Enshittification Part 1: Why Every Platform Goes Bad
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. We have spent hours dissecting the anatomy of the Internet, chronicling concerns about privacy, the appeal of connection, our willful woeful walled gardens, and the fumbled attempts to regulate any of it at all. But we hadn't been clued into the systemic nature of the increasing scrappiness of being on, let's call it big digital, until now.
TAPE Federal regulators claim that Facebook misled parents and failed to protect the privacy of children using its Messenger Kids app. Federal Trade Commission says Facebook misrepresented the access it provided to private to San Diego. Women are suing Amazon in a proposed class action lawsuit claiming Amazon Prime members who pay $139 a year for membership have been misled for years regarding shipping times.
TAPE CEO Elon Musk said people must pay $8 a month for the Twitter blue subscription service. Journalists, politicians, city and government organizations who would not pay have been stripped of their verified status, causing chaos and confusion about what information can be trusted.
Brooke Gladstone The tech industry, changing the world as it does in mysterious ways, is bound to spark editorial tongue clucking and laments about how it's just not the way it used to be. But this is different. Both clunkers are right. And Cory Doctorow. Journalist, activist, and the author of many books most recently read Teen Blues, a science fiction crime thriller, has tracked this phenomenon for a long while and knows why he'll be our guide over the next three weeks, exploring and explaining the process whereby going online grows ever less rewarding and ever more repellent. But to start things off, this trend should have a name. Luckily, Doctorow has one. He calls it enshittification. Yeah, it's absolutely accurate and totally not allowed on broadcast radio.
Cory Doctorow Enshittification is the death cycle of platforms and platforms are the native form of the Internet, because on the one hand, the Internet doesn't have a lot of competition. And also because digital is so flexible, it means you have these companies that are really neither disciplined by regulation nor by competition, and who can kind of change the rules as they go.
Brooke Gladstone Now get into the nitty gritty of the process, which you managed to compress into three distinct steps.
Cory Doctorow Step one. First, the company is good to its users. So think about Amazon. When Amazon started, it had a lot of shareholder capital and was able to operate at a loss, sold you goods for less than they cost. It's subsidize the price of shipping. It's subsidized the price of returns. You know, Jeff Bezos wasn't like a good natured slob who just wanted you to have stuff below cost.
TAPE So, you know, here's what's not. Do they have the right tools? You can pick up the torch for the girl, for you. But if you need it now.
TAPE They got blood pressure monitors, dishwashers, noses below Dickies and scaffolding Amazon.
Cory Doctorow And lots of people piled in. You know, this was especially true of Amazon's digital goods Kindle and then later audible again they sold these things for low cost. And you know, there were lots of things that Amazon fixed that were really broken for a lot of people, people who have disabilities and couldn't leave the house, people who needed to get large things. There was a point early on where Amazon started off with putting all kinds of things in prime for free shipping. And there was this point where people on the Internet were trying to find the heaviest item that you could get free shipping on and you could buy like a two ton safe and good natured old Uncle Jeff would pick up the shipping tab to deliver two tons of tempered steel to your front porch. Those were the good old days.
Brooke Gladstone So you say lots of us piled in. Lots of brick and mortar retailers withered and died, making it harder to go elsewhere.
Cory Doctorow Step one is figuring out how not just to give the users a good deal, but then spring the trap, right, so that they don't go break your local retail so that the only place to shop is Amazon prepay for prime getting you to prepay for a year's worth of shipping. Right. Who's going to shop anywhere else if you've already paid for the shipping? It's also getting you to prepay for a book every month. So the audible subscription packages are extraordinarily generous because that means that you would never buy an audiobook anywhere else because you've already bought the book. And then with the digital stuff, they also use digital rights management, which is this kind of encryption that locks the file to their authorized player. So you can only read a Kindle book in a player that Amazon has authorized. You can only listen to an audible book in a player that Amazon is authorized. And the thing about digital rights management is that since 1998, when Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it has been a felony to give someone a tool to remove digital rights management, even if no copyright infringement ever takes place. So if you buy one of my books on Amazon, which you can't because none of my books are sold on Amazon with digital rights management. But if they were and I supplied you with the tool that lets you take the DRM off the Digital Rights Management Office and go to a rival platform so you could breakup with Amazon, I would commit a felony punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine. Those are penalties that are much stiffer than if you just stole the book.
