Cory Doctorow and ‘Enshittification’: Stuck in Stage Three

From FT: ‘Enshittification’ is coming for absolutely everything, by Cory Doctorow.

But in case you want to be more precise, let’s examine how enshittification works. It’s a three-stage process: first, platforms 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, there is a fourth stage: they die.”

Cory Doctorow conceived of the concept of ‘enshittification’, which describes the multi-stage process in which large tech platforms erode the trust of their users, eventually causing the users to defect and the platform to die. The fourth stage, that being the defection of users and the death of the platform, sounds like wishful thinking and is unsupported by the evidence. It does not make sense from a business perspective for companies to self-destruct when there is so much money at stake. These platforms collectively generate tens of billions of dollars annually in profits, and are not going to die, or at least not if they can prevent it.

Instead, it’s evident these platforms have reached some sort of equilibrium in which they can incrementally and indefinitely extract ever-increasing profits but without pushing users to defect, not that there are any good alternatives. Hence, why users stick around despite a worsening user experience, such as more restrictions (like Chat GPT self-censorship and inability to process certain requests, for example), metering (like timeouts and fake error messages), or unwanted features being added (one of the earliest progenitors of this being Microsoft’s Office Assistant, Clippy) and useful features being removed (such as Google disabling the ability to view cached websites). And of course, the sale of user data. Or a service that is initially useful and free, and then once a threshold of users is attained the functionality is degraded unless you pay, which is what happened with Wolfram Alpha and will likely be the fate of Chat GPT, too, if it has not happened already. It’s analogous to the boiled frog, except instead of the frog dying or jumping out of the pot, it develops an infinite tolerance to the heat.

Indeed, history shows that platforms can last a really long time. Forty-five years since their founding, Microsoft and Apple are bigger and more dominant than ever, defying the notion of business cycles or cyclicality. Same for Meta/Facebook, which 20 years later has over two billion users. Or Amazon, again, 20 years later is bigger than ever. The App Store duopoly shows no signs of weakening either. Google is stronger than ever 25 years later, too.

The alternatives to these are inferior, as the essential network effects and infrastructure are irreplaceable. What is the second-best alternative to Facebook for connecting with family/friends (besides maybe LinkedIn)? Instagram? That too is owned by Meta. Or Google search? Use DuckduckGo, founded in 2008, which bills itself as “the search engine that does not track you,” but 16 years later despite endless promotion and hype, is the search engine hardly anyone uses either (it does not help that the results are much worse compared to Google). Thanks to its vast network of warehouses and drivers, Amazon is unrivaled in its ability to distribute goods; same for Uber being unmatched in its ability to match riders with drivers, thanks to its app.

True, Myspace died, but that was because it was replaced by the superior Facebook, not because it betrayed the trust of its users. Myspace was buggy and had those garish CSS layouts compared to the slickness of Facebook. This is how it should be–inferior or obsolete platforms are replaced by better ones. The process of competition ensures a better user experience, and at the same time disincentivizes companies from engaging in too much enshittification. But it would seem like the decline of Myspace or the decline of Research In Motion (the maker of the once popular Blackberry, which was superseded by the iPhone) are more of the exception than the rule. After a certain threshold is crossed in terms of market saturation, competition becomes less of a threat.

Steve Jobs was smart in that when he launched the iPhone, a year later he created the App Store and the entire iPhone ecosystem to go with it, which made the iPhone more functional than competing phones and locked developers into this platform.

As for business customers, again, their choices are limited: Amazon for reselling; Google/Meta for online ads; Apple/Android for apps; Google for search traffic. There are countless stories of developers and end-users alike being dropped from the App Store, de-ranked from Google, locked-out of Gmail, AdSense accounts or YouTube channels disabled–and recourse is limited to none. You don’t like it? You can always tell your users to compile the app themselves. I’m sure that will go over well. Uber is very convenient for riders, and a lot of people make a living or supplemental income off it, but what makes Uber so successful and useful–its large network of drivers–also buttresses it from competition.

So even if he is right that big tech companies are becoming shittier, I don’t see the final stage in which people leave the platform ever happening either, or that better platforms arrive and introduce competition. We’re stuck in stage three forever.