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Enshittification is when an online platform becomes more monetized and less user-oriented the longer it lasts. The term was theorized by Canadian writer and thinker Cory Doctorow to describe the trajectory of platforms like TikTok, Amazon and Twitter. He argued that platforms start out serving users by offering features that lure them in, then they serve advertisers and third parties by offering ad targeting and deals, and lastly they serve themselves and their shareholders by cheating and exploiting both advertisers and users. Doctorow calls this process "enshittification."
Doctorow's fullest description of the idea (and the most popular version of it) is summed up in a January 21st, 2023 essay published to his personal blog. This same essay was later republished to other outlets, such as Wired. However, Doctorow seems to have used the term as early as November 2022, when talking about his book Chokepoint Capitalism. Doctorow's work, which describes "platform capitalism," draws on the research of Nick Srnicek and others. A January 27th, 2023 tweet by Doctorow using the term received over 200 likes and 113.5k Twitter views in over three months (seen below).
In his 2016 book Platform Capitalism, which made that term more popular, Srnicek argues that the internet era is defined by a new kind of capitalism centered on data as the most important resource. Data is important because it fuels platforms that use it to better organize the relationships between buyers, sellers, and goods. Srnicek analyzes not only social media platforms but also goods and services like Uber and John Deere. He ties the development of platform capitalism to the rise of technology, but also to the rise of Wall Street, venture capital, and broader developments in the world economy after the 1970s.
Srnicek says platforms have four characteristics:
- They are intermediary digital infrastructures (they offer ways of bringing buyers, sellers, audiences, items, and services together online)
- They are valuable because of network effects (the more people on a platform, the more valuable that platform is)
- They are cross-subsidized (platforms offer some things for free, so that they can charge for other things)
- They want constant user engagement (in order to extract more data)
Srnicek sees data as valuable because it's both what platforms extract from users and the resource they use to train their algorithms and make themselves better at generating more user interactions (which then produce more data).
With his "enshittification" idea, Doctorow seems to add two major points to the theory: the first is his argument that "a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold(ing) each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them," as stated in his article "The Enshittification of TikTok." A platform gets enshittified (that is, worse to use for both individual people and advertisers/businesses) because it knows both the people on it and the businesses are trapped there. Since they won't go anywhere, more money can be extracted from them. Often, people are trapped on a platform because the platform is a monopoly, because of a network effect where it's hard to find the same amount of reach anywhere else, or because of how much of their business or life already happens through the platform. A January 21st tweet by Doctorow (seen below) explains the phenomenon as part of a much longer Twitter thread, earning 243 likes in three months.
The second point that Doctorow adds is that "enshittification" is part of a life cycle: platforms start out not making money but attracting tons of users. Then, they take the data from those users and sell it to advertisers. At last, they exploit the advertisers and users in order to make a lot of money, becoming gradually less usable and less interesting. Then, they die. In his essay, Doctorow argues that this already happened to Facebook, and is currently happening to TikTok. Another tweet from Doctorow's thread, seen below, describes the "enshittification" of Facebook and received 340 likes.
The original essay was published in January 2023 to Doctorow's site. By March of 2023, the essay was reposted or reviewed on several other sites such as Wired, The Guardian, and the Financial Times.
Many commentators saw Elon Musk's changes to Twitter after his acquisition as a classic example of enshittification. They argued that the decrease in quality of the service as well as the search for new ways to monetize, such as $7 blue checkmarks, meant the platform was getting enshittified. For example, @SethAbrams on Twitter argued that the word should be added to the Oxford English Dictionary because of how well it describe the Musk era (seen below left) earning almost 300 likes on April 3rd, 2023. Twitter user @tithenai, the account which Abrams quote-tweeted, identified Twitter's decision to charge for its API as a classic enshittification (seen below right).
On January 5th, 2024, "enshittification" was voted 2023 Digital Word of the Year and overall 2023 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.
 The Guardian – We Are All Trapped In The Enshittification Of The Internet
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