What Is a Platform, Anyway?

It’s Facebook. It’s Airbnb. It’s B2B software. It’s ... everything?
Mae Rice
July 19, 2020
Updated: September 29, 2020
Mae Rice
July 19, 2020
Updated: September 29, 2020

You may have noticed that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are no longer “social networks.” These days, they’re all widely referred to as “platforms.”

Sometimes, they’re even called “the platforms,” as if there were no others. But there are many others. Popular apps, like Uber and Airbnb, have been called platforms too. So, too, has some B2B software.

Datadog’s systems monitoring software, for instance, constitutes a platform, according to Marc Weisman, the VP of product for Datadog’s platform.

Users can link Datadog to nearly any data stream, and use its interface to build out custom dashboards that automatically flag important or anomalous events — like traffic surges, or server outages.

“It’s really about getting a holistic view of how your systems and how your business is running,” Weisman told Built In.

Datadog’s impressive client list includes Siemens, Harvard University and Twitter — a fellow platform.

But what do Twitter and Datadog have in common? And what do either of them have in common with Airbnb, or any of the other platforms mentioned so far? It’s hard to tell what “platform” means anymore.

In fact, it’s been hard to tell for more than a decade.


what isn't a platform
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What Isn’t a Platform?

The word “platform” has an unusual “semantic richness,” Cornell University communications professor and Microsoft researcher Tarleton L. Gillespie wrote back in a 2010, in a paper called “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” It has a wide range of possible meanings, even though that “may go unnoticed by the casual listener or even the speaker.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists 15 potential uses of the word, which Gillespie breaks into four broad categories: technical, architectural, metaphorical and political. Together, they give the word “discursive resonance,” Gillespie wrote.

You could say that they give this buzzword its buzz.

But they also make its meaning hard to pin down. To understand today’s platform debate, it’s important to understand the term’s technical definitions, which have proliferated in the 21st century.

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original technical meaning
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The Original Technical Meaning

In the tech sector, “platform” originally meant the foundation that supported software. This usage dates back to at least 1987, and unlike the newer ones, it has been enshrined in the OED.

There, it’s listed as a noun meaning “a standard system architecture; a (type of) machine and/or operating system, regarded as the base on which software applications are run.”

“A standard system architecture; a (type of) machine and/or operating system, regarded as the base on which software applications are run.”

In a PCMag op-ed, John C. Dvorak elaborated: “On my PC — a platform — I can do whatever I want with zero constraints. That’s because a true platform is genuinely a neutral device or thing. I own it. I can do whatever I want with it. I can take Windows off and run Linux or write my own code.”

Another example of this type of platform: an Android phone, which offers its users a PC-like level of flexibility that the iPhone forbids.


emerging technical meanings
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The Emerging Technical Meanings

It’s flexible, it’s networked, it’s a content distributor ... it’s a platform! These three new, overlapping technical definitions have largely eclipsed the original.


Platform as “Anything You Can Build On” — Including Software

This definition expands the original from the fundamental, hardware-and-OS foundation upon which software gets built to “anything that you can build upon,” Adrian Bridgwater wrote in Forbes back in 2015.

By this standard, software can function as a platform, as long as it has “an IT structure ... built for change,” Bridgwater wrote, paraphrasing Software AG CTO Wolfram Jost.

In other words, whenever a company builds multiple interconnected applications, that’s a platform.

Datadog, for instance, is a systems monitoring platform today, but it wasn’t always. The company’s software started as a point solution for infrastructure monitoring; it could autonomously track activity on cloud and on-prem servers, Weisman said.

The software’s scope has since broadened, though. The engineering team has built out new, more flexible features, so that today users can “bring in information not only about the health of [their] servers or the machines that [their] applications run on, but the health of applications themselves, the logs associated with that,” Weisman said. Users can also leverage Datadog to monitor UX metrics, revenue flows and more.

Ever-expanding functionality, and an ever-expanding array of integrations, are hallmarks of this type of “platform.” 

Another example of this type of platform: Salesforce’s SaaS CRM. In Salesforce’s AppExchange store, users can download thousands of apps built to expand Salesforce’s functionality and integrate it with other popular apps, like Google’s G Suite and Atlassian’s Jira.


Platform as “Networked Flow of Business”

Sangeet Paul Choudary, a co-author of Platform Revolution and founder of Platformation Labs, has a different take on the platform — to him, its defining trait is not back-end integration and flexibility, but a front end that connects users with each other.

Airbnb, Uber, Amazon’s Kindle: all platforms, to Choudary.

In a talk called “Change in Business Flows and System Dynamics,” he elaborated on the concept. Essentially, platforms disrupt the traditional linear logic of business, wherein companies create finished products and sell them.

Platforms offer “a more networked flow of business,” according to Choudary. They foster digital marketplaces, where users can exchange or sell products — like short-term housing, rides or text posts — among themselves.

Platform companies, like Uber, don’t actually create their inventories, but they add value by facilitating and streamlining exchanges — validating user identities, algorithmically optimizing buyer-seller pairings and the like.

Unlike “dumb” physical marketplaces, Choudary notes, digital platforms get more useful the more people use them, thanks to underlying AI.

Another example of this type of platform: Facebook. It’s a “networked flow” of communication and advertising — as opposed to the more linear model of email.


Platform as Content Distributor

In this last usage, which feels most specific to social media, a platform is a “way for content in all of its different forms — a text, a post, image, audio, whatever — to be distributed through the internet at scale,” Josh Sternberg, a journalist who writes the newsletter The Media Nut, told Built In.

This is the “platform” implied in the term “deplatformed.” A deplatformed user gets locked out of a social platform due to a policy violation, so they can no longer use it to share their content.

Now, you could argue this is just one specific case of Choudary’s definition of the platform as a “networked flow” — but social, content-based platforms have one extra trait many of Choudary’s examples lack: Links between users, whether they “follow” or “friend” each other, are long-term by default, and accounts build audiences over time.

On Uber or Airbnb, by contrast, users only connect temporarily; an Uber driver doesn’t build an enduring clientele over time.

An example of this type of platform: All social media platforms fit this definition, as do publishing platforms like Medium and Substack.

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more ubiquitous less precise
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More Ubiquitous, Less Precise

Like many popular tech industry terms, including “technical debt” and “unicorn,” “platform” has lost some of its precision. It’s so widely used, in so many ways, that it’s not always clear what people mean by it anymore.

That’s confusing, but it also makes “platform” an evocative term. At a glance, it suggests a kind of hodge-podge of all the meanings above: a product that allows for creativity, customization, and communication. “Platform” also connotes powerful growth potential: The most famous platforms, like Uber and Facebook, have successfully grown their products and their user bases.

None of that is ultra-precise — which might feel like a loss to industry veterans like Dvorak, who remember the term’s previous, more technical life — but “platform” has a new life now. It’s ubiquitous; it’s “semantically rich,” as Gillespie would say; and it’s appearing in marketing materials as well as tech blogs.

It retains its old technical meaning — but at this point, in the tech world as well as in the OED, the world “platform” contains multitudes.

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