Pluralistic: Why Millenials aren't leaving Tiktok (21 Mar 2024)

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A scythe-wielding, crook-backed Father Time bends low to stare into the face of a cherubic Baby New Year. Father Time wears a backwards baseball-cap with the Tiktok logo. Baby New Year is waving goodbye and holding a satchel decorated with the 'code waterfall' from the credit sequences of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movies. The background is a stormy sky, with a forked lightning striking between the two figures.

Why Millennials aren't leaving Tiktok (permalink)

The news that Gen Z users have abandoned Tiktok in such numbers that the median Tiktoker is a Millennial (or someone even older) prompted commentators to dunk on Tiktok as uncool by dint of having lost its youthful sheen:

But "why are Gen Z kids leaving Tiktok?" is the wrong question. The right question is, why aren't Millennials leaving Tiktok? After all, we are living through the enshittocene, the great enshittening, in which every platform gets monotonically, irreversibly worse over time, and Tiktok is no exception:

To understand why older users are stuck to Tiktok, we need to start with why younger users relentlessly seek out new platforms. To some extent, it's just down to youth's appetite for novelty, but that's only part of the story. To really understand why people come to – and leave – platforms, you have to understand switching costs.

"Switching costs" is the economists' term for everything you have to give up when you change products or services. Switching from Ios to Android probably means giving up a bunch of your apps and purchased media. Switching from an airline where you're a high-status frequent flier to another carrier means giving up on free checked bags and early boarding.

In an open market, rivals have lots of ways to lower these switching costs (it's an open secret that you can call an airline and say, "Hi, I'm a 33rd Order Mason on American Airlines, will you make me a Triple Platinum Diamond Sky-Baron if I switch to Delta?"). Of course, big incumbents hate this, and do everything they can to increase their switching costs, finding ways to impose high switching costs that punish disloyal consumers who have the temerity to go elsewhere.

With social media, lock-in comes for free, thanks to the "collective action problem." Getting people to agree on a given course of action is hard, and as you add more people to the picture, the problem gets harder. It's hard enough to get half a dozen people in your group-chat to agree on where to go for dinner or what board-game to play. But once you're reliant on a social media service to stay in touch with friends, relatives around the world, customers, communities (say, rare disease support groups), and coordination (like organizing your kid's little league car-pool), the problem becomes nearly insoluble. Maybe you can convince your overseas relatives to switch to a Signal group, but can you do the same for your small business's customers, or your old high-school pals?

Taken together, switching costs and collective action problems make platforms "sticky," and sticky platforms inevitably enshittify.

Platforms, after all, generate value. They connect end-users with each other (say, little league parents) and they connect end-users to business customers (you and your small business's customers). That value needs to be parceled out among end users, business customers, and the platform's shareholders. A platform can make life better for business customers at its end users' expense by increasing the number of ads (hello, Youtube!), and it can make life better for its shareholders at its business customers' expense by decreasing the share of ad revenue given to publishers or performers (oh, hello again, Youtube!).

From a platform's perspective, the ideal state is one in which end users and business customers get no value from the platform, because it's all being captured by the platform's shareholders. But if Youtube interrupted every 30 seconds of video for ten minutes of ads and paid the video creators nothing, both users and creators would ditch the platform – and advertisers would follow:

So platforms seek an equilibrium: "what is the least value we apportion to end-users and business customers without triggering their departure?" Maybe that means giving more value to end-users (for example, keeping Uber fares low by suppressing wages), or to business-customers (crowding more ads into your social media feed).

Every business – including brick-and-mortar, non-digitized ones – wants to find some kind of equilibrium between the value going to its suppliers, its customers and its owners, but digital businesses have an advantage here: digital systems are flexible in ways that analog, hard-goods businesses are not. Digital businesses can alter pricing, payouts and other dynamics from moment to moment – second to second – and make a different offer to every supplier and customer. They have a bunch of knobs, and they can twiddle them at will:

Well, not quite at will. Businesses face constraints on their twiddling. If they get too greedy, users or business customers might weigh the cost of staying against the switching costs and decide it's not worth it. But the more expensive – the more painful – a platform can make leaving, the more pain they can inflict on the people who stay.

