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From Amazon to Facebook and Google, here's how platforms can 'decay'

Tech journalist Cory Doctorow outlines how sites can change the deal with users.
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Tech journalist Cory Doctorow outlines how sites can change the deal with users.

If you feel like some important places on the internet have been getting worse, you're not alone.

In 2023, there were federal lawsuits accusing Amazon and Google of exploiting their monopolies; streaming services offered less contentfor more money; and a site-wide protest on Reddit occurred after a new policy threatened what many considered to be identity of the website.

Social media networks are now filled with ads and recommendations for stores and products you know you never asked for. And then there's whatever is happening at X, formerly known as Twitter, under Elon Musk.

Tech journalist and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow coined a term to describe this process: ens***ification.

Doctorow joined All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro to explain what this term means, and why the internet seems to be on this downward slump.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Interview highlights

Ari Shapiro: What is a platform that, to your eyes, exemplifies this trend? And you can't say Twitter because that's too easy.

Cory Doctorow:
No, I think Facebook's a good example. Facebook went through the whole lifecycle of platform decay. They started off by offering a really good deal to their end users. They said, "Hey, leave MySpace, come to Facebook. It's just like MySpace, except we only show you the things that you asked to see, and we'll never spy on you."

And then once those users were locked in — because once you're in a place with all of your friends, it's really hard to leave — they started to take away some of that good stuff they gave them, and they handed it to advertisers and publishers.

To the advertisers, they said, "We were lying when we said we weren't going to spy on these guys. We're totally spying on them. Here's all the data you need to target them for ads that we're not going to charge you much money for."

And to the publishers, they said, "We are also lying when we said we'd only show them the stuff they asked to see."

And then once the publishers and the advertisers were locked in, well, they took away those surpluses. The ads got more expensive. Publishers had to put more and more of their content — not just to get recommended, but even to be shown to the people who subscribed them. And that's the final stage, the stage where there's just only the residual value left on the platform that the platform owner thinks will keep the users and the business customers they bring in stuck to the platform. And that's when we're at the beginning of the end.

Want more on tech? Listen to Consider This to explore the true threat AI might present to your employment.

Shapiro: You used the term platform decay, which suggests this is a well-established arc. Can you just, in the simplest layman's terms, describe what this process is?

Doctorow: Yeah, it's a platform being unfettered from competition because they were able to buy their competitors or use predatory pricing to keep them out.

They bring in users, they offer them really good deals, and then they alter the deal — and they use the fact that digital realms have a lot of flexibility. You can change the deal in tiny ways that are hard to notice, although they add up over time. And also because these companies, when they get so big and concentrated, they capture their regulators. And so things that would otherwise be a violation of privacy rights or labor rights or consumer rights they get away with.

Shapiro: So I can imagine a few potential solutions. One is all of the users migrating to some other platform. Another would be an antitrust lawsuit, like some of the ones we've seen. Is there something that you think actually works really well to fight this?

Doctorow: One thing we could do is stop them from buying their competitors or using predatory pricing. There's been a bunch of law action from the agencies on this.

The DOJ and the FTC have taken it on, their European counterparts, even China, and have all been paying attention to these questions. We have to make it legal to do to Facebook and Apple and Google and all these other tech platforms, the things they did to the companies that came before them.

Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.

Shapiro: You know, there was a New York Times op-ed that basically said what you call the degradation of these websites is actually just old people aging out of an internet that has always catered to young people, that millennials and Gen Xers just don't get it anymore. And Gen Z is still having fun online on platforms that might barely register with you and me. What do you make of that critique?

Doctorow: Well, look, I turned 50 a couple of years ago. I got docked by the AARP. They tracked me down and gave me that card that allows me to complain that things used to be better when I was young.

But I'll stipulate that the way that I want to use the internet is not the way my 15-year-old wants to use the internet. What I'm concerned about is when she wants to leave the platform that she's on because it's not serving her either, will she have an easy way to escape or will she find herself stuck to it? And you're just not going to convince me that what happened between my generation and my kid's generation is that they suddenly discovered that they enjoyed being ripped off.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.