Cory Doctorow’s idea of “enshittification”, as elucidated in his post here is quite simple:
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.Cory Doctorow
This concept, or process, has been applied to all sorts of things – Amazon, TikTok, Reddit, Twitter/X, basically any platform. How are these platforms “good to their users”? Doctorow explains a little bit better further down, vis a vis Amazon; emphasis mine:
This is enshittification: surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they’re locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they’re locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit.
The above quote is a few paragraphs after Doctorow explains how Amazon started attracting users by selling and delivering products at a loss. One does not need to be an accountant to understand that isn’t sustainable. However Doctorow asserts that this “customer surplus” – created by artificially undercutting other retailers – is actually good, and its removal constitutes “enshittification”.
As such, here, what “good to their users” means is actively making a loss to subsidise their customers’ purchases. That’s absurd.
We then move to the “abusing their suppliers” bit. Here, Doctorow asserts that Amazon attracted sellers to its Marketplace platform through low commissions, and then ramped these commissions up, but also neglects to notice that Amazon has been a loss-making business for much of its life. It turns out that making a loss to subsidise your suppliers is also not a particularly good business plan.
The core idea here is that the “surplus value” from this transaction must accrue to either the customer paying for a product or a supplier using Amazon as an intermediary, but absolutely not Amazon. Amazon must make as little money as possible – or even a loss – even while its customers and/or suppliers gain value they likely would not have been able to realise without Amazon facilitating their transactions.
The next bit is that apparently, these “enshittified” platforms die. But, and there really is no blunter way to put this, Amazon has not died and does not appear to be dying. Frankly, if Amazon were giving that bad a deal to customers even without this supposed “surplus”, nobody would use it. But they do. It’s the world’s largest retailer. Clearly quite a few people feel they are getting some benefit from it.1
This makes it a bit clearer that what this “enshittification” thing is actually doing is describing a free-rider problem from the perspective of a free-rider, who naturally is unhappy that they can no longer get a free ride. It is blatantly unreasonable and completely unsustainable to expect companies – even larger ones – to make losses purely to subsidise others, but such is the expectation here.
If you want to argue about how actually the expectation that a business that sells things to consumers should reasonably expect to make a profit from the transaction is a manifestation of the evils of capitalism, cool beans, but that value judgment does absolutely nothing to change the reality of the situation in the real world as we live in right now2 which is that businesses and organisations that do not even try to cover their costs die a damn sight quicker than those that are able to.3
The problem really comes when you apply this concept to things like social networks. I, a user on BlueSky or Threads or Facebook or Mastodon or whatever, have paid exactly zero of any currency to access it. Here, the user is almost definitionally a free-rider. Someone buying a heavily-subsidised product from Amazon is still paying something – a user of a social media platform, by and large, pays nothing.
The problem here, really, is that running an free and open service that anyone can use to publish whatever they like is a fundamentally unprofitable endeavour. This is why Elon Musk had to be legally compelled to spend $42billion on a perpetually loss-making enterprise, and Twitter’s prior shareholders were so eager to compel him to do so. It is why Facebook/Meta constantly grapples around for any kind of revenue stream and clearly sees their basic functionality of facilitating “shares from your aunt” as a form of loss-leader. YouTube, which ingests and republishes hundreds of terabytes of video every day, video that’s possibly of no interest to anyone, is focusing heavily on further advertising and paid memberships in order to somehow turn the most egregiously unprofitable platform of the bunch into something even vaguely sustainable.
The consequent problem is that, as noted, “enshittification” here comes specifically from the perspective of a free-rider. Their “customer surplus” is the existence of a a free, stable, well-moderated service that allows them to put out whatever they damn well please, to as large an audience as they can. If that right is restricted or they are expected to trade something for that right – even something ultimately immaterial and intangible, like seeing ads – they cry “enshittification” and push blame for this state of affairs onto the platform, then try and leave it for another platform that is willing to indulge free-riders… until their costs, too, become unsustainable.
Different platforms have as such tried to square the circle of a user base that won’t pay but that also demands full and unfettered access to their services on only their terms, but without which these platforms would not exist. All their means of doing so have, with varying levels of justification, been described as “enshittification”, but regardless of how unpleasant they are for end users they all ultimately are just answers to the same question of “how do we make this intrinsically loss-making thing not make losses even as our users resent us making any money at all?”.
