Pluralistic: Podcasting "Let the Platforms Burn" (18 July 2023)

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A forest wildfire. Peeking through the darks in the stark image are hints of the green Matrix

Podcasting "Let the Platforms Burn" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "Let the Platforms Burn," a recent Medium column making the case that we should focus more on making it easier for people to leave platforms, rather than making the platforms less terrible places to be:

The platforms used to be a source of online stability, and many argued that by consolidating the wide and woolly web into a few "curated" silos, the platforms were replacing chaos with good stewardship. If we wanted to make the internet hospitable to normies, we were told, we had to accept that Apple and Facebook's tightly managed "simplicity" were the only way to get there.

But today, all the platforms are on fire, all the time. They are rocked by scandals every bit as awful as the failures of the smaller sites of yesteryear, but while harms of a Geocities or Livejournal moderation failure were confined to a small group of specialized users, failures in the big silos reach hundreds of millions or even billions of people.

What should we do about the rolling crisis of the platforms? The default response – beloved of Big Tech's boosters and critics alike – is to impose rules on the platforms to make them more hospitable places for the billions they've engulfed. But I think that will fail. Instead, I think we should make the platforms less important places by freeing those billions.

That's the argument of the column.

Think of California's wildfires. While climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of our fires, climate (and neglect by PG&E) is merely part of the story. The other part of the story is fire-debt.

For millennia, the original people of California practiced controlled burns of the forests they lived, hunted, and played in. These burns cleared out sick and dying trees, scoured the forest floor of tinder, and opened spaces in the canopy that gave rise to new growth. Forests need fire – literally: the California redwood can't reproduce without it:

But this ended centuries ago, when settlers stole the land and declared an end to "cultural burning" by the indigenous people they expropriated, imprisoned, and killed. They established permanent settlements within the fire zone, and embarked on a journey of escalating measures to keep that smouldering fire zone from igniting.

These heroic measures continue today, and they've set up a vicious cycle: fire suppression creates the illusion that it's safe to live at the wildlife urban interface. Taken in by this illusion, more people move to the fire zone – and their presence creates political pressure for even more heroic measures.

The thing is, fire suppression doesn't mean no fires – it means wildfires. The fire debt mounts and mounts, and without an orderly bankruptcy – controlled burns – we get chaotic defaults, the kind of fire that wipes out whole towns.

Eventually, we will have to change tacks: rather than making it safe to stay in the fire zone, we're going to have to make it easy to leave, so that we can return to those controlled burns and pay down those fire-debts.

And that's what we need to do with the platforms.

For most of the history of consumer tech and digital networks, fire was the norm. New platforms – PC companies, operating systems, online services – would spring up and grow with incredible speed, only to collapse, seemingly without warning.

To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, you need to understand two concepts: network effects and switching costs.

Network effects: A service enjoys network effects if it increases in value as more people use it. AOL Instant Messenger grows in usefulness every time someone signs up for it, and so does Facebook. The more users, the more reasons to join. The more people who join, the more people will join.

Switching costs: The things you have to give up when you leave a product or service. When you quit Audible, you have to throw away all your audiobooks (they will only play on Audible-approved players). When you leave Facebook, you have to say goodbye to all the friends, family, communities and customers that brought you there.

Tech has historically enjoyed enormous network effects, which propelled explosive growth. But it also enjoyed low switching costs, which underpinned implosive contraction. Because digital systems are universal (all computers can run all programs; all nodes on the network can connect to one another), it was historically very easy to switch from one service to another.

Someone building a new messenger service or social media platform could import your list of contacts, or even use bots to fetch the messages left for you on the old service and put them in the inbox on the new one, and then push your replies back to the people you left behind. Likewise, when Apple made its iWork office suite, it could reverse-engineer the Microsoft Office file formats so you could take all your data with you if you quit Windows and switched to MacOS:

This dynamic – network effects growth and low switching costs contraction – is why we think of tech as so dynamic. It's why companies like DEC were able to turn out minicomputers that shattered the dominance of mainframes. But it's also why DEC was brought so low that a PC company, Compaq, was able to buy it for pennies on the dollar. Compaq – a company that built an empire by making interoperable IBM PC clones – was itself "disrupted" a few years later, and HP bought it for spare change found in the sofa cushions.

But HP didn't fall to Compaq's fate. It survived – as did IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook. Somehow, the cycle of "good fire" that kept any company from growing too powerful was interrupted.

Today's tech giants run "walled gardens" that are actually walled prisons that entrap their billions of users by imposing high switching costs on them. How did that happen? How did tech become "five giant websites filled with screenshots from the other four?"

The answer lies in the fact that tech was born as antitrust was dying. Reagan hit the campaign trail the same year the Apple ][+ hit shelves. With every presidency since, tech has grown more powerful and antitrust has grown weaker (the Biden administration has halted this decay, but it must repair 40 years' worth of sabotage).