Brooke Gladstone Wow. So then go to step two. When the platform starts to squeeze users for the betterment of their business partners.
Cory Doctorow So the platform is now a thing that you're locked to partly because you like it and partly because it's got all of your recurring subscriptions, playlists, all your music or movies or books or everything are kind of stuck in its walled garden. Now they can start doing things like allocating other surpluses, as our friend in the economics trade would say to these sellers.
Brooke Gladstone What does that mean? Allocating surpluses.
Cory Doctorow Surpluses are just goodies. Right. It's what's left over after you're running the business or what you have in your bank account that you can spread around. Amazon can run the business at a loss, but it can get money from selling shares or by borrowing money. Other surpluses might be your privacy to pitch ads to you. So Amazon takes some surplus and it starts to allocate it to those business users.
Brooke Gladstone Charging some low fees for preferential treatment.
Cory Doctorow Really low platform fees, preferential treatment ads. If you're a Kindle author or an audible author, the royalties are crazily good. And this is at a time when publishing is really in the toilet. Some of that is down to Amazon. So Amazon is being good to its suppliers, but not all of them. Amazon ran a project called Project Gazelle, and in this project they went to their small and medium publishers and they demanded discounts from them that were so deep that the publishers actually were losing money on their sales. And the reason it was called Project Gazelle is that the managers in charge of this were exhorted to think of themselves as cheetahs, bringing down the sickly gazelles in the herd. The only thing that Amazon's lawyers objected to about this was the name of the program. And and so they're making stuff cheaper and they're offering authors really good deals because Project Gazelle is making all the publishers disappear. And so you have other kinds of suppliers, creative workers, piling into the platform. You have readers, you have writers, you have buyers, you have sellers. And even things are getting a little worse for the buyers. It's still a pretty good deal.
Brooke Gladstone We're still at step two. Consumers won't find better prices elsewhere. Sellers won't find a bigger pile of consumers. We arrive at step three, and this is where the ominous organ chord sounds. Because after squeezing the consumer for the business folks, the platform then squeezes the business folks to further enrich Amazon.
Cory Doctorow Amazon's turning to the merchants and saying, hey, if you want to come to the top of the search results, even if you're not selling the thing that our customer is searching for, you can buy ads. Amazon has a $31 billion ad market now. I mean, they have a little bit of the kind of ads we think of when we say ads, which is like you're a publisher and you want to run ads alongside your content. But most of their ad market is just payola. It's just saying if you want to be the top result for Duracell, you've got to outbid everybody else who wants to be the top result for Duracell, even Duracell. The last time I searched for Duracell on Amazon, there was a banner across the top that said Duracell. And then in the corner it said sponsored post. Duracell outbid everyone who wasn't Duracell to have a banner across the top of the screen that said Duracell. When you go searching specifically for Duracell.
Brooke Gladstone And you mentioned the $31 billion ad market that Amazon is so proud of.
Cory Doctorow Right. And it's important to note here that this is a withdrawal of surplus from both end users and business customers, because when you type a certain to Amazon, right, if you're looking for gas, get for the water filter in your fridge and you type in your fridge manufacturer or water filter and gasket.
Brooke Gladstone That's awfully random, Cory, But please go on.
Cory Doctorow We just bought one and it's exactly the kind of thing that it used to be like, Oh God, do I have to figure out where to get this rubber ring that is precisely this size? And so you type that in, and if Amazon is being kind to you, the top result is that thing. It's an incredible service, actually. But when Amazon opens the floodgates to say you can bet against it, then you get all kinds of stuff, including things that don't fit your fridge. It's just because Amazon has like done the math and said overall, allowing people to advertise anything to any search term gets us more business than the ill will generated by people at the periphery who do irrational things like advertise the wrong size gasket against your fridge manufacturer.
