Enshittification is a term coined by writer Cory Doctorow in November 2022 to describe a pattern of decreasing quality observed in online services and products such as Amazon, Facebook, Google Search, Twitter, Bandcamp, Reddit, Uber and Unity. The American Dialect Society selected the term as its 2023 Word of the Year. Doctorow has also used the term platform decay to describe the same concept.

Black-and-white photograph of a man with short hair and black glasses, wearing a face microphone.
Cory Doctorow, who coined the term enshittification in 2022

History and definition edit

An Audacious Plan to Halt the Internet's Enshittification by Cory Doctorow at DEF CON 31, 2023

The term enshittification was coined by Doctorow in a November 2022 blog post[1] that was republished in Locus in January 2023.[2] He expanded on the concept in another blog post,[3] which was republished in the January 2023 edition of Wired:[4]

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. I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a "two sided market", where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

In a 2024 article on ft.com, Doctorow extended the word with the term "enshittocene" to state that "'enshittification' is coming for absolutely everything".[5]

According to Doctorow, new platforms offer useful products and services at a loss, as a way to gain new users. Once users are locked in, the platform then offers access to the userbase to suppliers at a loss, and once suppliers are locked-in, the platform shifts surpluses to shareholders.[6] Once the platform is fundamentally focused on the shareholders, and the users and vendors are locked in, the platform no longer has any incentive to maintain quality. Enshittified platforms which act as intermediaries can functionally act as both a monopoly on services and a monopsony on customers, as high switching costs prevent either from leaving even when alternatives technically exist.[4] Doctorow has described the process of enshittification as happening through "twiddling"; the continual adjustment of the parameters of the system in search of marginal improvements of profits, without regard to any other goal.[7] Enshittification can be seen as a form of rent-seeking.[4]

To solve the problem, Doctorow has called for two general principles to be followed:

  • The first is a respect of the end-to-end principle, a fundamental principle of the Internet in which the role of a network is to reliably deliver data from willing senders to willing receivers. When applied to platforms, this entails users being given what they asked for, not what the platform prefers to present. For example, users would see all content from users they subscribed to, allowing content creators to reach their audience without going through an opaque algorithm; and in search engines, exact matches for search queries would be shown before sponsored results, rather than afterwards.[8]
  • The second is the right of exit, where users of a platform can easily go elsewhere if they are dissatisfied with it. For social media, this requires interoperability, countering the network effects that "lock in" users and prevent market competition between platforms. For digital media platforms, it means enabling users to switch platforms without losing the content they purchased that is locked by digital rights management.[8]

The American Dialect Society selected "enshittification" as its 2023 Word of the Year.[9][10]

Examples edit

The word gained traction in 2023, where it was widely adopted by journalists in reference to several major platforms discontinuing free features in order to further their monetization or taking other actions that were seen to degrade functionality in ways intended to thwart competition and increase profits.[11]

Amazon edit

In Doctorow's original post, he discussed the practices of Amazon. First, Amazon started selling goods below cost to build up a user base. Amazon then introduced the Amazon Prime subscription which encouraged users to shop more exclusively at Amazon. The strong base of clients who had formed a habit of using Amazon exclusively incentivised more sellers to sell their products through Amazon, as Prime users were only searching Amazon for goods. Finally, Doctorow indicated that Amazon then began to focus on its shareholders by increasing profits and introducing fees. In 2023, 45%+ of the sale price of items went to Amazon in the form of various fees[citation needed]. He described advertisement within Amazon as a payola scheme, in which sellers are bidding against one another for search ranking preference, and identified that the first five pages of a search for "cat beds" were 50% advertisements.[4]

Doctorow has also criticised the near-monopoly of Amazon's Audible service, which controls over 90% of the audiobook market, and applies mandatory digital rights management (DRM) to all audio books. Doctorow pointed out that this meant that a user leaving the platform would lose access to their audio book library. Doctorow decided to independently distribute the audio version of his book The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation since Amazon's system would not distribute it without DRM.[12]

