Don’t Be Evil
Tonight (November 22), I’ll be joined by Vass Bednar at the Toronto Metro Reference Library for a talk about my new novel, The Lost Cause, a preapocalyptic tale of hope in the climate emergency.
My latest Locus Magazine column is “Don’t Be Evil,” a consideration of the forces that led to the Great Enshittening, the dizzying, rapid transformation of formerly useful services went from indispensable to unusable to actively harmful:
While some services have fallen harder and/or faster, they’re all falling. When a whole cohort of services all turn sour in the same way, at the same time, it’s obvious that something is happening systemically.
After all, these companies are still being led by the same people. The leaders who presided over a period in which these companies made good and useful services are also presiding over these services’ decay. What factors are leading to a pandemic of rapid-onset enshittification?
Recall that enshittification is a three-stage process: first surpluses are allocated to users until they are locked in. Then they are withdrawn and given to business-customers until they are locked in. Then all the value is harvested for the company’s shareholders, leaving just enough residual value in the service to keep both end-users and business-customers glued to the platform.
We can think of each step in that enshittification process as the outcome of an argument. At some product planning meeting, one person will propose doing something to materially worsen the service to the company’s advantage, and at the expense of end-users or business-customers.
Think of Youtube’s decay. Over the past year, Google has:
- Dramatically increased the cost of ad-free Youtube subscriptions;
- Dramatically increased the number of ads shown to non-subscribers;
- Dramatically decreased the amount of money paid to Youtube creators;
- Added aggressive anti-adblock;
Then, this week, Google started adding a five-second blanking interval for non-Chrome users who have adblockers installed:
These all smack of Jenga blocks that different product managers are removing in pursuit of their “key performance indicators” (KPIs):
We can think of each of these steps as the outcome of an argument. Someone proposes a Youtube subscription price-hike, and other internal stakeholders object. These objections fall into two categories:
- We shouldn’t do this because it will make the product worse; and/or
- We shouldn’t do this because it will reduce the company’s earnings.
Lots of googlers sincerely care about product quality. People like doing a good job, and they take pride in making good things. Many have sacrificed something that mattered in the service of making the product better. It’s bad enough to miss your kid’s school play so you can meet a work deadline — but imagine making that sacrifice and then having the excellent work you put in deliberately degraded.
I have been around Google’s orbit since its early days, going to the odd company Christmas party in the early 2000s and giving talks at Google offices in cities all over the world. I’ve known hundreds of skilled googlers who passionately cared about making the best products they could.
For most of Google’s history, those googlers won the argument. But they didn’t do so merely by appealing to their colleagues’ professional pride in a job well-done. For most of Google’s history, the winning argument was a combination of “doing this bad thing would make me sad,” and “doing this bad thing will make Google poorer.”
Companies are disciplined by three forces:
- Competition (the fear of losing business to a rival);
- Regulation (the fear of legal penalties that would exceed the expected profits from a given course of action);
- Self-help (the fear that customers or users will change their behavior, say, by installing an ad-blocker).
The ability of googlers to win enshittification arguments by appealing to the company’s bottom line was a function of one or more of these three disciplining factors. The weakening of each of these factors is the reason that every tech company is sliding into enshittification at once.
For example, when Google contemplates raising the price of a Youtube subscription, the dissent might say, “Well, this will reduce viewership and might shift viewers to rivals like Tiktok” (competition). But the price-hiking side can counter, “No, because we have a giant archive, we control 90% of searches, we are embedded in the workflow of vloggers and other creators who automatically stream and archive to Youtube, and Youtube comes pre-installed on every Android device.” Even if the company leaks a few viewers to Tiktok, it will still make more money in aggregate. Prices go up.
When Google contemplates increasing the number of ads shown to nonsubscribers, the dissent might say, “This will incentivize more users to install ad-blockers, and then we’ll see no ad-revenue from them.” The pro-ad side can counter, “No, because most Youtube viewing is in-app, and reverse-engineering the Youtube app to add an ad-blocker is a felony under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As to non-app viewers: we control the majority of browser installations and have Chrome progressively less hospitable to ad-blocking.”
When Google contemplates adding anti-adblock to its web viewers, the dissent might say, “Processing users’ data in order to ad-block them will violate Europe’s GDPR.” The anti-adblock side can counter, “But we maintain the fiction that our EU corporate headquarters is in the corporate crime-haven of Ireland, where the privacy regulator systematically underenforces the GDPR. We can expect a very long tenure of anti-adblock before we are investigated, and we might win the investigation. Even if we are punished, the expected fine is less than the additional ad-revenue we stand to make.”
When Google contemplates stealing performers’ wages through opaque reshufflings of its revenue-sharing system, the dissent might say, “Our best performers have options, they can go to Twitch or Tiktok.” To which the pro-wage-theft side can counter, “But they have no way of taking their viewers with them. There’s no way for them to offer their viewers on Youtube a tool that alerts them whenever they post a new video to a rival platform. Their archives are on Youtube, and if they move them to another platform, there’s no way redirect users searching for those videos to their new homes. What’s more, any attempt to unilaterally extract their users’ contact info, or redirect searchers or create a multiplatform client, violates some mix of our terms of service, our rights under DMCA 1201, etc.”
It’s not just Google. For every giant platform, the threats of competition, regulation and self-help have been in steady decline for years, as acquisitions, underenforcement of privacy/labor/consumer law, and an increase in IP protection for incumbents have all mounted:
When internal factions at tech companies argue about whether to make their services worse, there’s a heavy weight tilting the scales towards enshittification. The lack of competition, an increase in switching costs for users and business-customers, and broad powers to prevent users from modifying the service for themselves all mean that even when a product gets worse, profits can still go up.
This is the culprit: monopoly, and its handmaiden, regulatory capture. That’s why today’s antimonopoly movement — and the cases against all the tech giants — are so important. The old, good internet was built by flawed tech companies whose internal ranks included the same amoral enshittifiers who are gobbling up the platforms’ seed corn today. The thing that stood in their way before wasn’t merely the moral character of colleagues who shrank away from these cynical maneuvers: it was the economic penalties that befell those who enshittified too rashly.
Incentives matter. Money talks and bullshit walks. Enshittification isn’t due to the moral failings of individuals in tech companies. It’s possible to have a good internet run by flawed people. But to get that new, good internet, we have to support technologists of good will and character by terrorizing their venal and cynical colleagues by hitting them where they live: in their paychecks.
If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: