Data is quickly becoming the 21st-century version of oil – a resource essential to the entire global economy, and the focus of intense struggle to control it. Platforms, as spaces in which two or more groups interact, provide what is in effect an oil rig for data. Every interaction on a platform becomes another data […]
For the briefest moment in March 2014, Facebook’s dominance looked under threat. Ello, amid much hype, presented itself as the non-corporate alternative to Facebook. According to the manifesto accompanying its public launch, Ello would never sell your data to third parties, rely on advertising to fund its service, or require you to use your real name.
The hype fizzled out as Facebook continued to expand. Yet Ello’s rapid rise and fall is symptomatic of our contemporary digital world and the monopoly-style power accruing to the 21st century’s new “platform” companies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon. Their business model lets them siphon off revenues and data at an incredible pace, and consolidate themselves as the new masters of the economy. Monday brought another giant leap as Amazon raised the prospect of an international grocery price war by slashing prices on its first day in charge of the organic retailer Whole Foods.
The platform – an infrastructure that connects two or more groups and enables them to interact – is crucial to these companies’ power. None of them focuses on making things in the way that traditional companies once did. Instead, Facebook connects users, advertisers, and developers; Uber, riders and drivers; Amazon, buyers and sellers.
Reaching a critical mass of users is what makes these businesses successful: the more users, the more useful to users – and the more entrenched – they become. Ello’s rapid downfall occurred because it never reached the critical mass of users required to prompt an exodus from Facebook – whose dominance means that even if you’re frustrated by its advertising and tracking of your data, it’s still likely to be your first choice because that’s where everyone is, and that’s the point of a social network. Likewise with Uber: it makes sense for riders and drivers to use the app that connects them with the biggest number of people, regardless of the sexism of Travis Kalanick, the former chief executive, or the ugly ways in which it controls drivers, or the failures of the company to report serious sexual assaults by its drivers.