Bandcamp edit

This term was used retroactively to describe the 2022 sale of Bandcamp to Epic Games, and later when Epic Games sold Bandcamp to music licensing firm Songtradr in September 2023.[13] In October 2023, it was revealed that almost half of Bandcamp's staff were laid off, including many key members of the executive team who apparently "vanished", according to former employees. Following this acquisition, there was a large outpouring of grief and rage on social media from many former employees, users and artists who viewed Bandcamp as an essential service for niche and independent artists to release music while retaining profits from the sale of their work.[14] Bandcamp had also unionized in March of 2023, and Songtradr laid off most of the staff involved in the union, as well as the people involved in negotiation with the union.[15] As of December 2023, Songtradr still has not formally recognized the union.[16] According to music journalist Philip Sherburne, writing for Pitchfork, by specifically targeting both the customer-support department and the editorial department for layoffs, Songtradr was signaling either ignorance or apathy for the reason Bandcamp had been successful.[13]

Facebook edit

According to Doctorow, Facebook offered a good service until it had reached a "critical mass" of users, and it became difficult for people to leave because they would need to convince their friends to go with them. Facebook then began to add posts from media companies into feeds until the media companies too were dependent on traffic from Facebook, and then adjusted the algorithm to prioritise paid "boosted" posts. Business Insider agreed with the view that Facebook was being enshittified, adding that it "constantly floods users' feeds with sponsored (or "recommended") content, and seems to bury the things people want to see under what Facebook decides is relevant".[17] Doctorow pointed at the Facebook metrics controversy, in which video statistics were inflated on the site, which led to media companies over-investing in Facebook and collapsing. He described Facebook as "terminally enshittified".[4]

Google Search edit

Doctorow cites Google Search as one example, which became dominant through relevant search results and minimal ads, then later degraded through increased advertising, search engine optimization, and outright fraud, benefitting its advertising customers, which was followed by Google's collusion to rig the ad market through Jedi Blue to recapture value for itself. Doctorow also cites Google's firing of 12,000 employees in January 2023, which coincided with a stock buyback scheme which "would have paid all their salaries for the next 27 years", as well as Google's rush to research an AI search chatbot, "a tool that won't show you what you ask for, but rather, what it thinks you should see".[8][4][18][19][20]

Reddit edit

 
Reddit users protest the changes on r/place. "Spez" is the username of the Reddit CEO, Steve Huffman.

In 2023, shortly after its initial filings for an initial public offering, Reddit announced that it would begin charging fees for API access, a move that would effectively shut down many third-party apps by making them cost-prohibitive to operate.[21] The CEO, Steve Huffman, stated that it was in response to AI firms scraping data without paying Reddit for it, but coverage linked the move to the upcoming IPO; the move shut down large numbers of third party apps, forcing users to use official Reddit apps that provided more profit to the company.[21][22][23] Moderators on the site conducted a blackout protest against the company's new policy, although the changes ultimately went ahead. Many third party Reddit apps such as the Apollo app were shut down because of the new fees.[24][22][25]

Twitter / X edit

The term was applied to the changes to Twitter in the wake of its 2022 acquisition by Elon Musk.[26][18] This included the closure of the service's API to stop interoperable software from being used, suspending users for posting (rival service) Mastodon handles in their profiles, and placing restrictions on the ability to view the site without logging in. Other changes included temporary rate limits for the number of tweets that could be viewed per day, the introduction of paid subscriptions to the service in the form of Twitter Blue,[26] and the reduction of moderation.[27] Musk had the algorithm modified to promote his own posts above others, which caused users' feeds to be flooded with his content in February 2023.[28] The increase in hate speech on the platform, particularly antisemitism and Islamophobia during the Israel–Hamas war, led to some organisations pulling advertisements from the platform.[29] According to internal documents seen by The New York Times in late 2023, the losses from advertisers pulling out may amount to $75 million by the end of the year.[30] Musk delivered an interview on November 29, in which he told advertisers leaving the website to "go fuck yourself."[31][32]

Uber edit

App-based ridesharing company Uber gained market share by ignoring local licensing systems such as taxi medallions while also keeping consumer costs artificially low by subsidizing rides via venture capital funding.[33] Once they achieved a duopoly with competitor Lyft, the company implemented surge pricing to increase the cost of travel to riders and dynamically adjust the payments made to drivers.[33]

Unity edit

The Unity game engine's 2023 changes to its licensing model were described by Gameindustry.biz as an example of enshittification, as the proposed changes would have applied retroactively to projects which had already been in development for years while degrading quality for both developers and end users, while increasing fees.[34] While the Unity Engine itself is not a two-sided market, the move was related to Unity's position as a provider of mobile free-to-play services to developers, including in-app purchase systems.[35] In response to these changes, many game developers announced their intention to abandon Unity for an alternative engine, despite the significant switching cost of doing so, with game designer Sam Barlow specifically using the word enshittification when describing the new fee policy as the motive.[36]

