Friday, January 27, 2023

Today's Scene: Enshittification

I used to title these posts "From the Substacks" but good commentary is not just Substacks these days, its Medium and Patreon and blogs and opinion pieces from all over. 
So I will call these posts Today's Scene - a collection of observations and opinions by various authors from various places. 

As Twitter continues to implode, and as Facebook allows Trump back on, Today's Scene is a discussion of what is happening to various websites and social media platforms. 
Setting the scene is a fascinating graphic from Visual Capitalist, The Top 50 Most Visited Websites In The World

Next, from science fiction author Cory Doctorow, a great piece titled Tiktok's enshittification (which I first read about at Parker Molloy's piece titled The Word of the Week: 'Enshittification'). 
Doctorow begins by describing how social platforms die:

 Then Doctorow continues:  

...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. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle.
Doctorow describes how these business strategies succeed at first, but then shoot themselves in the foot:
...An enshittification strategy only succeeds if it is pursued in measured amounts. Even the most locked-in user eventually reaches a breaking-point and walks away, or gets pushed...
For enshittification-addled companies, that balance is hard to strike. Individual product managers, executives, and activist shareholders all give preference to quick returns at the cost of sustainability, and are in a race to see who can eat their seed-corn first. Enshittification has only lasted for as long as it has because the internet has devolved into "five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four"...
With the market sewn up by a group of cozy monopolists, better alternatives don't pop up and lure us away, and if they do, the monopolists just buy them out and integrate them into your enshittification strategies, like when Mark Zuckerberg noticed a mass exodus of Facebook users who were switching to Instagram, and so he bought Instagram. As Zuck says, "It is better to buy than to compete." ...
Finally, Doctorow describes the increasing enshittification of Google:
...Google has been unable to resist its siren song. Today's Google results are an increasingly useless morass of self-preferencing links to its own products, ads for products that aren't good enough to float to the top of the list on its own, and parasitic SEO junk piggybacking on the former.
Enshittification kills. Google just laid off 12,000 employees, and the company is in a full-blown "panic" over the rise of "AI" chatbots, and is making a full-court press for an AI-driven search tool – that is, a tool that won't show you what you ask for, but rather, what it thinks you should see
In comic form, Molloy summarizes the problem by using this tweet: Over at Welcome to Garbagetown, fantasy author Catherynne Valente echoes my own feelings in her Substack article Stop Talking to Each Other and Start Buying Things: Three Decades of Survival in the Desert of Social Media:
...These sites exist because of what we do there. But at any moment they can be sold out from under us, to no benefit or profit to the workers—yes, workers, goddammit—who built it into something other than a dot com address and a dusty login screen, yet to the great benefit and profit of those who, more often than not, use the money to make it more difficult for people to connect to and accept each other positively in the future.
And because these rich men and their unconnected hearts trading our online homes back and forth don’t understand that, they inevitably fuck up the place so badly they have to sell it for pennies within a few years, so it was all for nothing but like four guys buying boats, and THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS EVER.
It just keeps happening.
Stop talking and start buying things.