There is no actual solution that does not involve users either a) accepting that free services have someone else paying for them and that some sort of trade-off must be made to keep them sustainable, or b) actually paying for the platforms they use. Period.
Mastodon (and the wider fediverse) suggest they have a solution, that being a bunch of small privately-run servers federating together into one network, but while it is an answer, it’s not a solution. Yes, you can’t easily be advertised to on Mastodon, and right now nobody is analysing your posts to try and sell you car insurance.4 But leaving aside the poor UX that results from decentralisation, the fediverse design is computationally, and thus financially, expensive, and its scaling is legendarily poor. It doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that people using a service incurs costs, it simply atomises those costs onto a variety of different randos, while socially proscribing most methods of recouping them that aren’t entirely voluntary.
Those randos can as such either try and recoup those costs through voluntary donations, or simply absorb them and run the server for fun. The latter can only stretch so far, and the demands – both financial and in terms of sheer effort and emotional labour – of running even a moderately-sized server can and does easily burn people out, rapidly becoming akin to a second job. That they have absorbed those costs themselves does not mean they do not exist or that they do not matter, or that this approach is sustainable in the long-term. Like I say, it’s an answer, in that Mastodon is relatively resistant to what is described as “enshittification” in the short term and while it remains a tiny platform, but it’s not a solution, because if the platform were (somehow) to grow to the size of a pre-Musk Twitter, or even a Threads, it would quickly prove unsustainable without some sort of consistent ability to recoup running costs.5
At the moment, users of BlueSky and Threads seem to like these services.6 But right now, neither service has advertising, memberships, or any means of obtaining anything from their users in exchange for use of the service. That goodwill will start to evaporate as soon as BlueSky and Meta start to try to recoup their start-up and ongoing costs, and in turn there will be an exodus of users who start crying “enshittification”, looking for another service that will provide the same things to them without advertising or any other form of trade-off, and then the cycle will repeat. The only way to break the cycle is to abandon this notion that there is, actually, such thing as a free lunch.
Ultimately, I think the “enshittification” concept has done a lot to harm discussions of how online platforms should be managed going forward as Twitter/X continues its slow disintegration. It has centred the idea that free-riding is inherently justified and a moral good, while ignoring that some of the more egregious behaviours of platform providers like Meta and Twitter are motivated exactly by the fact that most of their users are free-riding even as they start to take roles central to social lives and political discourse. A more mature discussion would result if it considered who is paying for the platforms, how these platforms can be run in a sustainable way, what trade-offs are actually acceptable if not direct monetary ones, and indeed whether it’s even intrinsically possible for a “platform” in the 2008-present sense to be run sustainably. That discussion cannot happen while the core expectation is that a user should give up nothing at all in exchange for the use of someone else’s resources.
- This reminds me a bit of all the people who were telling me how Facebook and Instagram were “dying” in response to my Twitter migration post, which actually appeared to be more along the lines of “well none of my Linux-using nerd friends use Instagram and they all use Mastodon so clearly nobody must use it and Mastodon must be the world’s biggest social network.”
- Yes, I’m sure this problem will magically be solved under some sort of voluntarist anarchism, however we can talk about this as and when such a society actually stands half a chance of existing in the real world and you can work out such things as, I don’t know, pharmaceutical supply chains.
- This applies to all organisations, bar none. Co-operatives want to make money, even if that money is reinvested or distributed to their employees or customers rather than shareholders; the beneficiaries change but the fundamentals do not. Even charities, ultimately, are hoping to secure enough revenue to cover their costs and fund whatever activities they are pursuing. Yes, you may consider this to be intrinsically bad and immoral and you’d love to sweep it all away, but I refer you to footnote 2.
- Although nothing fundamentally stops them from doing so, or for that matter stops your chosen server’s owner from serving you ads on their web interface. Probably the only reason nobody has done so yet is either ideology or the fact that any server that proposed to do so, even to just its own users, would be immediately defederated by a large portion of the network.
- Good luck replacing YouTube with a bunch of PeerTube instances all ingesting and redistributing multiple terabytes of video a second, is all I’m saying. They’d shut down citing lack of resources before you can say “please stop, Bloonface, the world doesn’t need more Rave.dj mashups“.
- Short review: I use both and like them. I wish Threads had a web interface, mind you.