In the world of internet platforms and social media, a new term has emerged, one that perfectly encapsulates a common trend observed in the lifecycle of many online services: “Enshittification”. Coined by Canadian-British-American author and blogger Cory Doctorow, this term vividly illustrates the gradual degradation of online platforms’ services as they prioritize profits over user experience.
This is a transcript from a conversation between the host Arya Cohen Wade of ‘Culturally Determined’ and guest Cory Doctorow, a renowned science fiction novelist and activist. The main topic of discussion revolves around a phenomenon Doctorow named as ‘Enshittification’.
https://craphound.com/ by Cory Doctorow
Enshittification, as defined by Doctorow, is a process that online platforms undergo from being user-friendly and valuable to gradually turning into revenue-driven platforms at the expense of user experience. The life cycle of these platforms, according to Doctorow, begins with platforms providing value (goodies) to end-users, followed by finding a way to lock them in, often exploiting user information. Once users are locked in, the platforms entice business customers, such as advertisers or performers, by allocating surplus (goodies) to them. Once these business customers are locked in, platforms start retracting these goodies to allocate them to themselves, resulting in a degradation of both user and business customer experiences.
The conversation also touched upon examples like Facebook and Amazon that have followed this path. Doctorow contends that the longevity of these platforms lies in the fragile balance of offering just enough value to keep users from leaving, despite their dissatisfaction. He adds that these platforms are not eternal, and the priority should be making it easier for users to leave rather than making these platforms better at being “our Eternal overlords”.
Doctorow uses the example of TikTok, where the platform intervenes in its algorithms to boost some content creators, leading to an illusion of success and drawing in more users. This parallels to a rigged game at a fair, where only a few are allowed to win to create an impression of fair play.
Doctorow argues that there are specific systemic causes leading to enshittification, which suggests policy remedies. These causes include universal concentration across all industries due to non-enforcement of competition law, the extreme flexibility of digital platforms, and the opacity of the rules of these platforms. He suggests a policy solution where platforms should make it easy for users to leave them rather than trying to regulate these platforms to make them better.
Indeed, the architecture of the internet does lend itself to monopoly. This tendency is often referred to as the network effect, which describes how a product or service gains additional value as more people use it. For instance, Facebook becomes more valuable to its users as more of their friends join the platform, as they can interact with a larger portion of their social network on one platform. This creates a positive feedback loop that strengthens Facebook’s position in the market.
Doctorow claims, the same can be said for platforms like Google, Amazon, and others. Google’s search engine becomes more effective and accurate as more people use it, thus making it more attractive to new users. Amazon benefits from having a vast number of buyers and sellers on its platform, making it a go-to marketplace for many consumers.
Furthermore, these companies often leverage their monopoly status to cross-subsidize and rapidly expand into other markets. For example, Amazon used profits from its retail operation to expand into cloud computing with Amazon Web Services. These behaviors make it increasingly difficult for competitors to enter the market.
Also, data and artificial intelligence have become vital for these platforms, and their monopoly status allows them to amass vast amounts of data, which further strengthens their market positions.
The dominance of these tech giants has raised concerns about competition, data privacy, and the spread of misinformation, leading to calls for greater regulation and potential antitrust actions to break up these companies or at least limit their power. It’s a complex issue with no easy solutions, but many believe that action needs to be taken to ensure a healthy and competitive internet ecosystem.
In essence, enshittification is a phenomenon where online platforms, initially designed to add value to users, begin to detract from the user experience to prioritize revenue generation. This process often involves the promotion of advertisements, sponsored content, or implementing user-unfriendly features. In most cases, these platforms begin their journey by offering services that attract users and nurture a healthy community.
However, as these platforms evolve, they often start shifting their focus towards revenue generation—usually by acting as a middleman between sellers and buyers or content creators and consumers. As they continue to leverage their intermediary position for profit, they begin to compromise the user experience. Over time, these changes can erode the original value offered to users, leading to a process of enshittification.
Impacts of Enshittification
Enshittification has several impacts, many of which are negative for both the user and, ultimately, the platform itself. The primary victim is the user experience. As platforms pivot towards revenue generation, the original value provided to users is often diluted. This could be in the form of intrusive advertisements, increased paywalls, decreased functionality, or increased complexity.