Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 11 March 2023

Users, advertisers – we are all trapped in the ‘enshittification’ of the internet

John Naughton

There is a new word for the degradation of online platforms, but it’s been happening for years. Why do we tolerate it?

“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy,” says the adage, “they first make mad.” Actually, that’s overkill: the Gods just need to make people forget. Amnesia turns out to be a powerful narcotic and it’s been clouding our perceptions of what’s been happening on the internet for at least 25 years, namely the inexorable degradation of the online environment and our passive, sullen acceptance of that.

Examples? Everywhere you look. Take Google search that, once upon a time (1998), was elegant, efficient and a massive improvement on what went before. You typed in a query and got a list of websites that were indicated by a kind of automated peer-review called PageRank. Now, the first page of results from a search for “high-quality saucepans” produces a myriad of “sponsored” items, ie advertisements.

Try shopping for “the best multimeter” on Amazon – once a byword for an efficient online experience – and you are immediately confronted by four “sponsored” results (ie ones the vendor has paid Amazon to highlight). Once upon a time, Facebook and Twitter showed you stuff from your friends and followers; now you get a torrent of things that the platform’s algorithms think might increase your “engagement”. Instagram has become a machine designed to keep you in constant scrolling mode. Ditto TikTok – on steroids. And so on.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the great tech critic, we now have a term for this decay process in online platforms – enshittification. “First,” he writes, “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.” Enshittification results from the convergence of two things: the power of platform owners to change how their platforms extract value from users and the nature of the two-sided markets – where the platforms sit between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other and then raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

It’s easy to see how it happens. Rule One for any online venture is to acquire large numbers of users quickly so that you can harness the power of network effects to keep them inside your walled garden. You do this by offering “free” services (Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram), or loss-making reduced prices (Amazon). Rule Two: once you’ve got them locked in, you turn them into a captive market for your real customers – advertisers and vendors. And once you’ve got them locked in then (Rule Three) you’re in a seller’s market – and have a licence to print money.

This is the enshittification cycle. The basic idea, says the economist Tim Harford, “was sketched out in economic literature in the 1980s, before the world wide web existed. Economic theorists lack Doctorow’s gift for a potent neologism, but they certainly understand how to make a formal model of a product going to the dogs.”

What drives the process? Two things. The first is the astonishing power of network effects. Nobody forces you to use Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp or whatever. And you can always delete your account. But if all of your friends, colleagues, family members and significant others are on those systems then you’re effectively cutting off your nose to spite your face. And most users are not that masochistic.

The second inertial force is technical – the fact that these systems are not interoperable: you can’t easily take your “social graph” (your network of contacts) with you. And even if you could, the platform owner can make it very difficult or even impossible to do. When Elon Musk acquired Twitter he banned interoperable software, crippled the company’s APIs and tried to terrorise users by suspending them for including their Mastodon handles in their profiles, thereby making it harder to leave and, as Doctorow puts it, increasing “the amount of enshittification users can be force-fed without risking their departure”.

But it’s not just users who are effectively incarcerated by enshittification. The advertisers and vendors who are the real customers of tech platforms are also prisoners. While Musk’s deranged practices on Twitter have been so gross as to cause significant advertisers to abandon that particular platform, most of them are as keen as ever to be on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok – because that’s where their most important target audiences are.

So are we stuck with enshittification? For the time being, probably yes. The regulatory insistence on interoperability that brought the mobile phone market under control would be more complex (and therefore more difficult) to impose on social media platforms, so it’s unlikely to happen. The business model of targeted advertising that underpins the grotesque deformations of online platforms could be outlawed, but that, too, seems unlikely in a neoliberal world. So we are left with the hope that, eventually, enshittification might become so repulsive to users and consumers that they will rebel. For that to happen, though, they will have to 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. 

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