Users, advertisers – we are all caught up in the “enshittification” of the internet

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“Those whom the gods want to destroy,” says the proverb, “first drive them mad.” Actually, that’s an exaggeration: the gods only have to make people forget. Amnesia turns out to be a powerful narcotic, and for at least 25 years has clouded our perception of what’s happening on the Internet, namely the inexorable degradation of the online environment and our passive, surly acceptance of it.

examples? Everywhere you look Take Google search, which was once (1998) sleek, efficient, and a massive improvement over what came before it. You entered a search query and got a list of websites that were shown by a type of automated peer review called PageRank. Now the first result page of a search for “high-quality cooking pots” brings up countless “sponsored” articles, i.e. advertisements.

Try searching Amazon for ‘best multimeter’ – once synonymous with an efficient online experience – and you’ll immediately be presented with four ‘sponsored’ results (ie results that the vendor paid Amazon to promote). Once upon a time, Facebook and Twitter would show you stuff from your friends and followers; Now you’re getting a barrage of things that the platform’s algorithms think could increase your “engagement.” Instagram has become a machine designed to keep you in constant scrolling mode. Ditto TikTok – on steroids. Etc.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the great tech critic, we now have a term for this online platform decay – Enschitification. “First,” he writes, “they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; Eventually, they abuse these business customers to reclaim all the value for themselves.” Enshittification arises from the convergence of two things: the power of platform owners to change how their platforms extract value from users, and the nature of two-sided markets – where the platforms sit between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other, and then siphoning off an ever-increasing chunk of the value flowing between them.

So are we stuck in enshittification? For the time being probably yes

It’s easy to see how it happens. Rule one for any online business is to gain large numbers of users quickly so you can use the power of network effects to keep them in your walled garden. They do this by offering “free” services (Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram) or loss-making discounted prices (Amazon). Rule 2: Once you hook them up, turn them into a captive market for your real customers – advertisers and vendors. And as soon as you have them Then you are locked in (Rule 3) and in a seller’s market – and have a license to print money.

This is the enshitification cycle. The basic idea, says economist Tim Harford, “was outlined in the economic literature in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web existed. Economic theorists lack Doctorow’s gift for strong neologism, but they certainly know how to construct a formal model of a product going to the dogs.”

What drives the process? Two things. The first is the amazing power of network effects. Nobody forces you to use Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp or whatever. And you can delete your account at any time. But when all your friends, co-workers, family members and significant others are on these systems, then you are effectively cutting off your nose to annoy your face. And most users are not that masochistic.

The second inertia is technical—the fact that these systems aren’t interoperable: you can’t take your social graph with you. And even if you could, the platform owner can make it very difficult or even impossible. When Elon Musk acquired Twitter, he banned interoperable software, shut down the company’s APIs, and attempted to terrorize users by suspending them for including their mastodon handles on their profiles, making it harder to leave the company. and, as Doctorow puts it, “the extent of the conspiracy increased users can be force-fed without risking their exit”.

But it’s not just users who are effectively jailed by enshittification. The advertisers and vendors who are the true customers of technology platforms are also prisoners. While Musk’s deranged practices on Twitter were so gross that major advertisers left that particular platform, most of them remain interested in being on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok — because that’s where their key audiences are.

So are we stuck in enshittification? For the time being probably yes. The regulatory insistence on interoperability that has taken control of the mobile phone market would be more complex (and therefore more difficult) to enforce on social media platforms, so this is unlikely to happen. The targeted advertising business model that underlies the grotesque deformations of online platforms could be outlawed, but even that seems unlikely in a neoliberal world. So we have hope that enshittification may eventually become so repulsive to users and consumers that they will rebel. To do this, however, they must remember that other realities are possible – that there was a time when things were better. The world doesn’t always have to go to the dogs.

what i read

to parrot reason
new York The magazine has a wonderful profile by Emily Bender, a prime example of informed sanity in the nonsense about ChatGPT: You Are Not a Parrot – And a Chatbot Is not a Human.

moral programming
Maciej Cegłowski, one of the industry’s smartest observers, gives a great talk on The Moral Economy of Tech.

admissions of truth
If you are interested in the truth about the university’s admissions policy, Legacy and Athlete Preference at Harvard is an insightful National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by Peter Arcidiacono, Tyler Ransom, and Josh Kinsler.

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