Cory Doctorow explains why Big Tech is making the Internet terrible

Cory Doctorow

I think we should thank Elon Musk for what he’s doing because I think a lot of the decay of platforms and the assaults that make the decay is done slowly and with the finest lines, so it’s very hard to point at it and say it’s happening. And Musk, kind of like Donald Trump, instead of moving slowly and with a very fine pencil, he kind of grabs a crayon in his fist and he just scribbles. This can help to direct attention to matters on which it would otherwise be difficult to reach an agreement.

With Musk and with Trump, it’s much easier to identify the pathology at play and do something about it—and actually get people to understand what the contours of the struggle are and to join the struggle. I think in a very strange way we should be grateful to Musk and Trump for this.

The pathology that I believe Musk is performing at high speed is something I call “enshitification.”[ads1]; Enshitification is a specific form of monopoly decay endemic to digital platforms. And the platform is the canonical form of the digital firm. It is like a pure rentier intermediary business where the firm has a set of users or buyers and it has a set of business customers or sellers and it mediates between them. And it does so in a low-competitive environment where antitrust or competition laws are not vigorously enforced.

To the extent that it has access to things like capital, it can leverage its resources to buy potential competitors or use predatory pricing to remove potential competitors from the market. Consider that Uber has lost forty cents on the dollar for thirteen years just to eliminate yellow cabs and starve public transportation investment by making it seem like a viable option in ride-sharing vehicles. And we see predatory pricing and predatory practices in many, many, many domains.

Just look at grocery stores in Canada. Loblaws buys its competitors, engages in predatory pricing and abuses both its suppliers and customers to extract monopoly rents and leave everyone worse off. But there is one thing that happens in the digital world that is different. Digital platforms have a high-speed flexibility that is not really present in analog businesses.

John D. Rockefeller did all this a hundred and twenty years ago, but if Rockefeller was like this: “I secretly own this railroad, and I’m using the fact that it’s the only way to get oil to market to exclude my rivals, and I’m concerned that there will be a ferry line that will offer an alternative route that will be more efficient,” he can’t just click a mouse and build another train line that offers the service cheaper until the ferry line goes out of business and then leave the train line. The non-digital example is capital-intensive, and it requires incredibly slow processes. With digital, you can do a thing that I call “twiddling,” which just changes the business logic very quickly.

Jeff Bezos is a merchant twice. He runs a company called Amazon Fresh which is an all digital grocer and he runs a company called Whole Foods which is an analogue grocer. And if Amazon Fresh wants to look at the price of eggs, he just clicks with a mouse and the price of eggs changes on the platform; he can even change the price for different customers or at different times of the day. If Whole Foods wants to change the price of eggs, they need teenagers on roller skates with price guns. And so the ability to play the shell game very quickly is limited in the analog world.

The digital world does the same things that mediocre sociopath monopolists did in the Gilded Age, but they do it faster and with computers. And in some ways this contributes to the kind of mythology surrounding the Gilded Age equivalents of the digital world. They can compose themselves as super geniuses because they just do something fast and with computers that make it look like a fantastic magic trick, even though it’s exactly the same thing, but fast. And the way this cycle unfolds is that you use this fluctuation to allocate profits – that is, give goodies to end users so that they enter the platform. These are things like loss leaders and subsidized shipping.

In the case of Facebook or Twitter, it’s “you tell us who you want to hear from, and we’ll tell you when they say something new.” It is a valuable proposition; it is a cool and interesting technology. And then you will bring business customers onto the platform. So you have to extract some profit from the end users. So you start spying on end users and use that to make algorithmic recommendations.

Privacy is a classic consumer surplus. It is something you have that someone else can expropriate from you and use for your benefit. Platforms like Twitter start spying on you and targeting you with ads. And they can allocate profits to advertisers by saying, “hey, just like we’ve historically delivered updates from people our users follow, we can reliably deliver updates to those users from you based on your targeting criteria.”

They can also source publishers: “Hey, we want to be the funnel for your website. You only post excerpts or links to your content. We will use our monitoring to displace the things our users have asked us to show”—the updates from their followers—“and replace them with not just ads, but links to your site. And some of those things might be things users want to see, so they can subscribe to you.” You, the end user, are now on the receiving end of this funnel.

In the next phase of monopoly decay, profits are drawn from users and from business customers to the point where there is just enough profit left in the platform to keep them locked up, but not so much that there is left on the table that could otherwise go to the shareholders. And that’s what we see Twitter doing. How many ads can they cram into your feed? How little can they show you of what you have asked to see? How few of the users subscribed to your feed can show what you update, so you can be charged to boost it or pay for Twitter Blue as a way to reach your own followers. And there is only one way to carpet.

Musk made this algorithm open source and many of the rules received a lot of attention. I think the one that was most important didn’t get enough attention at all, which is that off-platform links are downgraded. So if you are Jacobean and you have a post in your feed that says, “Here’s our new article and here’s a link to it,” which has less chance of showing up in your followers’ feeds than if you instead recap that article without a link back to the article . This means that your ability to monetize your content is firmly locked to the platform.

One of the things that platforms do when they reach this stage is that they start to undermine both the revenue that publishers get from advertising – they pay you less of the money they collect from advertisers to show you content related to your material – and they also charge advertisers more and deliver it less reliably.

Facebook and Google had an illegal collusion they called Jedi Blue to increase the price of ads, but lower the delivery of ads and lower the share paid to publishers. And this came out in the lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General. It’s classic enshitification.

When you just look at what Musk does openly, I bet he does some of this hidden — that he does things like charge for ads that are never shown; that he charges more for advertisements than would be paid on an honest basis; or not deliver things that he promises advertisers and charges for. I mean, not because he’s particularly evil, but because that’s what Facebook and Google already do. Musk’s problem, I think, is that he is particularly careless. It will not require the Texas attorney general to depose its executives and conduct discovery of their internal memos. I think Musk will thievish it and post it at two in the morning when he comes down from some damn DMT or something. That’s how we find out with Musk.

And that’s where we see Twitter going.

The second part of your question, “Is something better coming?” I think it’s Mastodon; and I think it’s Mastodon for a number of reasons. One is that the Mastodon standard was developed when the technical platforms were totally disinterested and did not have their fingers on the scale. ActivityPub, which is the standard that governs Mastodon, happened at this moment with reduced scrutiny and disruption. The people who made it were ideologically committed to decentralization and technological self-determination, and they did so without the interference of large firms that would otherwise have found it relatively easy to capture the process.

So it is a very good standard and it has many very good properties. One of them is that it has the right to terminate built-in. The standard ensures that any user can export not only the list of people they follow, but the list of people who follow them. Users can automatically update all these people in cases when they exit one server and go to another.

One of the reasons people still use Twitter, even though the quality has clearly deteriorated, is because they like the people who follow them and whom they follow. It is of value to them; which plays into Musk’s calculus. He’s trying to find a balance where he simplifies the platform to the point where it’s almost useless to you, but not clearly useless. And one of the things that affects that calculation is what self-help measures you can take. If you can’t leave Twitter, Musk can do bad things to you and assume you won’t leave because the value of your followers is more than the pain that Musk inflicts on you. If it is easier for you to bring your followers with you, then the pain he can inflict on you is less. And that also applies to the administrators of these small servers.

The other thing that Mastodon embodies is something called end-to-end, which is that the default position of Mastodon is to connect willing senders with willing receivers. If the two try to communicate, in other words — if I post something for my followers and you follow me — Mastodon delivers. The standard of Mastodon is that things sent by senders are received by receivers – provided both parties agree to that process. What that means is that the process by which you squeeze money out of media brands—by telling them they can’t see followers, don’t want to see their updates—is completely off the table. And that means that a lot of the privacy-infringing behavior and the advertising behavior that contributes to one-hit-fication, it’s just not manageable in the way that it is on Twitter.

Finally, it is quite easy to create and enforce a regulation that keeps things this way. A lot of people have said, “Oh, well, there should be a regulation preventing Twitter from allowing harassment on the platform.” But that will require us to make actual decisions about whether the behavior reaches the level of harassment. If you make fun of Elon Musk, is that harassment? If so, it would require us to have some form of fact finding to determine whether they could have prevented it or could have done something more; if they acted in good faith. And all of this can take five years to determine. Meanwhile, you continue to be harassed. Whereas saying you just have to let people go and you also have to deliver messages from willing senders to willing receivers is very easy to manage.

If you quit, say, and you complain that the administrator never gave you your data, and you go to the Privacy Commissioner who handles things like access to user data and you say, “Hey, I want to file a complaint because the administrator of never gave my data.” They don’t need to find the facts. They just send a letter to that administrator saying, “Just send him another copy of the data. I know you say you sent it and he says he didn’t get it. Just send another copy.” And how do we know if end-to-end is being enforced? I send a message and you tell me if you received it. And then we don’t have to deputize Facebook engineers to do end-to-end. We can test it ourselves.

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