Facebook and Apple are both under the microscope this week because of the power they have over those who build their businesses on their platforms.
For Facebook, the issue is a change to its News Feed algorithm that will privilege posts from friends over posts from news publishers (like Business Insider). For Apple, it’s a public battle with Spotify over the 30% fee that it collects from subscriptions sold through apps in the App Store.
In both cases, the question is the same: How much responsibility do these tech companies have when the needs of their own business conflict with the needs of the companies that rely on them for distribution and revenue?
Thinking about that question, I’m reminded of a page from “Batman: The Killing Joke,” a classic comic first published in 1988 and soon to be adapted into an R-rated animated movie starring Mark Hamill.
At the end of that story, Batman has captured the Joker after a caper that’s actually super weird and icky and that involves gratuitous violence towards women. Before Batman turns him in, the Joker tells one last joke:
Two inmates are trying to escape a lunatic asylum and get up to the roof. There’s a narrow gap to the next rooftop, and beyond it, freedom. The first inmate jumps across without a problem, but the second one is afraid of falling. So the first inmate offers to shine his flashlight across the gap, so the second one can walk across and join him.
- DC Comics
In the Joker’s telling, this joke is about his relationship with Batman, suggesting that they’re both too crazy ever to give up their strange, comic-book lives. The two share an unprecedented laugh together.
But it works just as well as a metaphor for Apple and Google, too:
In Facebook’s case, news publishers can’t afford not to keep a presence on the social media platform, given its increasing place in people’s lives as a news distribution service. As Facebook just proved, though, it can turn off the flashlight at any given moment, and poof, there goes the business.
In the case of Apple, developers can’t afford to ignore the iPhone. Accepting that 30% “Apple Tax” is something they do willingly, because that’s the cost of getting access to the millions of iPhone owners around the world – potential revenue that no app developer could ever afford to leave on the table. App development is a thin-margin business as it is.
In both cases, businesses go in knowing that it’s a flashlight beam that hinges on the platform company not simply flicking the switch and leaving them to fall into the void. They do it anyway, because there’s simply no other choice.