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Cory Doctorow on the enshittification of social platforms

The word enshittification on a blue and white gradient

If you read nothing else this week, I encourage you to read Cory Doctorow’s latest … rant? … essay? … article?

Written in a style uniquely his own, he calls the article “TikTok enshittification”, giving us an ever so appropriate new word. Here’s his intro:

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a "two sided market," where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

By the title, you would think it would focus only on TikTok, but in fact he walks through how this behavior happened on:

  • Amazon
  • Facebook
  • TikTok
  • Cryptocurrencies/Web3
  • Twitter
  • Amazon Smile
  • Google Search

And in the midst he brings it all the way back to the Netheads vs Bellheads debates of the 1990s.

I enjoyed the post because we’ve seen this cycle happen… SO… MANY… TIMES….

New startup launches and everybody gets excited and starts using it for free. At some point the company has to make enough money to keep paying people - and to pay their investors, because they want to grow. And so the start making choices that ultimately follow this path.

The post was also a sad reminder of how much we’ve lost since some of the earliest days when companies like Google set out with a mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”. That’s still their mission, in fact, but with so many people trying to game their algorithm, and with so much advertising involved, the results are no longer what they once were. (And we’ll see if they are challenged by ChatGPT and other generative AI systems.)

Toward the end, he hits a key point:

Enshittification truly is how platforms die. That's fine, actually. We don't need eternal rulers of the internet. It's okay for new ideas and new ways of working to emerge. The emphasis of lawmakers and policymakers shouldn't be preserving the crepuscular senescence of dying platforms. Rather, our policy focus should be on minimizing the cost to users when these firms reach their expiry date: enshrining rights like end-to-end would mean that no matter how autocannibalistic a zombie platform became, willing speakers and willing listeners would still connect with each other

Many years ago, friends of mine wrote “There are no permanent favourites” as part of what they termed the Internet Invariants.

The point is that platforms and services come and go. Some have their dominance for a few years, some for many years. But in the end the siren song of “enshittification” is often too much to resist. The cycle continues.

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