This year, Cory Doctorow has been making waves with his, as usual, spot-on analysis of what’s going on in the world. What he calls ‘enshittification’ happens like this:
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.
This article talks about how platforms such as Twitter/X, TikTok, and Instagram are either already charging, or planning to charge, users of their platforms. As the author, Thomas Germain, points out this means that not only are you now the product, you’re the customer.
Interestingly, Germain likens what social networks are doing to what airlines have done: deliberately make things worse and then providing a paid upgrade to relieve your pain.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Meta plans to charge European users $17 a month for an ad-free version of Instagram and Facebook. It solidifies a trend that would have seemed absurd just a few years ago: every major social media platform now either has a premium tier or is experimenting with rolling one out. It’s the dawning of a new era, where the tech industry suggests people should pay to look at memes and tweets, and somehow, vast numbers of people break out their credit cards and do it.
This is a radical departure from the business model that ran social media for the past few decades, where you offer your eyeballs to the advertising gods in exchange for free connections to friends and content creators. The old cliche goes that if you’re not the customer, your product. Now, it seems, you’re both.
It’s a system that creates perverse incentives for companies. Social media isn’t the first industry to charge customers for a more comfortable experience. Airlines, for example, offer the tech business a troubling, anti-consumer model. You’ve probably noticed air travel has gotten a lot more unpleasant. That’s by design. Over the last twenty years, airlines have found ways to charge customers for options that used to be free, including checked bags, seat selection, and priority boarding. Legroom, too, is now a way to squeeze travelers for more cash. By 2014, Consumer Reports found that on average, the roomiest seats in coach were several inches tighter than the smallest seats that airlines dared to offer passengers in the 1990s. Airlines have such a stranglehold on our economy that they can make their customers suffer, on purpose, to encourage you to pay for a little relief.
You can probably expect the same on social media. It’s already happening to a certain extent. On YouTube, the serfs who want free videos are now sometimes treated to two or even three unskippable ads, and incessant popups that promise a better life is just a few dollars away.