Are Things Getting Worse?

Nov 25, 2023

Cory Doctorow called it “enshittification”. Are things getting worse?

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.

I tend to be an optimist. I think, generally, things are getting better. The Romans had a word for the idea that we judge the past much more positively than the future, “memoria praeteritorum bonorum”. On one hand, many platforms seem to no longer be in their golden age. On the other hand, they are used by more users than ever. Networks grow to a point where the initial magic no longer applies to early users. There was “Eternal September” for Usenet. Early users love to glorify the “good old days”.

Companies go through natural cycles where they create and capture value. When incentives are aligned, things work extremely well (Google Search quality/page load speed, or Amazon and low prices). But, profit-maximizing companies sometimes overreach and try to capture too much value. This creates opportunities for competitors (if anything, the cycles are becoming faster)