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Which platforms will survive & what will be left of them?
The Great Internet Reckoning is upon us as seemingly legacy platforms wither into specters of their former selves. Tremble, creative class, at our looming destruction.
Declaring things dead is all the rage for clickbait headlines, but in our era of zombiefication, the free market doesn’t really work and failures never really die. Once beloved startups morph into soulless killers in yet another installment of a franchise. Propped up by powerful interests, the enshittification continues, leaving the rest of us wondering: who is slaughtering our Internet?
For those unaware, this blog’s title is a reference to the tagline of the infamous 1974 horror film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Originally a scream against the brutality and lies of the 1970’s, today, the film’s seething protest message remains muffled by the shock it created to wake people up.
What will wake people up?
This can’t be working very well, can it, yet here we are. We are sinking deeper into the vapor remains of the first wave of YouTube videos, actually independent Etsy, pre-Zuck Instagram, the buzz of early Shopify and others; clinging to a fond nostalgia for the innocent days of online connections and brilliantly new ways to make money.
A recent analysis in this paywalled article I can’t read by The Washington Post boldly declares the Creator Economy to be valued at $250B globally with forecasts to double in the next several years. Despite (or more likely, because) of this, it seems at every turn, around every corner, lurks our familiar monsters: a regulator, a bureaucrat, a corporation, a lobbyist, all seeking ways to remove this economic power from the pathetic, grimy hands of the creators themselves. (What, you wanted to pull a short squeeze? Nice try, kids.)
From Elon revoking API access & Reddit following suit, to YouTube restricting ad-blocking browser extensions, the giant platforms are rapidly destroying their most hardcore (and often profitable) users for short-term gains.
And most will stay, anyway. So it goes.
But I have to ask, because my mind is always going to dark corners: is this an intentional destruction of a diverse, highly profitable internet ecosystem that not only encourages entrepreneurship and non-traditional forms of work, but makes those forms of employment even more satisfying and profitable for the individual?
This is the horror movie I’m watching for Halloween 2023: The Death of the Internet 💀
Clean Up the Bodies and Skeletons
Before Facebook, the Internet was … the same thing. It was still nasty and brutish, as the way collections of humans end up becoming, and there was plenty of cyberbullying, eating disorder communities, revenge porn (real or fake), crime scene photos, jihadist beheading videos and a million other stomach-churning communities, with worse moderation — and no monetization.
We survived these dark days of the early internet as passive observers, as voyeurs, as normies occasionally interrupted by the grosser aspects of humanity. But our lives were not built upon these platforms, our jobs, our daily tasks did not involve “logging onto The Facebook.”
But as the potential for wealth grew so did the internet, welcoming newly-initiated members of the laptop class, the creators, the corporations, the governments—a whole world began relying on a new system, assured it would horizontally scale and sustain massive economic weight.
In turn, a sterile, homogenous environment is emerging. The only kind that can survive the bland palettes of advertisers and analysts, as Ellis Hamburger, possessor-yet-not-flaunter of extreme tech street cred, expertly outlines in this article from The Verge.
The pale is shifted ever further from the castle, to ensure the ugliness always stays beyond. Beyond the view of investors and regulators. Beyond the view of you.
The dark web still exists, but like, is anyone even afraid of it anymore? Platforms are kept clean and tidy for revenue, and sure, that’s not all bad. But the fun of the internet, the excitement, and yes, even the danger, are what made it an attractive place for the creative types.
(Not to mention: what made a lot of companies a shitload of money…)
Narrow the Party’s Guest List
So this Internet, it’s getting a little out of hand, eh?
No longer seen as the basic exercise of our constitutionally protected First Amendment rights in a digital town square, today, the Internet is a rabbit warren of potential places to make money.
But those mazes are getting longer, the obstacles have more teeth and fewer contestants end up alive at the end of the movie (insert reference to a Squid Games cultural moment, or something).
I’m not even going to touch the pretend binary of politics, nor should you, when it comes to discussing creator censorship. That’s a clever little trick, designed to obfuscate the fact that YouTube in particular—but coming soon to other nonspecific platforms near you—is quieting disagreeable actors. Everything from the rote swear word tirades of your parents’ generation to simply mentioning a hot topic or showing a clip from verboten footage is enough to end your entire livelihood.
Never in the history of civilization has it been quite so easy for the average person to go to sleep a success, only to wake up a complete failure.
Okay, try this: how do you monetize your video content without a platform to host videos? How are those videos discoverable—and therefore monetarily valuable—without a massive platform boasting millions or billions of existing users, algorithmically discovering your content?
The relationship between creator and platform, or so we thought, was one of mutual survival and mutual assured destruction. In practice, it’s starting to look a lot more like the usual lopsided, employer-employee power dynamic, and hardly at all like a boostrapian American dream fueled by a hatred of all things bureaucratic, insane ides, butterflies, bare feet & shrooms.
Usher in the Era of Enshittification
Coined by tech nerd hero, ostensible Canadian and allegedly excellent human being and writer Cory Doctorow, the term enshittification came into the conscious collective and immediately transposed itself with that little “you are here” dot on the timeline to Hell.
A passage from the gospels of our future demise, also known as Doctorow’s 2023 Wired article:
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. I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a "two sided market," where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.
The really, really big monster lurking in the corner of all this, though, is what platforms are not currently succumbing to enshittification?
I’ve grabbed my black pompoms and tried to be a cheerleader for Mastodon or other FOSS-type communities. Bandcamp is currently adrift in its own series of acquisition nightmares, ignoring a roadmap that could actually grow revenue for its’ artists. Rumble, now facing scandal from controversial creators, may become ideological anathema to anyone considering a jump from YouTube. Substack was never an actual threat to New Twitter despite boasting a large collection of high-profile commentators. (And then New Twitter became X and ate all of its best revenue generators, anyway, and scared away the advertisers for good [ultimately fulfilling its unobvious destiny to become the iconic First Kill in the legendary slasher franchise that is our economy under ceaseless quantitative easing].)
Lest you accuse me of feigning dramatics, I am fully aware many people are still making boundless bags of cash from living their creator economy dream. Fabulous.
Simultaneously, large swaths of the Laptop Class are undergoing layoffs—and finding that seemingly simple dip between a full-time FAANG lifestyle and funemployment supplemented by TikTok sponsorships no longer exists—while eagerly aspiring people the world over are themselves considering a shift to take control of their finances and build something of meaning, only to realize the barely-wet foundation is already crumbling.
I’m Taking a Dirt Nap 🪦
As I stand in a cemetery littered with headstones from previous platforms, ones where I painstakingly crafted content in the hopes of future monetization, I’m not sure where to go anymore. Does this road lead to our salvation or damnation?
With AI proliferating into every conceivable corner of software, server costs higher than Leatherface’s bodycount and the boredom of sanitized social interaction setting in, I’m not sure where home is on the Internet anymore.
Trying to start a new project feels more like an agonizing game of Fuck Marry Kill with the Current Year’s existing platforms than a way to express our individual talents, make a little money, escape the traditional 9 to 5 path and build a real sense of community.
Contrasted with this whole thing called real life (IRL, if you prefer), where you are still somewhat free to engage with the people around you to buy, sell, trade, barter and participate in a voluntary exchange of goods and services, it has me wondering:
Is the creator economy of the future… going to be built… offline?
With that, I bid you bad nights and sour dreams this trick-filled Halloween 🌙 🍂 🎃 💀