Why has the Internet become so depressingly shit?

From Facebook to Amazon - why is it that everything on the Web is doing down?

Back in 2004 (when this site was born) the Internet felt like the new frontier.

It was free and optimistic; there were edgy blogs filled with personal opinions (Gawker was a favourite, NewYorkish was a total treat), carefully-tweaked photographs, that weren't posted to try sell you anything - everything was free, there were no paywalls and Google was independent publishing's greatest ally.

The Internet was a place of individual liberty and community collaboration, rather than a walled-off collection of tightly-controlled garbage dumps owned by a handful of massive companies with too much money.

Facebook was fun, Twitter wasn't a disaster, nobody really used LinkedIn because that kinda felt like opting to read War and Peace at a trance party.

This slow dive from heaven into shit has been called by the tech critic Cory Doctorow the 'enshittification' of the Internet:

'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 is enshittification: surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit.

Kelsey McKinney of Defector has a similar gripe with apps like Twitter and Instagram and the endless list of knock-off dupes like Bluesky that are trying to replicate those once-useful apps:

This kind of duplication isn't just a clear a failure of imagination; it is the kind of innovation that capitalism rewards. Don't make something new, make the same thing that someone else made very successful, but slightly better. To have a proven concept, after all, is to plagiarize. It's annoying to see millions of dollars thrown at making more-or-less literal dupes of internet companies that everyone is already using begrudgingly and with diminishing emotional returns. It's maybe more frustrating to realize that the goals of these companies is the same as their predecessors, which is to make the internet smaller.

The childlike optimism that the Web once promised us all, is gone. Now we are locked into using apps - that we hate and don't really serve us, but are very difficult to turn away from.

Tech companies that used to promise us all a new utopia are now just following the same old neoliberal trope of returning value to shareholders (thx Milton Friedman). Instead of creating new value through innovation and creativity big tech are now simply exploiting the assets that the network effect has created and extracting value for the share owners.

It is worth remembering that the internet wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be six boring men with too much money creating spaces that no one likes but everyone is forced to use because those men have driven every other form of online existence into the ground. The internet was supposed to have pockets, to have enchanting forests you could stumble into and dark ravines you knew better than to enter. The internet was supposed to be a place of opportunity, not just for profit but for surprise and connection and delight. Instead, like most everything American enterprise has promised held some new dream, it has turned out to be the same old thing—a dream for a few, and something much more confining for everyone else.

Enshittification happens to all entities when the accountants and lawyers start to demand a return on their investments. This practice is rooted in history and happens without questioning it.

It happens everywhere not just in a maturing technology marketplace, but it is the process by which the goose that lays the golden egg is effectively slowly killed.

Just look at Facebook if you want proof of how depressing unimaginative the Internet has become. What was created by relentless creative experimentation and bold ideas is now a flatland dominated by predatory beancounters.

There are however other options available - it doesn't have to be this way. Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship is the preferable route into the future but it's not certain as to when we as society will come to truly understand this.  


Pluralistic: Tiktok’s enshittification (21 Jan 2023) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow
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