Brooke Gladstone Amazon knows that you're going to be really annoyed and may end up going to the local hardware store or Target, but it's making the guess that you're just going to stay.
Cory Doctorow That you won't go elsewhere because there's no other retail, because you've already prepaid for shipping. Because, because, because then they don't have to take as much care of you, right? They don't have to be quite so relentless. You remember Lily Tomlin in the old sketch, right?
Brooke Gladstone So the next time you complain about your service furniture, try using two Dixie cups in the spring. We don't have to tell where the phone company.
Cory Doctorow Companies that don't fear losing your business know that they can treat you worse.
Brooke Gladstone So sum this up, the first three steps.
Cory Doctorow So step one, buyers or end users are lured in with a good offer, but they're also locked in with subtle things that keep them from leaving. If the offer gets worse and then things are made worse for the buyers. To make things better for the sellers and bring in lots of sellers, but they too are locked in. And once you have buyers and sellers who are locked in and can't leave, all of the good stuff is taken away from both of them. Life has made worse for them and life has made infinitely better for the shareholders who own the platform, in this case, Jeff Bezos and his pals.
Brooke Gladstone Can you walk us through. Sure. The three steps of Facebook's enshittification.
Cory Doctorow So Facebook is a kind of canonical case of an ID So when Facebook started, everyone already had a social media account with MySpace. And so Facebook's pitch to MySpace users was come to Facebook and tell us who matters to you? Tell us who your friends are, if they're on the platform. Any time they see something that they want their friends to know about. We'll show it to you. Just reverse chronological order feed of everything that the people you care about have to say. And so that's the first stage. We're not spying on you. We're showing you the things that the people you like are saying. Stage two is they want to bring in two kinds of business customers, advertisers, and we'll call them publishers. But it's publishers, it's performers, it's brands, it's TV networks. It's anyone who wants to reach an audience but isn't like just an advertiser. And so to the advertisers, they say, Remember when we told our users that we were never going to spy on them? We changed our mind. We've actually got a ton of surveillance data on them, and we will let you use that really cheaply to the media companies. They said, Hey, you know what you need? You need a funnel to drive traffic to your own website. So all you need to do is post like an excerpt from your article along with a link, and then to the users. They said, You remember when we promised you that we were only going to show you the things that the people you cared about had to say, Well, we're altering the deal a little here. We're also going to like non consensually rammed down your eyeballs. Brief excerpts from media articles and advertisements. So step one, we're going to show you what the people that you like have to say. And we're not going to spy on you. Step two We're going to be good to our business customers. We're going to spy on you. Targeted ads to you, show you the stuff that you never asked to see, which is content for media brands and performers and publishers.
Brooke Gladstone Facebook was a really helpful platform for media companies, right? I mean, we still post our segments and shows on Facebook, but then.
Cory Doctorow Then they take the goodies away from the publishers. Facebook suddenly turns the screws to make this happen. They start to say, Actually, we're going to show your stuff less frequently unless you are more generous in what you put on the platform. And so what you have as a business customer, an advertiser, is a declining business proposition. If you're a media brand, Facebook is not a funnel for traffic to your own site. You structure your material so that it lives on Facebook and never leaves anywhere else. And even then, Facebook still wants you to pay to boost your content, which is their cutesy word. Again, for payola to reach your own subscribers and for advertisers. Well, Facebook starts to do a lot of ad fraud.
Brooke Gladstone What do you mean, ad fraud?
Cory Doctorow So, for example, Facebook and Google engaged in a secret, unlawful collusive arrangement called Jedi Blue that was identified in the Texas attorney general's antitrust case, where they just agreed that they were going to like, charge advertisers more, pay publishers less and pocket the difference. Right. I mean, there's a lot of complexity to how they managed it. But at the end of the day, all of these accounting scams just boil down to we stole some money from. Yeah. And that's what they did. They stole money from advertisers.