At TechDirt, Mike Masnick expands the enshittification concept - How The Friedman Doctrine Leads To The Enshittification Of All Things:
...once you’ve gone public, even if you have executives who still want to focus on pleasing users and customers, eventually any public company is also going to have other executives, often with Wall Street experience, who talk about the importance of keeping Wall Street happy. They’ll often quote Milton Friedman’s dumbest idea: that the only fiduciary duty company executives have is to increase their profits for shareholders.
...Wall Street and the Friedman doctrine never stop screaming for more. You must “maximize” your profits for shareholders in that short term window, even if it means you’re going to destroy your shareholders in the long term. And thus, you see any excess value as “money left on the table,” or money that you need to take.
The legacy copyright industry is the classic example of this. We’ve provided plenty of examples over they years, but back when the record labels were struggling to figure out how to adapt to the internet, every few years some new solution came along, like music-based video games (e.g., Guitar Hero), and they’d be crazy successful, and make everyone lots of money… and then the old record label execs would come in and scream about how they should be getting all that money, eventually killing the golden goose that was suddenly giving them all this free money for doing nothing.
And, thus, that last leg of the enshittification curve tends to be when these legacy industries refuse to play nice with the wider ecosystem (often the ones enabling your overall business to grow) and seek to capture all the value for themselves, without realizing that this is how companies die.
Of course, one recent example of this is Elon killing off third party Twitter apps. While no one has officially admitted to it, basically everyone is saying it’s because those apps didn’t show ads to users, and Elon is so desperate for ad revenue, he figured he should kill off those apps to “force” users onto his enshittified apps instead.
But, of course, all it’s really doing is driving not just many of the Twitter power users away, but also shutting down the developers who were actually doing more to make Twitter even more useful. In trying to grab more of the pie, Elon is closing off the ability to grow the pie much bigger.
And here we are, circling back to Twitter once again! Molloy also refers us to another Doctorow article on the science fiction review site Locus, titled Social Quitting, which discusses how quitting a social media site gets easier as the site gets worse:
...As people and businesses started to switch away from the social media giants, inverse network effects set in: the people you stayed on MySpace to hang out with were gone, and without them, all the abuses MySpace was heaping on you were no longer worth it, and you left, too. Once you were gone, that was a reason for someone else to leave. The same forces that drove rapid growth drove rapid collapse.
The social media companies that are circling the drain today had a very long run...
And then…. Stuff happened. Mark Zuckerberg got worried about losing users and decided we were all going to live as legless low-polygon cartoons in a metaverse that no one wanted to use, not even the Facebook employees who built it. Twitter got bought out by a low-attention-span, overconfident billionaire who started pulling out Jenga blocks to see whether the system would fall over, and when it did, we all got crushed by the falling blocks...
Now that Musk has mostly shut up, I think the bleeding from Twitter is declining.  The bloom is off the rose for some of the other twitter-type platforms too -- Mastadon is too hard to find people on. Post News got carried away with their own exclusivity and delayed 6 weeks too long to let people join up -- a new platform, Spoutible is starting next week and may be popular. 
But unless a social media platform lets me set up lists of people to follow so I can find great posts, then save these posts somewhere, and finally allow me to embed them easily in my blog, I have realized I just won't use it very much. 
And besides, let's face it -- when it comes right down to it, Twitter is fun:
Yes, I have to agree... 
Valente also issues a magnificent cri de coeur at the end of her piece, too: 
...that’s what we have to do. Be each other’s pen pals. Talk. Share. Welcome. Care. And just keep moving. Stay nimble. Maybe we have to roll the internet back a little and go back to blogs and decentralized groups and techy fiddling and real-life conventions and idealists with servers in their closets. Back to Diaryland and Minnesota and grandiose usernames and thoughts that take ever so much more than 280 characters to express. That’s okay. We can do that. We know how. We’re actually really good at it. Love things and love each other. We’re good at that, too. Protect the vulnerable. Make little things. Wear electric blue eyeshadow. Take a picture of your breakfast. Overthink Twin Peaks. Get angry. Do revolutions. Find out what Buffy character you are. Don’t get cynical. Don’t lose joy. Be us. Because us is what keeps the light on when the night comes closing in. Us doesn’t have a web address. We are wherever we gather. Mastodon, Substack, Patreon, Dreamwidth, AO3, Tumblr, Discord, even the ruins of Twitter, even Facebook and Instagram and Tiktok, god help us all. Even Diaryland. 
It doesn’t matter. They’re just names. It doesn’t matter who owns them. 
Because we own ourselves and our words and the minute the jackals arrive is the same minute we put down the first new chairs in the next oasis. We make our place when we’re together. We make our magic when we connect, typing hands to typing hands.
Hello, world. Come in from the cold. This will be a good place. For awhile. And then we’ll make another one.
Stop buying things and start talking to each other. They’ve always known that was how they lose.
And remember, the lightest shade goes over the browbone, as delicate as a new year.
Yes, again, I have to agree... 

A final observation:

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