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Why Silicon Valley stays one step ahead of news publishers

By Xavier van Leeuwe

NRC Media

Amsterdamn, The Netherlands


What is the pattern behind the success of companies like Google, Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb? They do not sell products, they create a platform. At least that is what the authors of a new book Platform Revolution claim. And I tend to believe it.

The authors show how these so called platform companies join makers and buyers in a high-quality information exchange, which seems to be the core of their competitive advantage.

Steve Jobs learned his lesson

Apple learned a hard lesson in the ‘80s by building a so-called pipeline, the counterpart of a platform. The company‘s first Macintosh computer was a closed system with a limited set of proprietary applications.

Microsoft Windows was an open platform that offered other programmes. More and more applications worked on Windows, more and more users liked it. With more users, developers made more applications. Windows had a near-monopoly in the ‘90s, while Apple came close to bankruptcy.

When launching the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs did not commit the same error. The App Store and iTunes were open systems and as a platform the iPhone surpassed Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and other pipeline phones.

Apple added a clever feature to the platform. The company guaranteed the quality of the platform by introducing approval of third-party apps. Therefore, the Apple platform nine years later is still ahead of Google play, which is so open that it loses quality.

Apple sure knows how to orchestrate and is taking that ever further, announcing this week they might introduce paid search in the App Store.

Platform vs. pipeline

An essential difference between pipelines and platforms is that conventional pipelines try to control the resources, whereas platforms orchestrate the ecosystem. In the world of the pipeline, your main assets are tangible — mines and real estate. On a platform, the intellectual property and the community are the real value.

Furthermore, the pipeline is about internal improvement whereas platforms focus on external interactions. It’s vital to have as many interactions as possible to optimise the ecosystem. Uber and Airbnb create value from an ecosystem of rooms and drivers rather than an individual customer. These platforms are all about expanding the total value of the ecosystem in an iterative and feedback-driven process.

Media companies

I think it’s an interesting concept that is applicable to media companies. From my own experience, I feel and understand the huge value of insights from high-quality interactions with your customers. You start to feel their pain. You understand the destructive patterns you have built to your own “benefit.”

We, the media, have a very committed audience. They like to share their opinions. We should use it to our advantage.


In addition to improving our customer journeys, responding appropriately to customers with low NPS and CES scores, there is a very obvious way to tap from our ecosystem: comments.

As Nikolay Malyarov wrote in his insightful article “We hate comments” and other reasons publishers can’t compete with Facebook, we publishers are new to this, as we remain content-first instead of audience-first — the exact opposite to the model proven to be successful by the likes of Facebook.

Take a publisher like The Information. I was really touched by the company’s acquisition e-mail I received last week, basing the persuasion tactic, the reason to subscribe, entirely on the value added by comments from its network of CEOs. 

A coincidence they are based in Silicon Valley? I do not think so.

Of course there are also disadvantages to the openness of comments. No more than a fraction of of your users ever provide comment on your own app. Heat maps and mobile sites show that almost no one looks at reactions.

Still, I think comments make sense. What counts is whether your organisation reads the comments and acts upon the feedback. The trick is to avoid comment spam, because that sucks time and brings the severely reduces the quality.


I read an article that showed 27 ways to think about comments. The ideas range from upvoting and downvoting to preventing anonymous posts by logging on. You can also assign moderators, a version of the expert review of Apple, but that eats up time.

A fresh approach that combines all of these is a new technology being tested since last week by a newspaper in the United States. The technology is called Civil Comments, and it follows the advice of the book to use the power of your ecosystem.

The Alaska Dispatch News has replaced Facebook comments by Civil Comments, a start-up that was recently hosted by MIT Media Lab.

It is a commentary platform that encourages polite conversation without sucking time from your staff. It works as follows. Users create an account using their login from Facebook or Twitter, or e-mail address. When they want to post a comment, they get to rank three other comments on quality and courtesy. Their own new comment goes through this very same process.

Civil Comments learns from ratings and uses algorithms to decide what is published and what is not. Abusive or harassing messages are filtered out that way.

Welcome, Silicon Valley. 

About Xavier van Leeuwe

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