Brooke Gladstone So now take us to step three.
Cory Doctorow So step three, advertising is getting worse. You're paying more, you're reaching your targeted audience less Well, And for users, your feed now only incidentally, consists of things that people that you love and care about have said, it's a bad deal all around.
Brooke Gladstone What about?
TAPE Some people say the metaverse will only be virtual, but one day this lecture hall will be made of code. And though they're virtual students, what they'll learn together is real.
Cory Doctorow Yeah, I mean, as a cyberpunk writer, I just find it deeply depressing and offensive that they think that it was a suggestion and not a warning. It's really scary. So here is Facebook, right? They have made this bad deal for users. They made this bad deal for advertisers who made this bad deal for publishers, but they tried to leave enough goodies in the system that users don't leave. Advertisers don't leave and publishers don't leave. They all feel like they can't, even if every time they log in, every time they write a check. They're just like, Oh, this is terrible. And the thing about that equilibrium, right, that state where you've got just enough surplus and to keep people using it, but not so much that there's any extra it's brittle. It just takes one good competitor like tech talk or one big scandal, like a live streamed mass shooting or one big privacy debacle like Cambridge Analytica. And it can tip. And you know, we're talking about Facebook, but I think the example that everyone can relate to here is Twitter. Right. Twitter has gone from indispensable to completely dispensable for larger and larger groups of people, businesses, movements and so on. Very quickly, even though it felt like there was nowhere else that you could conceivably go. And so when that happens, when the platform tips over and becomes a useless policy, which is the end of notification, then it starts to thrash. And so in that world, Mark Zuckerberg has to pivot, which is Silicon Valley for thrash. Pivoting in his case is let's all be legless, sexless, highly surveilled, low polygon cartoon characters in a virtual world named after a satire from a dystopian cyberpunk novel. And, you know, long before we had the folly of Elon Musk, we had the folly of Mark Zuckerberg, who was able to do these really reckless things. And maybe he wouldn't have been able to do it if his board had been there going like, Wait, what are you doing? No, you're eating the seed corn. Stop it.
Brooke Gladstone I'm wondering, you talk about the collective action problem. You know, there are consumers who argue that their platforms are still working for them. But is it perhaps not that their Amazon searches are that helpful or their Facebook feed is that fun, but that they can imagine a world without them?
Cory Doctorow People aren't lying when they say they get value out of these services. That's the point, right? If the services playing and nation right and not tipping over, then they are leaving a reason to stay behind. So if you've got a rare disease and everyone else who shares that rare disease has found each other on Facebook, then Facebook isn't just valuable. It might be invaluable to you. And so there is lots of value in these services. That's why we use them. But the thing that the platforms want us to think is that there is no way to arrange their products and services such that all the things that we hate about them wouldn't come with the things that we love about them, that they are inseparable, that surveillance is a part of search and could not ever be anything but a part of search. Right. That a bearded prophet came down off a mountain with two stone tablets and said, Larry, Sergei, thou shalt stop rotating thine log files and lo, thou shalt mine them for actionable market intelligence. But, you know, Google didn't surveil Facebook. We know that you can make a Facebook without spying on people. How do we know that? Because Facebook used to be the social media service that didn't spy on you. What these platforms would like you to believe is what Margaret Thatcher wanted us to believe.
Brooke Gladstone There is no alternative.
Cory Doctorow There is no alternative. To paraphrase whoever said it, maybe it was Jack. Maybe it was Jameson. It is harder to imagine the end of the world itself than it is to imagine the end of Amazon.
Brooke Gladstone Cory Doctorow is the author of the new novel Red Team Blues and special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cory, are you up for talking about how we enabled this situation? And will you give us a definitive definition of twiddling?
Cory Doctorow I will, and I will. And I am.
Brooke Gladstone Next week, the great Cory Doctorow returns for part two of our three part conversation about the en-bleep-ification of big Internet. And that's the show. On The Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our technical directors, Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Sandra Cartier. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.