Monday, February 11, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part One

I recently finished reading Platform by Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson, the massive Christian publishing house recently purchased by the even massiver mainstream publishing house Harper Collins. Hyatt is a popular blogger (#6 on the top 100 Christian leaders to follow on Twitter!); he's popular mainly because of his liberality and insight as he pulls back the curtain on contemporary publishing. I've not met him, but I find him pretty entertaining and often insightful.

I'm reading Platform because everyone in the universe should, if you take some of my friends in the publishing industry seriously. This is the secret sauce, the magic bullet, the one thing standing between you and publishing success. Except it's not.

Don't get me wrong. I suspect that Platform has in fact been quite helpful to a number of people, and I know that it is, more or less, the paradigm practiced by a great number of highly successful authors. (Full disclosure: I've employed some of his suggestions in this very post.) But almost from page one it didn't ring true to me, and I think I've figured out why.

Platform is built on a paradox: you need a platform to get people to want your message or your product; you need a message or product that people want in order to build a platform. Hyatt downplays this paradoxical nature of platform, though, paying lip service to the "wow product" that your platform demands and concentrating instead on a platform's apparatus. Ignoring the paradox, he dives in head first to head shots and other purely pragmatic elements of the game. He parses out the gnats of platform, if you will, and swallows the camel in the process. This failure to wrestle with the paradox, even to acknowledge it, sets the whole book on the wrong course for me.

The underlying assumption of Platform is that you are the CEO of You, Inc., purveyor of You,tm the product. You move product by executing your marketing plan, which is you, and you are aided in your efforts by the work you've done to build your brand, which is you, and to establish your platform, which is everyone else.

This sounds narcissistic, and in a technical sense I suppose it is. But only as a means to an end: you are passionate about your message or product--so passionate that you identify yourself entirely with it--and you know that in a world with seven billion similarly passionate purveyors of product, it's going to take a little narcissism to break out of the pack. The problem with this perspective on platform, as I see it, isn't narcissism. (That's significant, since narcissism is my shtick, and you would think that in service to my own platform I would make narcissism the problem with Hyatt's.) The problem as I see it is the lingering modernism in Hyatt's paradigm, and all its attendant assumptions.

First of all, there's a fundamental sense of isolation in this understanding of platform. We are necessarily the center of our universe, all Hyatt's affirmation of the Audience notwithstanding. If we aren't the center, our brand and our mission suffer, so to build a platform we must increasingly interpret the world as revolving around us. We don't have the luxury of friends, even peers; all other individuals are either tools or threats to our success. They may teach us or train us, they may do our accounting or design our websites or edit our tweets. They may compete for our customers or distract us from our mission. But they're not whole persons in and of themselves; they're orbiting our life, never coming to a landing in it. Wherever our platform is, under Hyatt's paradigm, it's a lonely place.

Second, there's a fundamental dehumanization in the embrace of such an understanding of platform. We aren't free to be human beings, with all our frailties. There's no rest in the construction of a platform, and there's not one inch of the entire landscape about which the brand does not cry out, "This is mine!" We tell our stories not because we need to be known but because our stories may move product or mobilize people on our behalf. We don't confess failure; we convert it into a talking point that reinforces our main point. We don't admit need because our platform always beckons; our show must always go on.

Finally, there's a frustrating materialism inherent in the modernist logic of platform as laid out in Hyatt's book. Success is measured by moved product, by hits and likes and shares and retweets and measurable metrics. The platform ultimately becomes all there is; it subsists entirely on itself. Seventeen chapters into the book Hyatt acknowledges without irony that "these days I find myself increasingly speaking on the topic of social media, because I am a blogger who has fed the growth of my blog's audience--and, therefore, the size of my platform--through social media." After all the advice about head shots and media kits and pit crews and branding tools, it really comes down to this: Hyatt's platform is based almost entirely on his expertise on building platform. There is no reality outside it; the platform is all there is.

I will set aside the oddness of this isolating, dehumanizing, materialist and narcissistic enterprise being championed by an undisputed global leader in cultural evangelicalism. (Hyatt is #6 on a recent list of top Christian leaders to follow on Twitter. I ranted about the list here. For an interesting lament on the dominance of evangelical publishing like Hyatt's Thomas Nelson in American Christian culture, from one of his peers in the Harper Industrial Complex, read this.) For now, I'm most interested in the shelf life of the paradigm Hyatt lays out in his book.

Modernity is, like Baby Boomers, winding down; its cultural dominance lies more in its long tenure than in its sustainability into the future. Like Baby Boomers, modernity still works, but it tires easily, and it struggles to make sense of the new realities springing up all around it. As generally helpful as Platform is, the platform Hyatt proposes in it is, in fact, a crumbling edifice. It'll hold for a while, but it will eventually break down without warning.

Meanwhile, pushing up through its cracking foundation is, I believe, an approach to getting your message out that is more fitted to the future, more informed by postmodern sensibilities. I'll start to paint that picture in a forthcoming post, where I have no doubt that I will give it a pollyannish gloss. So I welcome all my friends who are Hyatt apologists or happy modernists, now and in the weeks to come, to sharpen their pencils and ready their critiques. Let's start with this:

* Where do you think I'm being unfair in my critique of Hyatt's Platform?

* What did you get out of the book that's helped you get your message out?

4 comments:

Jen said...

Thank you for pushing back and giving a very insightful critique. It was helpful for me - and encouraging especially to know that someone within the publishing ranks shares the hesitations I've felt. (I just assumed I was crazy.)

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

Well, sir, you have my attention.

Amy Simpson said...

Thank you! So good to hear this well-thought-out description of frustrations I haven't shaped into arguments. I look forward to more.

DJ Chuang said...

Astute analysis and reflections.. the book is masterful at describing how to build a platform to promote a message and a product and a brand amidst a free market capitalism, and he's got the numbers to show for it.

There are other parts of the paradox you'd mentioned, and that is, the "wow product" has to appeal to a large and growing audience. The quality of the product doesn't matter if thousands and millions of people don't want to pay for it.

And another assumption underneath all of that, is you have to keep growing your audience, increasing your profit, and expanding your platform. Is there ever enough?