In other words, there's two ways to keep a customer or supplier's business: you can make a better service so they won't want to leave, or you can make leaving the service so painful that they stay even if you mistreat them.

There's three ways a digital company can make things worse for their customers and users without losing their business.

First, they can eliminate competition (think of Mark Zuckerberg buying Instagram to recapture the users who'd fled Facebook to escape his poor management):

Second, they can capture their regulators and avoid punishment for trampling their suppliers' or users' legal rights (think of how Amazon has raised the price of everything we buy, both on- and off Amazon, through its "most favored nation" deals):

Third, they can use IP law to prevent competitors from modifying their services to claw back some of that value (think of how Apple used legal threats to block an Android version of Imessage, blocking Apple customers from having private conversations that included non-Apple customers:

Companies can't just use these tricks at will, of course. Antitrust laws can block companies from making anticompetitve acquisitions or mergers. Regulators can punish companies for cheating their customers, workers and users. Technologists can come up with clever ways of modding or reconfiguring existing services with "interoperable" add-ons that let users bargain for better treatment by refusing to accept worse:

Day in, day out, the decision-makers at tech companies test these constraints, twisting the knobs that shift value away from users to shareholders. Their bosses and boards motivate them with "KPIs" that dangle the promise of huge bonuses and promotions for any manager who successfully enshittifies part of the company's products:

Decades of pro-corporate, pro-monopoly policy has loosened those knobs. 40 years of lax antitrust meant that companies had a lot of leeway to buy or merge with rivals – that's changing today, but it's tough sledding:

As sectors grew more concentrated, they found it easier to capture their regulators, so that they no longer fear punishment for price-gouging, spying, or wage-theft, so applying the same amount of torque to the "break the law" knob cranks it a lot further:

Once you've captured your regulators, you can aim them at your competitors. A monopoly-friendly policy environment has transformed IP law into a bully's charter, allowing powerful companies to strangle would-be competitors who dare to offer their customers tools to shield themselves from enshittification, like scrapers, ad-blockers and alternative clients. Big companies can crank the enshittification knob all the way over and know that smaller rivals knobs won't turn at all:

At one point, bosses faced one more constraint on knob-twiddling: their workforce. Many tech workers genuinely cared about their users' welfare, something bosses encouraged as a sneaky trick to get techies to put in long hours without exercising their leverage by quitting rather than destroying their lives to meet arbitrary deadlines. These workers would fearlessly slap their bosses' hands when they reached for the enshittification knob, threatening to quit rather than allowing the products they'd given so much for to be enshittified. Today, after hundreds of thousands of tech layoffs, tech workers are far less likely to challenge their bosses' right to twiddle, and far more likely to get fired if they try:

All this means that tech bosses don't have to change their approach at all, and yet, their services will grow steadily worse. The boss who twiddles the enshittification knob in exactly the same way as he did a year or a decade ago will find it turning much further, because his customers are locked into his platform, his regulators won't protect them, the same regulators will stop his competitors' attempts at countertwiddling, and his workers fear losing their jobs too much to speak up for their users.

That's the contagion that produced the enshittocene: the forces that constrained companies (competition, regulation, self-help and labor – all melted away, allowing every company's MBA-poisoned knob-twiddling leaders to shamelessly caress their knobs with every hour that God sends:

Which is why people want to leave platforms. When a platform loses its users, those users have weighed the switching costs against the pain of staying and decided that it's better to bear those costs than to stay.

So why haven't Tiktok's younger users found the costs too high to bear, and why have their elders remained stuck to the platform?

For that, we have to look at the unique characteristics of young people – characteristics that transcend the lazy cliche that kids are easily bored, fickle novelty-seekers who hop from one service to another with unquenchable restlessness.

