A theory of how internet platforms die

Many of the biggest tech platforms, from Amazon to Facebook, are following a similar pattern of transformation, according to a recent essay by author and internet activist Cory Doctorow.

First, he says, these platforms woo users with artificially low prices on products or an exciting way to connect with friends.

Next, they hook sellers, such as advertisers or third-party retailers, with promises of reaching a captive audience.

Ultimately, Doctorow says, as companies try to maximize their profits, they end up ruining the experience on their platforms through a process he describes with a four-letter word that we can’t broadcast or publish.

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Doctorow and Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino about how online platforms are dying.

Cory Doctorow: As business customers flock to the platform, the number of places you can buy from the platform starts to dwindle. Media companies start to become Facebook first or YouTube first, sellers close their brick-and-mortar marketplaces in favor of Amazon or they are forced out of business. And once those business customers are locked in as well, when there’s nowhere else for them to go because users are used to getting their content or their hard goods or their services on our platform, then the platform owners can start reaping the surplus for themselves.

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Meghan McCarty Carino: While people seem to complain about them incessantly, I think it’s probably hard to argue that they’re dead. People still use them.

Doctorow: These firms see [an] going out to smaller platforms where we had, you know, it’s still decentralized, but a lot of growth in the so-called fediverse with Mastodon and other decentralized services. And you know, there’s a way to think about the fact that people are still on these platforms where you can call it revealed preference. And you can say, well, if you’re still paying [Amazon] Prime, then you have to like Prime, even if you complain that you think Amazon is a bad company. But if all the merchants in your community have closed and you’re still using Prime, is that a revealed preference? Or is it locked?

McCarty Carino: What, if anything, can be done to improve this?

Doctorow: So I think we have a lot of political orientation today to try to improve these platforms. But what I’d like to see is a lot more emphasis on making them less destructive when they give in to their worst impulses, right? I wish we had interoperability so you could leave a platform like Twitter or Facebook but still send messages to it to the people who haven’t left yet, then you could go and still stay in touch with the people who matter. you And because the platform is declining, you know, you wouldn’t stick to it. And then when it finally imploded, your community would not be scattered to the four winds. You’d actually already refactor it on a bunch of other, smaller services. We could also create a rule that says it’s an unfair and deceptive practice to tell someone they’ve subscribed to a feed and then not show them the stuff in that feed. The [Federal Trade Commission] has broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act to police unfair and deceptive practices. If I say to you, “Show me all the things in this source,” and you say, “Yes, that’s what I’ll do,” and then you don’t do it, I have a hard time understanding how that isn’t unfair and deceptive.

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You can find Doctorow’s full essay on his personal blog here. He goes into much more detail about exactly how this cycle played out at specific companies, such as when advertisers sued Facebook for inflating video metrics. Facebook later settled that case for $40 million.

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And Doctorow cites recent reports from Forbes about how TikTok could be headed down a similar path.

Based on internal documents and communications as well as interviews with several employees of TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, Forbes reported that the video platform strategically boosted certain content through what the company calls heating.

The practice could give creators a false sense of how advantageous it is to post on TikTok while diluting the importance of its For You stream, which has been TikTok’s biggest selling point.

TikTok told Forbes that it is promoting some videos to “diversify the content experience and introduce celebrities and emerging creators to the TikTok community.”

Finally, The Washington Post had a piece last year that demonstrated how the Amazon shopping experience has changed, using the example of searching for cat beds.

The piece highlights how many sponsored listings Amazon displays, which made up more than half of the first page. One of them was for a dog bed, a completely different matter.


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