involved with a group that set up a recently launched Ning APA Social Network and a conference blog.

It will certainly generate some blog posts over the coming weeks and months on e-government software, federal transportation policy, social indicators, etc, etc. Starting on Wednesday at the City Planning, Civic Engagement, and the Internet Conference at Princeton University, where I will participate in the Thursday night opening discussion.

The Online Landscapes of Social Networking

Posted: September 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Landscape, Social Networking | 1 Comment »

Facebook and MySpace have emerged as America’s dominant social networking websites, boasting over 124 and 245 million members, respectively. While their technical, political, and social implications have been much discussed, these websites also represent virtual landscapes drawing from two distinct strains in American culture.

Invented at Harvard University by a native of New York’s Westchester County, Facebook offers users a regimented experience. Aside from minor customizations in layout, users profiles share a common structure, color, pattern, and design. The individual must be subordinate to the common order unifying the whole. It is, I’ll argue, a European approach to space.

The brainchild of Los Angeles internet entrepreneurs, Myspace users can fully customize their profiles. In a sense they fully “own” what web designers call screen real estate. This is the digital equivalent to the landscape of suburbia, where each owner may landscape and decorate their own as they choose.

A quick tour through American and European cities and cemeteries will clarify the comparison.

In the 19th Century American culture entered a new phase of self conscious cultural independence. Romantic cemeteries were created throughout the country. Designed to replace the church boneyard, where remains were often disinterred to make room for more, the romantic cemetery sought to “rob death of a portion of its terrors,” staking out for each of the deceased a portion of earth. Bellefontaine Cemetery in Saint Louis is a celebrated example. The deceased occupy individual plots, decorate and identified (generally) as the family pleases.

Visitors are reminded through design and allusion this is a natural landscape, far away from the domain of everyday life. Here, in the form of a stained glass window.

At the same time, the country’s first garden suburbs were developed, such as Riverside, Illinois. Invariably these neighborhoods were single family homes placed on uniquely landscaped lots, a pattern that continues to this day.

In contrast, European cemeteries and cities are often quite different. Paris’s famous Pre-Lachaise Cemetery, founded in 1804, takes a different pattern. Here family mausoleums line miniature cobblestone streets, creating an urban landscape of death where the individual is subordinated to a familial structure.

Here and elsewhere in Europe from Roman times, human remains are often stored vertically in Columbarium, high-rises of human remains removing the individual from a direct relationship with the earth. Multifamily housing for the deceased, if you will.

Apartment living is commonplace in both city and suburb, seen here in this picture of Finland.

These deep-grained cultural preferences are reflected in the structure of social networking websites, tools used intimately by millions. To be popular, the system must reflect their users preferences. Although celebrated as a seat of American cultural independence, Boston shares close cultural ties with Europe, and its physical structure of many neighborhoods resembles European cities. Like Europe’s vertical family crypts or apartment house living, Facebook’s regimented framework removes from individual control the digital turf on the screen.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, has been celebrated as a quintessentially American city in structure. While it is true the city once enjoyed a large urban railway system and has the highest population density of any major U.S. city, it is a city of single family homes on individual lots. It is fitting, then, that Myspace deeds full ownership of screen real estate to members, allowing them to decorate their profiles with blaring music, intelligible color schemes, and absurd fonts, the digital equivalent of pink flamingos in the yard.

These subtle cultural preferences may explain why Facebook’s membership growth has slowed and remains biased towards certain groups. Perhaps it is some cultural quirk that explains why Orkut has become wildly popular in Brazil. Although Mark Zuckerburg may hope to transform his service into a social networking “utility,” its appeal for some Americans may be limited until he lets the American masses deck out their page in flashing colors and blaring pop tunes. It is, after all, the American way.

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