A theory of how internet platforms die

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

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

Then, they lure sellers, such as 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 with a process he dubs a four-letter word we can’t broadcast or publish.

What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between Doctorow and Megan McCarty-Carino of Marketplace about how online platforms are dying.

Cory Doctorow: As business customers flock to the platform, the number of places you can buy things from the platform is starting to dwindle. Media companies are beginning to become Facebook first or YouTube first, vendors have either closed their traditional marketplace in favor of Amazon or been forced out of business. And once those business customers are also locked in, once they have nowhere else to go because the users are used to getting their content, solid goods or services in our platform, the platform owners can start reaping the excess for themselves.

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Megan McCarty Carino: While people seem to complain about them nonstop, I think it’s probably hard to say they’re dead. People still use it.

Doctorow: These companies see [an] Exodus to smaller platforms where we had, you know, still marginal, but a lot of growth in the so-called federated universe with Mastodon and other decentralized services. You know, there’s a way of thinking about the fact that people are still on these platforms where you could call it a clear preference. And you can say, well, if you still pay for it [Amazon] Prime, then you should like Prime, even if you complain that you think Amazon is a bad company. But if all merchants in your community are closed and you’re still using Prime, is that an exposed preference? Or is she locked up?

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

Doctorow: So I think we have a lot of politics these days towards trying to improve these platforms. But what I’d like to see is more focus on making them less destructive when they give in to their worst impulses, right? As if we have interoperability, so that you can leave a platform like Twitter or Facebook and still send messages to the people who haven’t left yet, and then you can go and continue to stay in touch with the people who matter. You are. And with the platform down, you know, you’re not going to stick to it. And then when it finally breaks out, your community will not be scattered into the four winds. I had actually already hooked it up on a bunch of other smaller services. We could also create a rule that it’s an unfair and deceptive practice to tell someone they’ve subscribed to a feed and then not show them things in that feed. the [Federal Trade Commission] He has broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act to police unfair practices and deception. If I told you, “Show me all the things in this compendium,” and you said, “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do,” and then you didn’t, I have a hard time understanding how that isn’t unfair and deceptive.

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You can find Doctorow’s full article on his personal blog here. It goes into more detail about exactly how this cycle occurred in specific companies, such as when advertisers sued Facebook for inflating their video metrics. Facebook eventually settled this case for $40 million.

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Doctorow cites recent reports from Forbes on how TikTok could go down a similar path.

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

This practice can give creators a false sense of how useful posting on TikTok can be while diluting the importance of the For You feed, which has been TikTok’s biggest selling point.

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

Finally, the Washington Post ran an article last year that showed how the Amazon shopping experience has changed, using the example of searching for cat beds.

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


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