Dating apps edit

The market for dating apps has been cited as an example of enshittification due to the conflict between the dating apps' ostensible goal of matchmaking, and their operators' desire to convert users to the paid version of the app and retaining them as paying users indefinitely by keeping them single, creating a perverse incentive that leads performance to decline over time as efforts at monetization begin to dominate.[37] Mathematical modeling has suggested that it is in the financial interests of app operators to offer their user base a sub-optimal experience.[38]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Doctorow, Cory (November 15, 2022). "Social Quitting". Archived from the original on October 30, 2023. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
  2. ^ Doctorow, Cory (January 2023). "Social Quitting". Special Features. Locus. Vol. 90, no. 1 #744. pp. 29, 49. Archived from the original on 2023-01-02. Retrieved 2023-12-13.
  3. ^ "Pluralistic: Tiktok's enshittification (21 Jan 2023) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow". 21 January 2023. Archived from the original on 2023-11-09. Retrieved 2023-11-10.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Doctorow, Cory (January 23, 2023). "The 'Enshittification' of TikTok". Wired. Condé Nast. Archived from the original on 1 June 2023. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  5. ^ Doctorow, Cory. "'Enshittification' is coming for absolutely everything". ft.com. The Financial Times. Archived from the original on 2024-02-08. Retrieved 24 February 2024.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  6. ^ Birch, Kean (10 November 2023). "Data Paradoxes". Data Enclaves. Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland. pp. 107–124. doi:10.1007/978-3-031-46402-7_6. ISBN 978-3-031-46402-7 – via Springer Link.
  7. ^ Doctorow, Cory (8 March 2023). "Twiddler: Configurability for Me, but Not for Thee". cacm.acm.org. Archived from the original on 2023-09-17. Retrieved 2023-09-15.
  8. ^ a b c Doctorow, Cory (2023-05-09). "As Platforms Decay, Let's Put Users First". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Archived from the original on 2023-10-22. Retrieved 2023-09-15.
  9. ^ "2023 Word of the Year is "enshittification" – American Dialect Society". American Dialect Society. 5 January 2024. Retrieved 6 January 2024.
  10. ^ Doctorow, Cory (February 7, 2024). "'Enshittification' is coming for absolutely everything". Financial Times.
  11. ^ Multiple sources:
  12. ^ Doctorow, Cory (31 July 2023). "Kickstarting a book to end enshittification, because Amazon will not carry it". Medium.
  13. ^ a b Sherburne, Philip. "Is Bandcamp as We Know It Over?". pitchfork.com. Archived from the original on 2023-10-18. Retrieved 2023-10-18.
  14. ^ Gach, Ethan (2023-10-16). "Epic Games' Messy Bandcamp Sale Ends With Mass Layoffs [Update]". Kotaku. Archived from the original on 2023-10-18. Retrieved 2023-10-18.
  15. ^ Council, Stephen (October 17, 2023). "Every member of Bandcamp union bargaining team was laid off in huge cuts at Oakland firm". SFGate. Archived from the original on October 18, 2023. Retrieved October 18, 2023.
  16. ^ Cartledge, Luke (December 20, 2023). "Bandcamp's New Owner Has Gone After the Company's Unionized Workforce". Jacobin. Retrieved March 27, 2024.
  17. ^ Zitron, Ed (March 27, 2023). "Google, Amazon, and Meta are making their core products worse — on purpose". Business Insider. Archived from the original on October 23, 2023. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
  18. ^ a b Naughton, John (11 March 2023). "Users, advertisers – we are all trapped in the 'enshittification' of the Internet". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 31 May 2023. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  19. ^ Yang, Mary (20 January 2023). "Google is cutting 12,000 jobs, adding to a series of Big Tech layoffs in January". NPR.org. Archived from the original on 30 October 2023. Retrieved 30 October 2023.
  20. ^ Godfrey, Lisa (20 April 2023). "Scams, conspiracies, and surprising theories on why we fall victim to them". CBC.ca. Archived from the original on 30 October 2023. Retrieved 30 October 2023.
  21. ^ a b Wright, Jennifer C (2024). Stakeholder Management in Change Initiatives: Reddit Changes Its API Pricing. London. doi:10.4135/9781071941379. ISBN 978-1-0719-4137-9 – via SAGE Knowledge.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  22. ^ a b Breland, Ali. "Why Reddit is destined to turn to crap". Mother Jones. Archived from the original on 2023-07-05. Retrieved 2023-09-15.
  23. ^ Hagen, Sal (2023). "No Space for Reddit Spacing: Mapping the Reflexive Relationship Between Groups on 4chan and Reddit". Social Media + Society. 9 (4). doi:10.1177/20563051231216960. ISSN 2056-3051.
  24. ^ Plunkett, Luke (June 28, 2023). "Minecraft Subreddit Loses Support From Devs Who Disapprove Of Reddit Changes". Kotaku. Archived from the original on October 24, 2023. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
  25. ^ Ashworth, Boone (17 June 2023). "The Reddit Blackout Is Breaking Reddit". Wired. Archived from the original on 17 June 2023. Retrieved 18 June 2023.
  26. ^ a b Ball, James (July 4, 2023). "The slow, sad death of Twitter". The New European. Archived from the original on July 5, 2023. Retrieved July 5, 2023. That means lots of blue ticks stop paying – but everyone else is forced to read the low-quality content that the remaining blue ticks produce. This is what is powering the enshittification of Twitter.
  27. ^ Masnick, Mike (5 July 2023). "It Turns Out Elon Is Speedrunning The Enshittification Learning Curve, Not The Content Moderation One". Techdirt. Archived from the original on 16 October 2023. Retrieved 16 October 2023.
  28. ^ Newton, Casey (15 February 2023). "Yes, Elon Musk created a special system for showing you all his tweets first". The Verge.
  29. ^ Cooban, Anna (22 November 2023). "EU stops advertising on X over hate speech. Fines could follow next year | CNN Business". CNN.
  30. ^ Mac, Ryan; Conger, Kate (24 November 2023). "X May Lose Up to $75 Million in Revenue as More Advertisers Pull Out". The New York Times.
  31. ^ "Elon Musk tells advertisers: 'Go fuck yourself'". The Verge. 30 November 2023. Retrieved 11 January 2024.
  32. ^ "Elon Musk Just Told Advertisers, 'Go Fuck Yourself'". Wired. 29 November 2023. Retrieved 11 January 2024.
  33. ^ a b Zuckerman, Ethan (October 4, 2023). "How we've enshittified the tech economy". Prospect. Retrieved February 9, 2024. A similar phenomenon is playing out across the digital economy, as tech-powered giants who surfed the digital wave to success abandon the practices that made them popular with consumers in the first place. Having done that, they then turn on their suppliers as well, in a bid to claw back all the value for themselves. Whenever this happens it doesn't end well for anyone.
  34. ^ Sinclair, Brendan (15 September 2023). "Unity's self-combustion engine | This Week in Business". GamesIndustry.biz. Archived from the original on 12 October 2023. Retrieved 13 October 2023.
  35. ^ Vilberg, Petter (2023-09-14). "Unity's Just Not Into You, Indie Developer". Game Developer. Retrieved 2023-11-15.
  36. ^ Kerr, Chris (13 September 2023). "Rust creator tells Unity to "get fucked" in response to runtime fees". Game Developer. Archived from the original on 7 November 2023. Retrieved 7 November 2023.
    Citing: Maiberg, Emanuel (12 September 2023). ""This Is a Disaster:" Game Developers Scramble to Deal With Unity's New Fees". 404 Media. Archived from the original on 7 November 2023. Retrieved 7 November 2023.
  37. ^ Rosalsky, Greg (February 13, 2024). "The dating app paradox: Why dating apps may be worse than ever". NPR. Retrieved February 17, 2024. Dating apps aren't alone in seemingly getting worse when they try to make money. In fact, last year journalist Cory Doctorow coined a term for this pattern: 'enshittification.' Basically, Doctorow says tech platforms start off trying to make their user experiences really good because their first goal is to try to become popular and achieve scale. But over time, they inevitably pursue their ultimate goal of making money, which ends up making the whole user experience 'enshittified.'
  38. ^ Voigt, Sebastian; Hinz, Oliver (2015-10-01). "Network effects in two-sided markets: why a 50/50 user split is not necessarily revenue optimal". Business Research. 8 (1): 139–170. doi:10.1007/s40685-015-0018-z. hdl:10419/156274. ISSN 2198-2627.

Further reading edit