A theory of how internet platforms die
Feb 2, 2023

A theory of how internet platforms die

Activist-journalist Cory Doctorow argues that e-commerce and social media platforms evolve and implode in three stages. He’d like to see “more emphasis on making them less destructive when they give in to their worst impulses.”

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

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

Then, they hook sellers, like advertisers or third-party retailers, with promises of reaching a captive audience.

Finally, 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 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 internet platforms die.

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

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

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

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

Doctorow: So I think that, you know, we have a lot of policy orientation these days towards trying to make these platforms better. But what I would like to see is much more emphasis on making them less destructive when they do give in to their worst impulses, right? Like if we had interoperability, so that you could leave a platform like Twitter or Facebook but continue to send messages to it to the people who haven’t left yet, then you could go and continue to stay in contact with the people who matter to you. And as the platform declines, you know, you wouldn’t be stuck to it. And then when it finally imploded, your community wouldn’t be scattered to the four winds. You would actually have already reknit it on a bunch of other, smaller services. We could also create a rule that says that it is an unfair and deceptive practice to tell someone that they have subscribed to a feed and then not show them the things 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 feed,” and you say, “Yep, that’s what I’m going to do,” and then you don’t do it, I have a hard time understanding how that’s not unfair and deceptive.

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

And Doctorow cites recent reporting from Forbes about how TikTok might 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 has been strategically boosting 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 relevance of its For You feed, which has been TikTok’s biggest selling point.

TikTok told Forbes it does promote 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 a search for cat beds.

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

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer