What Is a Platform, Anyway?

It’s Facebook. It’s Airbnb. It’s B2B software. It’s ... everything?
Mae Rice
December 14, 2021
Updated: December 15, 2021
Mae Rice
December 14, 2021
Updated: December 15, 2021

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

Plenty of other tech companies — ranging from Uber to Airbnb, Spotify to YouTube — have also been called platforms. 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.

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

Examples of Platforms

  • Airbnb
  • DropBox
  • Facebook
  • iOS
  • PayPal
  • Salesforce
  • Twitter
  • Uber
  • YouTube
  • Zoom

 

What Is a Platform?

The word “platform” has an unusual “semantic richness,” Cornell University communications professor and Microsoft researcher Tarleton L. Gillespie wrote in a 2010 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.

In the tech sector, though, “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 Oxford English Dictionary.

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.”

Tech columnist John C. Dvorak used “platform” in this way in a 2018 op-ed for PCMag, where he insisted that his personal computer served as a better example of a platform than social networks like Twitter and Facebook (he labeled those “publishers”).

“On my PC — a platform — I can do whatever I want with zero constraints,” Dvorak wrote. “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.”

In recent years, a few more, often-overlapping meanings for “platform” have emerged. They stretch the word’s semantic range, eclipsing the original usage.

Now, “platform” is often used to describe either the foundations upon which software products are built, or the digital infrastructures that facilitate valuable interactions between participants (often in the form of marketplace businesses, like eBay, or social networks, like Twitter). And sometimes, the word is used as a shorthand for online content and information distributors.

ReadCould Tax Dollars Fund a Digital Public Infrastructure?

 

Platform as ‘Anything You Can Build On’ — Including Software

This definition expands the original from the fundamental, hardware-and-operating-system 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.

Similarly, in their 2019 book Designed for Digital, authors Cynthia Beath, Martin Mocker and Jeanne Ross describe platforms as “a repository of business, data and infrastructure components used to rapidly configure digital offerings.”

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 is 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 Workspace (formerly G Suite) and Atlassian’s Jira.

 

Professor Jonathan Knee says platforms “create value by connecting folks in a network.” | Video: Bloomberg Technology

Platform as ‘Networked Flow of Business’

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

Airbnb, Uber, Yelp: 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 physical marketplaces, Choudary notes, digital platforms get more useful the more people use them, thanks to underlying AI.

Go DeeperWhat Are Network Effects?

 

Platform as Content Distributor?

In this last usage, which feels most specific to social media networks and publishing providers like Substack and Medium, 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 tech and media journalist, told Built In in 2020.

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.

 

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 Oxford English Dictionary, the word “platform” contains multitudes.

Hal Koss contributed to the reporting of this story.   

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