Whether or not kids are novelty-seekers, they are, fundamentally, a disfavored minority. They want to do things that the platforms don't want them to do – like converse without being overheard by authority figures, including their parents and their schools (also: cops and future employers, though kids may not be thinking about them as much).

In other words, kids pay intrinsically lower switching costs than adults, because a platform will always do less for them than it will for grownups. This is a characteristic kids share with other supposedly technophilic, novelty-seeking "early adopters," from sex-workers to terrorists, from sexual minorities to trolls, from political dissidents to fascists. For those groups, the cost of mastering a new technology and assembling a community around it is always more likely to be worth bearing than it would be for people who are well-served by existing tools:

Pornographers didn't jump on home video because of its superiority as a medium for capturing flesh-tones. Home video was a good porn medium because it was easier to discreetly get into the hands of porn consumers, who could, in turn, discreetly view it. The audience for porn in the privacy of your living room is larger than the audience for porn that you can only watch if you're willing to be seen marching into a dirty movie theater.

Every new technology is popularized by a mix of disfavored groups and neophiles, who normalize and refine it – and yes, infuse it with their countercultural coolth – until it becomes easy enough to use to become mainstream. As more normies drift into the new system, the switching costs associated with leaving the old system declines. It gets easier and easier to find the people and services you want in the new realm, and harder and harder to find them in the old one.

This is why tech platforms have historically experienced sudden collapse: the platform that gets more valuable and harder to leave as it accumulates users gets less valuable and easier to leave as users depart:

If you're a Gen Z kid on Tiktok, you experience the same enshittification as your Millennial elders. But you also experience an additional cost to staying: as late-arriving adult authority figures become more fluent in the platform, they are more able to observe your use of it, and punish you for conduct that you used to get away with.

And if you're a Millennial who isn't leaving Tiktok, it's not just that you experience the same enshittification as those departing Gen Z kids – you also face higher switching costs if you go. The older you get, the more complex your social connections grow. A Gen Z kid in middle school doesn't have to worry about losing touch with their high-school buddies if they switch platforms (they haven't gone to high school yet – and they see their middle school friends in person all the time, giving them a side-channel to share information about who's leaving Tiktok and where they're headed to next). Middle-schoolers don't have to worry about coordinating little league car-pools or losing access to a rare disease support group.

In other words: younger people leave old platforms earlier because they have more to gain by leaving; and older people leave old platforms later because they have more to lose by leaving.

This is why Facebook is filled with Boomers. Yes, their kids bolted for the exits to avoid having their parents (or grandparents) wading into their sexual, social and professional lives. But the reason the Boomers were late joining younger users' Facebook exodus – or the reason they never joined it – is that they stand to lose more by going. Facebook deliberately cultivated this dynamic, for example, by creating a photo hosting service designed to entice users into uploading their family photos while disguising how hard it would be to take those photos with them if they left:

The irony here is that tech has intrinsically low switching costs. All other things being equal, a new platform can always build a bridge to ease the passage of users from the old one. There's no (technical) reason that moving to Mastodon, or Bluesky, or any other platform should mean cutting ties with the people who stayed behind.

A combination of voluntary interoperability (where old platforms offer APIs to allow new services to connect with them), mandatory interop (where governments force tech companies to offer APIs) and adversarial interop (where new companies hack together their own API with reverse-engineering, scraping, bots, and other guerrilla tactics) would hypothetically allow users to hop between networks as easily as you change phone carriers:

Tech platforms tend to offer APIs when they're getting started (to ease the inward passage of new users) then shut them down after they attain dominance (locking the door behind those users). The EU is tinkering with mandatory APIs through the Digital Markets Act (though bafflingly, they're starting with encrypted messaging rather than social media). Restoring adversarial interoperability will require extensive legal reform, which is getting started through Right to Repair laws:

The people who are stranded on social media platforms shouldn't be mistaken for uncool, aging technophobes. They're not stubborn, they're stranded. Like the elders who can't afford to leave a dying town after the factory shuts down and the young people move away, these people are locked in. They need help evacuating – a place to go and a path to get there.

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