Pluralistic: Podcasting "Twiddler" (27 Feb 2023)

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A mandala made from a knob and button-covered control panel.

Podcasting "Twiddler" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "Twiddler," a recent Medium column in which I delve more deeply into enshittification, and how it is a pathology of digital platforms, distinct from the rent-seeking of the analog world that preceded it:

Enshittification, you'll recall, is the lifecycle of the online platform: first, the platform allocates surpluses to end-users; then, once users are locked in, those surpluses are taken away and given to business-customers. Once the advertisers, publishers, sellers, creators and performers are locked in, the surplus is clawed away from them and taken by the platform.

Facebook is the poster-child for enshittification. When FB welcomed the general public in 2006, it sold itself as the privacy-respecting alternative to Myspace, promising users it would never harvest their data. The FB feed consisted of the posts that the people you'd followed – the people you cared about – published.

FB experienced explosive growth, thanks to two factors: "network effects" (every new user was a draw for other users who wanted to converse with them), and "switching costs" (it was practically impossible to convince all the people you wanted to hear from to leave FB, much less agree on what platform to go to next). In other words, every new user who joined FB both attracted more users, and made it harder for those users to leave.

FB attained end-user lockin and was now able to transfer users' surpluses to business customers. First, it started aggressively spying on users and offered precision targeting at rock-bottom prices to advertisers. Second, it offered media companies "algorithmic" boosting into the feeds of users who hadn't asked to see their posts.

Media companies that posted brief excerpts to FB, along with links to their sites on the real internet were rewarded with floods of traffic, as their posts were jammed into the eyeballs of millions of FB users who never asked to see them. Media companies and advertisers went all-in for FB, integrating FB surveillance beacons in their presence on the real internet, hiring social media specialists who'd do Platform Kremlinology in order to advise them on the best way to please The Algorithm.

Once those business customers – creators, media companies, advertisers – were locked into FB, the company harvested their surplus, too. On the ad side, FB raised rates and decreased expensive anti-fraud measures, meaning that advertisers had to pay more, even as an increasing proportion of their ads were either never served, or never seen.

With media companies and creators, FB not only stopped jamming their content in front of people who never asked to see it, they actively suppressed the spread of business users' posts even to their own subscribers. FB required media companies to transition from excerpts to fulltext feeds, and downranked or simply blocked posts that linked back to a business user's own site, be it a newspaper's web presence or a creator's crowdfunding service. Business users who wanted to reach the people who had explicitly directed FB to incorporate their media in users' feeds had to pay to "boost" their materials.

This is the (nearly) complete enshittification cycle: having harvested the surplus from users and business customers, FB is now (badly) attempting to surf the line where nearly all the value in the service lands in its shareholders' pockets, with just enough surplus left behind to keep end-users and business-users locked in (see also: Twitter).

There have been lots of other abusive "platform" businesses in the past – famously, 19th century railroads and their robber-baron owners were so obnoxiously abusive that they spawned the trustbusting movement, the Sherman Act, and modern competition law. Did the rail barons do enshittification, too?

Well, yes – and no. I have no doubt that robber barons would have engaged in zuckerbergian shenanigans if they could have – but here we run up against the stubborn inertness of atoms and the slippery liveliness of bits. Changing a railroad schedule to make direct connections with cities where you want to destroy a rival ferry business (or hell, laying track to those cities) is a slow proposition. Changing the content recommendation system at Facebook is something you do with a few mouse-clicks.

Which brings me to the thesis of "Twiddler": enshittification doesn't arise from the special genius or the unique wickedness of tech barons – rather, it's the product of the ability to twiddle. Our discourse has focused (rightly) on the extent to which platforms are "instrumented" – that is, the degree to which they spy on and analyze their users' conduct.

But the discussion of what the platforms do with that data – the ways they "react" to it – has echoed the platforms' own boasts of transcendental "behavior modification" prowess (c.f. "Surveillance Capitalism") while giving short shrift to the extremely mundane, straightforward ways that the ability to change the business-logic of a platform lets it allocate and withdraw surpluses from different kinds of users to get them on the hook, reel them in, and then skin and devour them.

The Twiddler thesis, in other words, is a counter to the narrative of Maria Farrell's Prodigal Tech Bros, who claim that they were once evil sorcerers, but, having seen the error of their ways, vow to be good sorcerers from now on, forswearing "hacking our dopamine loops" like vampires swearing off blood:

People who repeat the claims of Prodigal Tech Bros are engaging in criti-hype, Lee Vinsel's term for criticism that repeats tech's own mystical narratives of their own superhuman prowess, rather than grappling with the mundanity of doing old conjurer's tricks very quickly, with computers:

That's what twiddling is – doing the same things that grocery store monopolists and rail monopolists and music label monopolists have always done, but very quickly, with computers. Whether it's Amazon rooking sellers and authors, or Apple and Google's App Stores rooking app creators, or Tiktok and Youtube rooking performers, or Uber rooking drivers, the underlying pattern of surplus-harvesting is the same, and so is the method. They do the same thing as their predecessors, but very quickly, with computers.

