The personal platform

It’s a huge stretch to think about society, and about business, from the perspective of the independently empowered individual. In business, and even in government, we are so accustomed to thinking about people as dependents, and to seeing their abilities in terms of what we as institutions allow, that it’s difficult to switch our perspective around — and think about companies, and organizations, existing at our grace, and building their services on what we bring to the collective table.

Until I read this piece by Adriana Lukas this morning I hadn’t fully realized how the ubiquitous use of the word content, which I’ve griped about for years (and which Adriana quotes) frames our understanding of markets, and media, in ways that place presumed control in the hands of “providers” other than ourselves. Even UGC — “User Generated Content” — is not seen as ours, but as freight for media companies to forward for their own purposes. As John Perry Barlow put it a few years back, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened”.

Media is where the madness is maintained. And that madness will persist for as long as we continue to assume that business is shipping, and that our worth is measured as freight for The Media’s container cargo business.

But rather than gripe some more, Adriana offers a useful way of framing the full worth of individuals, the creative goods they produce, and what they bring to both social and business relationships: the concept of the person as the platform:

Content is media industry term. The number of people talking about content grows every day as they assume roles that before only media could perform. With more tools and ways of distributing, photos, videos, writings, cartoons etc. are being ‘liberated’ from the channel world. Alas, often sliding into the platform and silo world. As far as I am concerned there are only two platforms – the individual user and the web.

That gives us something interesting to work with as we continue exploring how this changes everything.

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12 Responses to The personal platform

  1. Content is not a “media industry term.” Far from it, content is “… the substance of cognition” (OED). Content is also what fills vessels (OED again), giving them their significance, the absence of which would render vessels (and meda) absurd. To take an obvious case, American television is terrible not because of its broadcasting technology but because of its content, i.e. its hideous programming (which can more be blamed on wavelength allocation and advertising-based funding than on the medium). Those of us who actually create — whether in words, concepts, or images — whether for ourselves or in service to others — use the possibilities of the media we master exactly to capture and convey content that communicates, inspires, or generates aesthetic or emotional response. Indeed, it is often the nature of the content that leads us to chose the medium. In terms of the internet, a medium/content dichotomy might be a guarantor of the independence of individuals’ thoughts and images from the concerns and control of those of run the infrastructure. Perhaps weblogs that rail against content should consider publishing blank postings. 🙂

  2. Dear Mr Lewis – you may be missing the point. While content is not a term invented by the media industry, of late it has certainly been hijacked by it. The democratization of media – the changing roles referenced above – are causing everyone in the marketing, PR, and customer service areas to rethink the meaning, value and utility of content. And that, I think is the point.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    All good points, Steve.

    I wish that, when most of us in the webbed world speak about “content,” we actually mean “the substance of cognition,” or just, well, substance. I remember many years ago working with an especially generic VP — a guy who looked the part, but had nothing of substance to offer. About him one of his workers said, “He has no content.”

    Alas, when online marketers today (as Deb points out) talk about “user generated content,” they’re usually talking about something which, for the economic purposes of the medium, is little other than advertising bait.

  4. Trudy Schuett says:

    I really can’t comment on content, but I have to say I’m not particularly comfortable with the term, “independently empowered individual.”

    I had to read that first ‘graph a couple of times.

    From where I sit in the Sonoran desert, it looks fairly insulting to those of us who live outside the ivy-covered walls.

    Please identify this “we” who thinks so little of their fellow human beings.

  5. Sam Hiser says:

    The difference between what we often mean by ‘content’ and ‘substance’ reminds me a bit of Edward Tufte’s distinction between ‘debris’ and ‘interface.’

  6. Mike Warot says:

    Thanks for that pointer… I’ll definitely keep Edward’s ideas in mind the next time I’m writing software.

  7. Doc Searls says:

    Trudy, I’m obviously being unclear. Sorry about that.

    The “we” I’m talking about is institutions — mostly big business — that treat individuals like cattle that can be owned and branded and kept captive.

    As I wrote here, we see evidence of this in 10,000-word “terms of service” from phone companies that basically say they can cut us off at any time and for any reason they like. We see it in call centers that do everything they can to keep us dependent while not providing more than the most minimal service. We hear it from venture capitalists who ask entrepreneurs “what’s your lock-in” for customers, as if locking customers up is naturally a good thing.

    Many of us, when we go to work, do our best to “capture” customers — and then go home and resent it when we’re treated like captives by the companies on which we have no choice but to be dependent.

    The “stretch” I wrote about is the difficulty all of us have in seeing past this contradiction. It’s the difficulty that companies have in valuing customers’ independence.

    A few months ago I was talking to a high-up guy at a major retailer who said they love their customers and do everything they can to own them. I asked him if he knew another word for “owning” a human being. He said, “Oh shit, it’s slavery!” And then he said that in fact the company’s whole CRM — customer relationship management — system was not about relationship at all, but about maintaining customer dependence, on the company’s own terms.

    Back farther than that I talked to a marketing VP at a major car rental agency. He told me that he couldn’t imagine any form of customer input other than what the company’s narrow system would allow. “We have consumers, not customers” was his message.

    By “independently empowered individual”, I meant somebody who isn’t a slave to the existing system.

    What we’re working on at ProjectVRM is providing individuals with tools that make them both independent from companies and better able to engage with companies — on the individual’s own terms, and not just those that companies provide.

    We (that is, ProjectVRM) don’t have a better way of saying that yet. It isn’t easy. But it needs to be done. If you want to help, please do.

    Also, just because ProjectVRM happens to be headquartered at a center at Harvard doesn’t make it ivy-covered. The only person active in ProjectVRM who happens to be at Harvard is me, and I’m just a fellow there. The university graciously provides me with interns and geeks and a server for our wiki and our blogs and stuff like that. But in the long run we need ProjectVRM to be independent as well.

    And we need all the help we can get.

  8. Marvin Bzura says:


    Here is some video I shot of John Perry Barlow speaking about the internet back in Nov 2006:

  9. To deb lavoy. I’ve been “rethinking the meaning of content” for about forty years and changing organizations, policy, and opinions in the process. “Point missed”, I don’t think so. SL

  10. Pingback: Social Web Strategies » Blog Archive » “There are only two platforms”

  11. Pingback: Doc Searls Weblog · The Revolution Will Not Be Intermediated

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