Commuting through enshittification

Quality drops as profits rise

The pavement of the information superhighway is caked in shit.

Supplied photo

I spent many of my formative years speeding down the information superhighway, hanging out, making friends and getting into trouble. Like a digital version of the teens in American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused, cruising through cyberspace was a liberating experience connecting me to a new world of possibility.

However, as that period of discovery fades, logging on feels like a laborious commute, passing billboards and big-box stores to find the content I am looking for.

I am not alone in this feeling. In 2023, the American Dialect Society named “enshittification” the word of the year. The neologism, coined by Canadian blogger, journalist and sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow, describes a prevailing trend among online services – becoming shit.

Across several publications, Doctorow has laid out the process of enshittification to show how online platforms and services like Twitter (now known as X), Facebook, Amazon or Google leverage their control over digital life to bombard users with advertisements and paid posts.

The pattern of enshittification begins as tech startups burst onto the scene, enticing users by minimizing costs and maximizing benefits. For example, Facebook used a bot to access and relay users’ -- old Myspace data to lower the social cost of switching.

By maximizing benefits, sites capture a mass of users and are able to begin increasing benefits for their business customers. For example, TikTok fiddles with its algorithm to increase views on certain videos and convince potential content creators that it is the best place to reach an audience.

With these mechanisms in place, alternatives start to die away, brick-and-mortar stores close, alternative sites vacate, and, suddenly, sites like Google stop being the best option. They become the only one.

At this point, enshittification can truly begin as, without competition, companies dilute the user experience, and benefits can be offloaded to those who matter: advertisers and shareholders. Ads flood onto everyone’s pages, moderators are fired to cut costs, and payment becomes the only way for creators to be heard.

Enshittification is the reason why official news currently can’t be reposted on Meta platforms in Canada. When the Canadian government instituted Bill C-18 asking for fair compensation to news organizations for posting their content, Meta was able to exploit their position as one of the best places to share content and pull the plug.

The result is one of the most popular constellations of online hubs losing access to official news and being inundated with potentially dubious information.

At this point, these online spaces should start to die as everyone becomes fed up with the glut of useless traffic on their webpages. Everyone should be getting out of Dodge, jumping in their high-speed wagon and driving off the greener pastures.

However, the current generation of internet giants has put a prohibition on competition and restricted users’ right to exit. Manipulating copyright law, tech giants, with more cash than most nations, have made the tactics they used to get to the top impossible for the next generation.

Doctorow’s concept is eye-opening, showing why streets of the internet, once paved with gold, are covered in shit.

Escaping enshittification will require digital citizens to fight for internet rights and a new techno-social contract. This includes agreements on basics like searches that actually produce what you search for and the ability to create new platforms.

Cory Doctorow is discussing “Escaping the enshittocene” in Winnipeg at Knox United Church on May 2.

Patrick Harney (he/him) is the comments editor at The Uniter.

Published in Volume 78, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 28, 2024)

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