A grocer who wants to price-gouge on eggs needs to dispatch an army of low-waged employees with pricing guns. AmazonFresh does the same thing in an eyeblink, by typing a new number into a field on a web-form and clicking submit. As is so often the case when a magic trick is laid bare, the actual mechanic is very, very boring: the way to make a nickel appear to vanish is to spend hundreds of hours practicing before a mirror while you shift so it is clenched between your fingers, and protrudes from behind your hand (sorry, spoiler alert).

The trick can be baffling and marvellous when you see it, but once you know how it's done, it's pretty obvious – the difference is that most sleight-of-hand artists don't think they're sorcerers, while plenty of tech bros believe their own press.

There's a profound irony in twiddling's role in enshittification: early internet scholarship rightly hailed the power of twiddling for internet users. Theorists like Aram Sinnreich described this as configurability – the ability of end-users (aided by tinkerers, small businesses, and co-ops) to modify the services they used to suit their own needs:

Arguably the most successful configurability story is ad-blocking, which Doc Searls calls "the biggest boycott in human history." Billions of end-users of the web have twiddled their browsers so that they aren't tracked by ad-tech and don't see ads:

Configurability was at the heart of early hopes for mass disintermediation, because audiences and performers (or sellers and producers) could go direct to one another, assembling a customized, un-capturable conduit composed of an a-la-carte selection of payment processors, webstores, mail and web hosts, etc. Whenever one of these utilities tried to capture that relationship and harvest an unfair share of the surplus, both ends of the transaction could foil them by blocking, reverse-engineering, modding, or mashing them up, wriggling off the hook before it could set its barbs.

But – as we can all see – a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. The platforms seized the internet, turning it into "five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four":

Three factors let them do this:

I. They were able to buy or merge with every major competitor, and where that failed them, they were able to use predatory pricing to drive competitors out of the market:

II. They were able to twiddle their services, setting them a-bristle with surveillance beacons and digital actuators that could rearrange the virtual furniture every time some knob-jockey touched their dial:

III. They were able to hoard the twiddling, using laws like the DMCA, CFAA, noncompetes, trade secrecy, and other "IP" laws to control the conduct of their competitors, critics and customers:

That last point is very important: it's not just that big corporations twiddle us to death – it's that they have made it illegal for us to twiddle back. Adblocking is possible on the open web, but to ad-block your Iphone, you must first jailbreak it, which is a crime. Yes, Apple will block Facebook from spying on you – but even if you opt out of tracking, Apple still spies on you in exactly the same way Facebook did, to power their own ad-targeting business:

This is what Jay Freeman calls "felony contempt of business-model" – the literal criminalization of configuration. When Netflix wants to decide who is and isn't a member of your family, they just twiddle their back-end to block the child that moves back and forth between your home and your ex's, thanks to your joint custody arrangement:

But woe betide the parent who twiddles back to restore their child's service, by jailbreaking an app or the W3C's official, in-browser DRM, EME – trafficking in a tool to bypass EME and reconfigure your browser to suit your needs, rather than Netflix's, is a felony punishable by a five-year prison sentence and a $500k fine, under Section 1201 of the DMCA:

This is the supreme irony of twiddling: Big Tech companies love to twiddle you, but if you touch your own knob, they call it a crime. Just as Big Tech firms turned "free software" into "open source" and then took all the software freedom for themselves, configurability is now the exclusive purview of corporations – those transhuman, immortal colony paperclip maximizers that treat humans as inconvenient gut-flora:

If we are to take the net back, we'll need to seize the means of computation. There are three steps to that process:

I. Traditional antitrust: Merger scrutiny, breakups, and bans on predatory pricing and other anticompetitive practices:

II. Anti-twiddling laws for businesses: A federal privacy law with a private right of action, labor protections, and other rules that take knobs away from tech platforms:

III. Pro-twiddling laws for users: Interoperability (both mandatory and adversarial – AKA "Competitive Compatibility" or "comcom"):

Monopolists and their handmaidens – witting and unwitting – want you to believe that their dominance is inevitable (shades of Thatcher's "there is no alternative"), because the great forces of history, the technical characteristics of digital technology, and the sorcerous mind-control of dopamine-hackers.

But the reality is much more mundane. Digital freedom was never a mirage. Indeed, it is a prize of enormous value – that's why the platforms are so intent on hoarding it all for themselves.

Here's this week's podcast episode:

And here's a direct link to download the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your media for free, forever):

Here's the direct feed to subscribe to my podcast:

And here's the original "Twiddler" article on Medium:

(Image: Stephen Drake, CC BY 2.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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