This allowed tech to "merge to monopoly." Google built a single successful product – a search engine – and then conquered the web by buying other peoples' companies, even as their own internal product development process produced a nearly unbroken string of flops. Apple buys 90 companies a year – Tim Cook brings home a new company more often than you bring home a bag of groceries:

When Facebook was threatened by an upstart called Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg sent a middle-of-the-night email to his CFO defending his plan to pay $1b for the then-tiny company, insisting that the only way to secure eternal dominance was to eliminate competitors – by buying them out, not by being better than them. As Zuckerberg says, "It is better to buy than compete":

As tech consolidated into a cozy oligopoly whose execs hopped from one company to another, they rigged the game. They colluded on a criminal "no-poach" deal to suppress their workers' wages:

And they colluded to illegally rig the ad-market:

This collusion is the inevitable result of market concentration. 100 squabbling tech companies will be at each others' throats, unable to agree on catering for their annual meeting much less a common lobbying agenda. But boil those companies down to a bare handful and they'll quickly converge on a single hymn and twine their voices in eerie harmony:

Eliminating antitrust enforcement – letting companies buy and merge with competitors, permitting predatory pricing and other exclusionary tactics – was the first step towards unsustainable fire suppression. But, as on the California wildland-urban interface, this measure quickly gave way to ever-more-extreme ones as the fire debt mounted.

The tech's oligarchs have spent decades both suppressing laws that would limit their extractive profits (there's a reason there's no US federal privacy law!), and, crucially, getting new law made to limit anyone from "disrupting" them as they disrupted their forebears.

Today, a thicket of laws and rules – patent, copyright, anti-circumvention, tortious interference, trade secrecy, noncompete, etc – have been fashioned into a legal superweapon that tech companies can use to control the conduct of their competitors, critics and customers, and prevent them from making or using interoperable tools to reduce their switching costs and leave their walled gardens:

Today, these laws are being bolstered with new ones that make it even more difficult for users to leave the platforms. These new laws purport to protect users from each other, but they leave them even more at the platforms' mercy.

So we get rules requiring platforms to spy on their users in the name of preventing harassment, rather than laws requiring platforms to stand up APIs that let users leave the platform and seek out a new online home that values their wellbeing:

We get laws requiring platforms to "balance" the ideology of their content moderation:

But not laws that require platforms to make it easy to seek out a new server whose moderation policies are more hospitable to your ideas:

The platforms insist – with some justification – that we can't ask them to both control their users and give their users more freedom. If we want a platform to detect and block "bad content," we can't also require the platform to let third party interoperators plug into the system and exchange messages with it.

They're right – but that doesn't mean we should defend them. The problem with the platforms isn't merely that they're bad at defending their users' interests. The problem is that they can't defend those interests. Mark Zuckerberg isn't merely monumentally, personally unsuited to serving as the unelected, unaacountable social media czar for billions of people in hundreds of countries, speaking thousands of languages. No one should have that job.

We don't need a better Mark Zuckerberg. We need no Mark Zuckerbergs. We don't need to perfect Zuck – we need to abolish Zuck.

Rather than pouring our resources into making life in the smoldering wildlife-urban interface safe, we should help people leave that combustible zone, with policies that make migration easy.

This month, we got an example of how just easy that migration could be. Meta launched Threads, a social media platform that used your list of Instagram followers and followees to get you set up. Those low switching costs made it easy for Instagram users to become Threads users – and the network effects meant it happened fast, with 30m signups in the first morning:

Meta says it was able to do this because it owns both Insta and Threads. But Meta doesn't own the list of accounts that you trust and value enough to follow, or the people who feel the same way about you. That's yours. We could and should force Meta to let you have it.

But that's not enough. Meta claims that it will someday integrate Threads into the Fediverse, the collection of services based on the ActivityPub standard, whose most popular app is Mastodon. On Mastodon, you not only get to export your list of followers and followees with one click, but you can import those followers and followees to a new server with one click.

Threads looks incredibly stupid, a "Twitter alternative you would order from Brookstone," but there are already tens of millions of people establishing relationships with each other there:

When they get tired of "brand-safe vaporposting," they'll have to either give up those relationships, or resign themselves to being trapped inside another walled-garden-cum-prison operated by a mediocre tech warlord:

But what if, instead of trying to force Zuck to be a better emperor-for-life, we passed rules requiring him to let his subjects flee his tyrannical reign? We could require Threads to stand up a Fediverse gateway that let users leave the service and set up on any other Fediverse servers (we could apply this rule to all Fediverse servers, preventing petty dictators from tormenting their users, too):

Zuck founded an empire of oily rags, and so of course it's always on fire. We can't make it safe to stay, but we can make it easy to leave:

This is the thing platforms fear the most. Network effects work in both directions: if your service grows quickly because people value one another, then it will shrink quickly when the people your users care about leave. As danah boyd recounts, this is what happened when Myspace imploded:

When I started seeing the disappearance of emotionally sticky nodes, I reached out to members of the MySpace team to share my concerns and they told me that their numbers looked fine. Active uniques were high, the amount of time people spent on the site was continuing to grow, and new accounts were being created at a rate faster than accounts were being closed. I shook my head; I didn’t think that was enough. A few months later, the site started to unravel.

Platforms collapse "slowly, then all at once." The only way to prevent sudden platform collapse syndrome is to block interoperability so users can't escape the harms of your walled garden without giving up the benefits they give to each other.

We should stop trying to make the platforms good. We should make them gone. We should restore the "good fire" that ended with the growth of financialized Big Tech empires. We should aim for soft landings for users, and stop pretending that there's any safe way to life in the fire zone.

We should let the platforms burn.

Here's the podcast:

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

And here's my podcast feed:

(Image: Cameron Strandberg, CC BY 2.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

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Colophon (permalink)

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Latest podcast: Let the Platforms Burn: The Opposite of Good Fires is Wildfires

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  • The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023

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