“Platform” as a term has emerged into prominence over the last few years. Scholars have been carefully unearthing the term, examining its rhetorical use, computational impact, and implications for marketing and distribution of media. I touch on three scholars here to briefly outline their usage of the term, and the fruitful discussions that have been taking place around it.
Tarleton Gillespie (2010) noted how the word has been employed rhetorically by firms as careful negotiation of obligations to various stakeholders. Twitter, for example, wishes to appeal to marketers (advertising platform), investors and individuals self-organzing for civic unrest against dictatorial regimes (in the “Arab Spring”). I’ve described previously how Twitter goes through great lengths to present itself as aligned with more populist goals, both complying with censorship requests and making these requests public. Twitter is able to promote a more egalitarian agenda while simultaneously adhering to legalistic and economic frameworks in which it is embedded. The term itself is not that important, because companies capitalize on its vagueness. Gillespie’s contribution is secondarily to map the wide-ranging ways that the term is employed, but most importantly, elaborating on the linguistic flexibility of platforms as entities with various conflicting goals.
Bogost (2009) comes closest to what Gillespie describes as a computational definition of platform, specifically investigating software and hardware platforms for development. However, he is also interested more broadly in cultural formations around platforms, particularly of professional and amateur software developers. He pushes back on Gillespie and advocates for a narrower conception based on the perspective from engineers and developers, writing that “something is a platform when a [sic] developers consider it as such and use it” (p. 4). This waffling around the term is clearly not as interesting to Bogost as the features, development environment, and perspective of the engineers. He describes platforms as “‘deep’ or ‘far away’ from the user experience” (p. 5), but also influential of everything that is built on it. We can extract from Bogost’s narrower definition that considering a more materialist perspective on platform can be illuminating of what kinds of development and execution environments lead to better or worse software, creative hacks, and user experiences.
A similar but more expansive route is taken by Bogost’s fellow Georgia Tech professor Janet Murray (2011), who describes platforms as combinations of hardware, software, accessories and other formats (p. 34). Stability in platforms comes from close or loose coupling of these infrastructural components. Apple, with its iPhone, iTunes software, and online storefront, comprise a stable platform. From her designer’s perspective this is interesting because it creates a set of emerging standards that are tightly-coupled and lead to possibilities for “the sustained development of expressive genres” (p. 35). Murray only touches on the notion of platforms, as it is not central to her discussion, which is more focused on the collective process of design and how designers can take advantage of it. Murray’s notion can be considered to be more of an infrastructural perspective of platforms from a marketing and sales standpoint. This definition should appeal to mass communication scholars interested in dynamics of distribution and also has more interplay with the policy arena.