The platform and the curator

Who has their hand on the dial?

Talk with someone who works at Apple, Amazon, Google, Linkedin, Facebook, etc, and they’ll be happy to give you tips on how to work the platform to your advantage. How to get a bit more attention for your podcast or your website or your photos…

Unstated in this helpful posture is an unseen bias: They have a platform mindset.

This is the opposite of the thinking at a record label or a book publisher or a newspaper. They understand that their most important job is curation–choosing what goes on the front page.

Of course, platforms have long been curators, but they embraced the role instead of denying it. Radio station program directors decided what would be in heavy rotation and bookstore owners figured out what to put in the window or by the cash register. These platform leaders understood that their decision to promote something instead of everything was a key part of their job.

The platform mindset is sort of helpless. The algorithm is in charge, they aren’t. The data decides, they don’t.

In the short run, this bias feels helpful in a lot of ways. It eliminates gatekeeper errors. Since everything has a chance, being alert as a gatekeeper feels less important. When Decca famously turned down the Beatles, it was a mistake that cost them for decades. A platform executive doesn’t have to worry about this, since they can carry everyone and let the market sort itself out.

But there are two problems with this chosen, learned helplessness:

The first is that it’s simply not true. The algorithm doesn’t write itself. The rise in hate speech on platforms like Twitter is possible because the algorithm rewards it. The vapid recipes that people build on websites are there because Google’s algorithm rewards them. And yes, the noxious additional fees that airlines charge are there because the travel websites rank flights with hidden charges higher in the results than those that are honest about what it really costs.

When platforms grow in scale, they often add hardworking, well-meaning people to engage the public, sort of a buffer between creators and the algorithm, but they’re instructed that the algorithm itself is sacrosanct and off limits. We sell everything, we don’t know how to sell any (particular) thing.

Go to some meetings with Apple’s podcast team (the ones who apparently can make or break a podcast by promoting it) and you’ll soon realize that Apple isn’t really in the business of helping its many users find podcasts that will elevate, inspire and educate them. Instead, they’re simply feeding the platform.

Netflix, in its best moments, succeeds because they break the platform paradigm and shift into curation.

The second is that this platform-first agnostic non-curation ultimately leads to the demise of the platform. The aphorism is: Enough A/B testing will turn any website into a porn site. That’s because the short-term waves of data-driven, algorithmic feedback loops inevitably make platforms banal, then trashy. This is happening to Amazon–their Amazon Go stores in New York are dull. The search result spam on their site is worse. Inevitably, the people they most want to serve get frustrated, bored or bummed out and go somewhere else.

What to do about it? Well, if you’re a creator, it helps to realize that you’re probably not going to be treated in a special way by any platform that has a platform mindset. There isn’t a shortcut, there are simply lots of dreary steps and then maybe some luck.

And if you’re part of a platform that has scale (or hope to build one), this is the perfect moment to learn from the curation that came before. When we talk about the folks that built the parts of our culture that we’re proud of, we almost never talk about the platforms. We talk about people who had the guts and the taste and the energy to help others discover things that made a difference, all while winnowing out the cruft and the junk.

We shouldn’t be here to feed the platform. The platform needs to be here for us.