Early on in my web geek history, I used to hear the phrase “it’s just a platform” dispensed frequently, especially when someone would ask: “What’s this thing good for, anyway?”  I was always frustrated by that kind of non-answer answer.  After all, if you’re building some cool new tool, community or virtual world, you would think you would have an answer to the “What do I do with this” question, which is really just asking “Why have you gone and built this thing? What do you plan to use it for?”

The web started out as a way for academics to share information.  They built the web as a “platform” for these conversations.  I don’t think they could have forseen what it has become over time, because it has evolved, as the needs of people using it have changed over time, with each new tool or site or use adding additional knowledge and information in its wake.  Sure, the idea of a platform, like a blank canvas, that changes as the needs and creativity of the users changes, is amazing.  I’d argue that with that logic, we can look at democracy and capitalism as “just a platform”, but clearly they were created with some sort of intent behind them.

Platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, have clearly evolved over time.  Like the code that runs the web itself, its changed enough that its original form seems barely recognizable, like an old farm house that kept having rooms added on to it until barely anything of the first structure exists.  Sometimes the way the initial foundation is constructed reflects what tools were in use and available at that time, leaving us with archaic pieces glommed on to less efficient pieces of code (cough- Windows- cough).  The question then becomes whether or not to abandon the old to make way for a whole new platform, like the Mac did with its OS based on Unix, or to keep modifying the old, and hope the rickety building sticks together.  The legacy of the old foundation and initial purpose still flows through the veins of the platform, however.

The creators of platforms, ranging from web communities or even the iPod and iPad, may be surprised, and even thrilled at what people have been able to do with their creations, enjoying how these “children” have grown up over time, changed, evolved, and even exceeded the parent’s wildest dreams at the moment of conception.  I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg  has probably had a cringe moment or two when his Mom or old girlfriend contacted him on Facebook, but has also been thrilled that people see him as a visionary and having created something 500 Million people engage in- exceeding the population of the US.

Sometimes its difficult to see what to do with blank canvases.  Sometimes its hard to explain to others “What is it good for? Why do I need to use it?”  But if you ever want someone to engage, to have the platform grow and evolve, you had better be able to answer, even in a simple way, why someone would possibly want to be there, and what the attraction is.  If you can’t bait the hook, you can’t catch the fish, or in business, make the sale.

So, my dear geekarati friends, please have patience with the lay folk and come up with a better and more compelling sales pitch than “it’s just a platform.”  That tends to be what we refer to as content-free speech- words are being said, but the meaning is obscure.