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Platform versus content, and the knowledge domain

There’s an interesting distinction between things that serve the role of a platform/utility and things that serve the role of content. A platform is something relatively neutral on top of which content is put (by one or many people).

For instance, an operating system (such as Linux, Windows, Mac OS) serves as a platform, and the various softwares and applications that run on top of this serve as the “content” — though some of these softwares (such as word processing software) may themselves serve as platform for people to create content (documents). The underlying software, web site, and server of a social network are a platform on top of which people create content — for instance, on Facebook (the platform), people talk to each other, share links and news, and play games and have other kinds of interactions, as well as exploit the power of Facebook’s social graph through tools such as Facebook Connect.

In a similar vein, the MediaWiki software plays the role of a platform for MediaWiki-based websites such as Wikipedia, where various contributors add and improve upon content, and others come and consume the content.

As a general rule, successful platforms enjoy a lot more leverage than successful content, i.e., the number of people adopting a successful platform could be much larger than the number of people who consume successful content. For instance, the Harry Potter series has sold copies in the tens of millions, but this is still a lot less than the number of users of the Facebook website (over 600 million). The market for particular content is limited to those people who want to consume that particular content. Platforms, by virtue of being (relative) blank slates, can attract a wider range of people who can build and customise them in different ways.

Of course, platforms are not complete blank slates. The rules of a successful platform, whether a social network or an iPhone, depend a lot on the specific rules and user experience, as well as the various defaults and norms that evolve around it. However, the parameters of a platform are more in the nature of general rules of interaction for how content may be overlaid on them, rather than specific pieces of content. A platform comprises not just software or hard-coded/law-based decisions but also informal norms of behavior and “community rules” that evolve around this software.

Given the substantially greater leverage enjoyed by platforms, and the substantial increases in such leverage offered by the Internet, it is unsurprising that the most innovative companies and products in the Internet era have been platform-based. In a different era, a highly creative person spent time making paintings of designs. Today, a highly creative person can start a cool little website that soon turns into a world-changing platform for communication and social interaction.

A question of key relevance for the subject wikis is: what are effective platforms for content dissemination/absorption/education/learning? In other words, what kind of generic infrastructure best facilitates specific content dissemination/absorption/learning goals?

What’s interesting to me is that this question appears not to be one of great importance to people. Individually, there have been many new platforms/modes of knowledge dissemination: wiki software (including its features of strong internal linking, collaborative editing, and canonical page naming), blogs (with their timeline-based post nature and usually personalized/narrative style), open course videos, etc. However, with the exception of Wikipedia, none of these platforms have attracted sufficiently large amounts of content in a sufficiently easy-to-locate fashion to fundamentally transform people’s day-to-day experience of knowledge acquisition and assimilation.

Crudely, it seems to me that the state of knowledge dissemination/acquisition and information flow today is akin to the state of web search circa 1995, or the state of social networking in 2003. The Wikipedia model does have a lot of what I think are fairly right answers with respect to knowledge dissemination, but Wikipedia in isolation simply isn’t the complete answer, because it is meant to be an encyclopedia and not a learning resource for in-depth subject-specific knowledge.

Why hasn’t there been a lot of platform innovation in the knowledge arena? I think there are some reasons:

  • People mistakenly think the problem is solved: This is probably one of the more important reasons. People think that the current modes of knowledge acquisition and assimilation — many of them dating many centuries (such as books and chalkboard lectures) are the best that will ever be devised, and there is no real room for new platforms. Though they may agree that the specific books or lectures they have been subjected to could be improved upon, they don’t see the need for or the possibility of something fundamentally better. Even those who acknowledge some of the Internet’s innovations think that everything that had to happen in the knowledge arena has happened — for instance, some are of the view that Wikipedia has basically solved the knowledge problem. It’s a bit like people back in 1995 thinking that web search was a solved problem, or people in 2000 thinking that the existing methods of keeping track of friends via phone, email, and greeting cards meant there was no need for fundamental breakthroughs (such as social networking).

  • The problem is harder and has less leverage: The trickier the knowledge, the more quirky it is by nature, which means that generic delivery platforms fail to do the specific knowledge justice. Thus, platform design has to take into account the quirks of specific content. But this makes the platform much less scalable and means it enjoys much lower leverage. If the right platform differs for each discipline, then the leverage that a platform enjoys is limited to that discipline. With the exception of an encyclopedia-type platform (where Wikipedia already reigns), here’s no question of getting a platform that appeals to the needs of a billion users.

  • The collision of skills between subject-matter expertise and platform development skills is highly rare: This is particularly true for hard subjects — the people who know the best about a topic are people who spent years learning that topic, and hence probably didn’t spend years thinking about platform development. The best platform developers have often been college dropouts (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) and their knowledge of other subject matter is limited.

  • Incentives in academia (where much knowledge resides) are not platform-oriented: Academics face incentives to publish, and those in teaching colleges face incentives to teach. These incentives are “content”-oriented: produce stuff, and get rewarded. Few have incentives to think about developing new approaches to building platforms, or even collaborating with others who are thus interested. Academics enter big-picture stuff typically after they have tenure, but the big-picture stuff now tends to be directing research programs, not making the existing knowledge more transparent and readily accessible. It simply isn’t fashionable in academia to boast about reducing the time taken for learning a new concept from four minutes to three.