Enshittification (and what to do about it)

A while back, Cory Doctorow had an article that made the rounds called “Tiktok’s Enshittification“, and then a follow-up called “Gig apps trap reverse centaurs in wage-stealing Skinner boxes“, both of which are well worth the time to read. I’m fairly certain that’s where the term “enshittification” was coined, and damn if it doesn’t make a lot of sense:

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, holding each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

Cory Doctorow, “Tiktok’s Enshittification

He also talks a fair bit about “twiddling,” which is part of that process:

Twiddling is the key to enshittification: rapidly adjusting prices, conditions and offers. As with any shell game, the quickness of the hand deceives the eye. Tech monopolists aren’t smarter than the Gilded Age sociopaths who monopolized rail or coal – they use the same tricks as those monsters of history, but they do them faster and with computers:



Platforms don’t just hate it when end-users twiddle back – if anything they are even more aggressive when their business-users dare to twiddle. Take Para, an app that Doordash drivers used to get a peek at the wages offered for jobs before they accepted them – something that Doordash hid from its workers. Doordash ruthlessly attacked Para, saying that by letting drivers know how much they’d earn before they did the work, Para was violating the law.

Cory Doctorow, “Gig apps trap reverse centaurs in wage-stealing Skinner boxes

There’s a third recent article that I feel is part of this same thread, “Let the Platforms Burn“, which likens the online ecosystem to a forest ecology: if you let systems entrench themselves and prevent competition, it’s like not allowing small fires to clear the underbrush, and when a fire does eventually happen, it’s so much worse than it would be otherwise.

But HP is still in business. Apple is still in business. Google is still in business. Microsoft is still in business. IBM is still in business. Facebook is still in business.

We don’t have those controlled burns anymore. Yesterday’s giants tower over all, forming a thick canopy. The internet is “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four.”


Companies cannot unilaterally mediate the lives of hundreds of millions — or even billions — of people, speaking thousands of languages, living in hundreds of countries.

The problem with, say, Meta, is only partially that Mark Zuckerberg is personally monumentally unsuited to serving as the unelected, unaccountable permanent social media czar for three billion people.

The real problem is that no one should have that job. That job shouldn’t exist. We don’t need to find a better Mark Zuckerberg.

We need to abolish Mark Zuckerberg.

Cory Doctorow, “Let the Platforms Burn

And then later (I suppose it’s worth noting: these are all long reads):

The platforms aren’t merely combustible, they’re always on fire. Once you trap hundreds of millions — or billions — of people inside a walled fortress, where warlords who preside over have unlimited power over their captives, and those captives the are denied any right to liberate themselves, enshittification will surely and inevitably follow.


Rather than building more fire debt, we should be making it easy for people to relocate away from the danger so we can have that long-overdue, “good fire” to burn away the rotten giants that have blotted out the sun.

Cory Doctorow, “Let the Platforms Burn

That’s definitely some food for thought. There have been several responses to these various articles, and Mike Masnick over at TechDirt has an article, “Seven Rules For Internet CEOs To Avoid Enshittification” laying out some things tech CEOs could do (going forward) to try and break out of the enshittification cycle (or at least stave it off for a bit). Whether any are willing to actually do those things (or whether their financiers would allow it) is a separate matter. (I’m not going to quote the list here as that’s most of the article, but go read it. Most of it feels like what should be common sense, but who ever said companies had common sense?)

Personally, I’m quietly hoping that in the great social pendulum that swings between diversification and consolidation, we’re starting to swing back towards diversification. I’ve never liked the silos, and if we go back to having a broad range of smaller services, I think that’ll be better, healthier. I don’t think it’ll be a quick or painless process, though: entrenched platforms are going to do their best to claw back control (and not through improving their services so much as through regulatory and legal efforts). Also, a lot of open source tools have been historically neglected (despite being used heavily by corporations), and have always had a usability barrier (a big reason why people moved towards silos in the first place – they’re easy, and actually pay designers to make it easy). But I’m still hoping things aren’t so broken that we can’t get there.