Pluralistic: Podcasts are hearteningly enshittification resistant; Red Team Blues excerpt (27 Jan 2023)

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A scary abandoned room. The back wall is stained with the Spotify podcast selection screen. In the center of the room is an oversized mousetrap, baited with the Spotify logo.

Podcasts are hearteningly enshittification resistant (permalink)

In the enshittification cycle, a platform lures in users by giving them a good deal at first, then it lures in business customers (advertisers, sellers, performers) by shifting the surplus from users to them; finally, it takes all the surplus for itself, turning the whole thing into a pile of shit:

When a company is neither disciplined by competition nor by regulation, enshittification inevitably ensues. If a user or business customer can't jump ship – because of lock-in, high switching costs or network effects – then companies are powerfully tempted to mistreat them – not out of sadism, but instead to harvest their surplus and goose the company's profits.

Half the results on the first five screens of an Amazon search result are ads. Amazon's business customers spend $31b/year on payola, bidding to be at the top of Amazon's search results: the top results aren't the best matches to your search, they're the matches that are most profitable for Amazon.

But out of the remaining half, many of the results are Amazon's lookalike products: Amazon coerces sellers into shipping via Amazon warehouses (otherwise their products won't be Prime eligible), and this not only lets Amazon extract 45%+ out of every sale in junk fees, it also lets them see the bills-of-lading that identify the manufacturers of products, whom Amazon can approach to make a knock-off.

These Amazon house-brand copycat products are cheaper than the original, because Amazon doesn't charge itself >45% fees. It can allocate some of the surplus to shoppers – offering a discount on the price the OEM has had to inflate to cover Amazon's fees – but keep the majority for its shareholders.

This is enshittification: Amazon is a place where buyers hold the sellers hostage (because Amazon is where all the buyers are, and the buyers are prepaying for shipping a year at a time via Prime), but the buyers can't leave either, because all the sellers are at Amazon. The sellers don't want to be on Amazon, but all the buyers are there, so…

Hypothetically there's another way to discipline Amazon's appetites as it gorges itself on all of us, buyer or seller: regulation. Much of Amazon's conduct falls under the broad terms "unfair and deceptive," which the FTC has broad authority to prohibit and punish under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The FTC is undergoing a renaissance under Lina Khan, its most effective chair in forty years, and she is aggressively wielding her Section 5 powers to hold corporations to account, but the FTC has two generations' worth of policy debt to pay down, and enshittification is everywhere, so Amazon and other firms generally behave as though there was no threat of regulatory punishment for even the most egregious conduct. They don't have to outrun Lina Khan, they just have to outrun all the other firms she has in her crosshairs.

Corporations, unfettered by competition or regulation, are free to pursue enshittification to the bitter end: once they have their users locked in, they use them as bait to lure in business customers, and once they are locked in, they can grab all the value for themselves, surfing the line between "so useless everyone quits" and "just useful enough that everyone keeps holding each other hostage."

Enshittification is a dangerous strategy, and not just because that's a hard wave to surf. Woe betide a platform that enshittifies prematurely, before its users or business customers are too locked in to simply say, "fuck this, I'm out of here." That's an expensive mistake, one that can cost a company all the consumer and supplier subsidies it bought with its shareholders' cash.

It's a mistake that Spotify just made, when it pursued its podcast exclusivity strategy, blowing more than a billion dollars buying up podcasts and then locking them up inside Spotify's walled garden, unreachable unless you use Spotify's client – other podcatchers need not apply:

It's easy to see why Spotify liked this idea. Real podcasts are as open as you could want – encoded in the open MP3 standard, distributed over the open RSS standard – and can be subscribed to and played back by any client. There's no practical way to spy on podcast listeners, nor to enshittify their experience in other ways, say, by blocking ad-skipping.

For eshittification-thirsty corporate sociopaths, this user-centric openness is a bug, not a feature. Apple was the first company to try to enclose podcasts, but while it dominated the sector, it never controlled it fully, not least because anyone could leave Apple's walled garden and subscribe to the same podcasts using another client with just a couple clicks. Competition disciplines companies.

Disciplined by competition and the ease of user switching, the podcast-encloser brigade have proceeded with caution – even where they publish their own podcasts, they haven't tried to make them exclusive to their walled gardens, instead offering real podcast feeds that anyone could subscribe to. One notable – and shameful – exception is the BBC, which has abandoned its leadership on open standards and open protocols and moved its flagship podcasts inside its proprietary BBC Sounds app, presumably because this will help it commericalize its offerings for non-license-fee-payers (part of the long transformation of the BBC from a Public Service Broadcaster focused on Reithian values to a glorified streaming service for Americans, a transformation that started when the BBC killed the Creative Archive in favor of the Iplayer).

