Platforms Revisited

Some of the earliest posts I wrote on this blog were based on Jeff Jarvis’s book, What Would Google Do? and sought to apply its insights to the church. In particular, I was really excited about the idea, that, just as Google provided a platform for communities to do the things they cared about, churches ought to think of themselves in platform terms.

That was in 2010. A lot has changed. I no longer think that global technology corporations are the right metaphor for church life, and I’m embarrassed about my previous enthusiasm, because the intervening nine years have clearly demonstrated the central danger of platforms: ownership.

It felt forward-thinking then to suggest that congregations could conceive of their mission in terms of what communities wanted to use them for. My leading illustrations were scout troops and skateboarders, and I thought it worth exploring how a church might provide a meaningful platform to those communities as an expression of its own mission. What was missing in that idea was the importance of ownership, that when you offer a “platform” for something you have to be willing to own the outcome of that something. Being a platform can easily be seen to involve surrendering authorship and ownership of the work, and that’s a mistake.

In the worst case scenario, where the platform is used to someone’s injury, you can’t disassociate yourself. Google and Facebook are providing a platform for harm, and they are failing in their missions when they shrug their shoulders about the dangerous and hateful things people are doing with them. Clearly, churches can’t copy that.

But even in the best case scenario, we should care more about ownership, authorship, and creation. It feels to me now that collaboration is the better ideal. For a church to make something in partnership with a person or a community is a more fruitful ministry outcome than simply handing them a platform to do it themselves. It’s more creative and generative, and it allows us to build more dynamic relationships–ones based on reciprocity and that prize learning–than when we simply offer up our space.

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