Where others were cautious, Spotify was reckless. It bought popular podcasts and podcast networks, then severely enshittified their programs by locking them inside Spotify's walled garden. Audience numbers plummeted, demoralizing podcast creators who were uninterested in the future date when Spotify and its Magic Underpants Gnomes would figure out how to wring more money out of the tiny cohort that stuck around.

Today, podcast advertising rates are falling off a cliff. Short on users and ad dollars, Spotify's enshittification plan is looking like a self-inflicted wound. Even the Obamas cancelled their deal and switched to Audible, a monopolist that leads the world in enshittification but who had the good sense not to make its podcasts platform-exclusive:

Writing in Variety, Tyler Aquilina pens a eulogy for podcast exclusivity, quoting Parcast Union and Gimlet Union, the unions for Spotify acquisitions Gimlet and Parcast: "[exlusives] caused a steep drop in listeners — as high as three quarters of the audience for some shows."

That is a hell of a rush for the exits. What's more, podcasts that leave Spotify's walled garden – after their exclusive deals expire – gain listeners (though not as many as they lost).

Podcasting is an open technology built out of open technologies. We have damned few of those left. The openness of podcasts once allowed wild experimentation, with new kinds of audio made by new kinds of creators finding new kinds of audiences.

The drive to enshittify, unfettered by regulation or competition, has allowed many of the world's largest, stupidest tech companies to unhinge their jaws and tempt podcast makers and listeners to traipse blithely onto their slathering tongues. They were always going to snap their jaws shut eventually – just because Spotify lacked the executive function to wait for a fully ripened enshittification before biting down, it doesn't mean we're out of the woods.

The cover of the Tor edition of Red Team Blues, designed by Will Staehle.

Red Team Blues excerpt (permalink)

My next novel is Red Team Blues, a noir technothriller/heist novel about Marty Hench, a forensic accountant who is the most fearsome financial sleuth in Silicon Valley history. Marty has spent 40 years unwinding tech's biggest, sleaziest scams, and now he's ready to retire – but first he has to do one more job:

If you'd like an essay-formatted version of this thread to read or share, here's a link to it on, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

My publisher, Tor Books, has just published the first sneak-peek at Red Team Blues, an exclusive excerpt from Chapter 4, where Marty explains to his old friend Raza why he's doing this job, and she helps him figure out how to crack it:

I haven't been this excited about a book since 2006, when Little Brother battered its way out of my fingertips in eight weeks flat (the first draft of Red Team Blues took only six weeks!). Tor agreed – they bought this book and two prequels: The Bezzle (about private prison tech) and Picks and Shovels (about affinity scams in the heroic age of the PC).

The early reviews have been spectacular: Booklist got there first, calling it "Another winner from an sf wizard who has always proved himself adept at blending genres for both adults and teens."

Next was Library Journal, who wrote, "This absorbing and ruthless cyberpunk thriller from Doctorow tackles modern concerns involving cryptocurrency, security, and the daunting omnipotence of technology."

Then came Publishers Weekly, with "Doctorow brings a thoroughness and honesty to a subject masked by techno-babble and emotional hype ('all that blockchain for good shit') to deliver a clear-eyed warning about how crypto is used (money laundering) and what it costs (billions of tons of CO2)."

I can't wait for this one to drop in April!

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Telcos attack VoIP numbering

#15yrsago Southern racists adopt “Canadian” as a euphemism for “black”

#15yrsago Bavarian gov’t caught buying malware to intercept Skype calls

#10yrsago Berlin activists create CCTV-smashing street game

#5yrsago OK, panic again: patching Spectre and Meltdown has been a disaster

#5yrsago Your early darknet drug buys are preserved forever in the blockchain, waiting to be connected to your real identity

#5yrsago The Financial Times’s 404 page is an ingenious, hilarious introduction to major concepts in economic theory

#5yrsago A journalist who was sued by Trump describes Trump’s hilarious incompetence under oath

#5yrsago Canada stripped the TPP of its terrible IP proposals: will the US seek revenge in NAFTA talks?

#5yrsago The elite belief in Uberized, Muskized cities is at odds with fundamental, irrefutable facts of geometry

#5yrsago Kimberly Clark says the Trump tax-cuts let it fire 5,500 US workers and pay out dividends to its shareholders

#5yrsago Short-termism led the Democratic Party to let unions die, and now they’ve lost their base

#5yrsago “We Shall Overcome” has overcome copyfraud and is now unambiguously public domain

#1yrago Cops' imaginary fears send addicts to real jail

#1yrago As stocks tumble, wealthy speculators bid up house prices

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 500 words (99091 words total)

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. REVISIONS COMPLETE – AWAITING COPYEDIT

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. ON SUBMISSION

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. ON SUBMISSION

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Social Quitting

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Upcoming books:

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

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