Pluralistic: Someday, we'll all take comfort in the internet's "dark corners" (23 Mar 2024)

Today's links

A crumbling western ghost town beneath a brooding, reddish sky. In the foreground is a tilted, scorched 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign. 'Las Vegas' has been replaced with 'Facebook.' The Mark Zuckerberg metaverse avatar's face has been superimposed over the starburst motif at the sign's top.

Someday, we'll all take comfort in the internet's "dark corners" (permalink)

Platforms decay. Tech bosses – unconstrained by competition; regulation; ad blockers and other adversarial interoperability; and their own workers – will inevitably hollow out their platforms, using ultraflexible digital technology to siphon value away from end users and business customers, leaving behind the bare minimum of value to keep all those users locked in:

Enshittification is the inevitable result of high switching costs. Tech bosses are keenly attuned to opportunities to lock in their customers and users, because the harder it is to leave a platform, the worse the platform can treat you – the more value it can rob you of – without risking your departure.

But platform users are a heterogeneous, lumpy mass. Different groups of users have different switcng costs. An adult Facebook user of long tenure has more reasons to stay than a younger user: they have more complex social lives, with nonoverlapping social circles from high school, college, various jobs, affinity groups, and family; they are more likely to have a chronic illness, or to be caring for someone with chronic illness, and to be a member of a social media support group they value highly; they are more likely to be connected to practical communities, like little league carpool rotas.

That's the terrible irony of platform decay: the more value you get from a platform, the more cost that platform can extract, a cost denominated in your wellbeing, enjoyment and dignity.

(At this point, someone will pipe up and say, "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product." It's nonsense. Dignity, respect and fairness aren't frequent flier program perks that tech companies dribble out to their best customers. Companies will happily treat their paying customers as "products" if they think those customers can't avoid other forms of rent-extraction, such as "attention rents")

Now, consider the converse proposition: for younger users, platforms deliver less value. Younger users have less complex social lives on average relative to their parents and grandparents, which means that platforms have fewer ways to sink their hooks into those young users. Further: young users tend to want things that the platforms don't want them to have, right from the first day they sign up. In particular, young users often want to conduct their socializing out of eyesight and earshot of adults, especially parents, teachers, and other authority figures. This means that a typical younger user has both more reasons to leave a platform as well as fewer reasons to stay there.

Younger people have an additional reason to bail on platforms early and often: if your online and offline social circles strongly overlap – if you see the same people at school as you do in your feed, it's much easier to reassemble your (smaller, less complex) social circle on a new platform.

And so: on average, young people like platforms less, hate them more, and have both less to lose and more to gain by leaving one platform for another. Sure, some young people are also burning with youth's neophilia. But even without that neophilia, young people are among the first to go when tech bosses start to ratchet up the enshittification.

Beyond young people, there are others who tend to jump ship early, like sex-workers:

Sex-workers' technology changes are only incidentally the result of some novelty-seeking impulse. The real reason to change platforms if you're a sex-worker is that the platforms are either absolutely hostile to sex-workers, or profoundly indifferent to the suffering their policy changes rain down upon them.

The same is broadly true of other disfavored groups, including those with out-of-mainstream political ideologies. Some of these groups hold progressive views, others are out-and-out Nazis, but all of them chafe at the platforms' policies at the best of times, and are far more ready to jump ship when the platforms tighten the noose on all their users.

This is where "dark corners" come in. The worst people on the internet have relocated to its so-called dark corners – privately hosted servers, groupchats, message-boards, etc. Some of these are notorious: Kiwi Farms, 4chan, 8kun, sprawling Telegram groupchats. Others only breach when they are implicated in waves of unthinkably cruel and grotesque crimes:

The answer to crimes committed in the internet's dark corners is the same as for crimes committed anywhere: catch the criminals, prosecute the crimes. But a distressing number of well-meaning people observe the nexus between dark corners and the crimes that fester there, and conclude that the problem is with the dark corners, themselves.

These people observe that social media platforms like Facebook, and intermediaries like Cloudflare, DNS providers, and domain registrars constitute a "nexus of control" – chokepoints that trap the online lives of billions of people – and conclude that these gigantic corporations can and should be made "responsible" for their users:

From there, it's a short leap to conclude that anyone who isn't in a position to be controlled by these too big to jail, too big to fail, relentlessly enshittifying corporations must be pushed into their demesne.

This is a deal with the devil. In the name of preventing small groups of terrible people from gathering in private, beyond the control of the world's insufferable and cruel tech barons, we risk dooming everyone else to being permanently within those unworthy billionaires' thumbs.

This is why people like Mark Zuckerberg are so eager to see an increase in "intermediary liability" rules like Section 230. Zuckerberg's greatest fear isn't having to spend more on moderators or algorithms that suppress controversial subjects:

The thing he fears the most is losing control over his users. That's why he bought Instagram: to recapture the young users who were fleeing his mismanaged, enshittified platform in droves:

A legal mandate for Zuckerberg to police his users is a legal requirement that he surveil and control those users. It's fundamentally incompatible with the new drive in competition circles to force Zuckerberg and his fellow tech barons to offer gateways that make it easier to escape their grasp, by allowing users to depart Facebook and continue to socialize with the users who stay behind:

Remember: the more locked-in a platform user is, the harder that platform will squeeze that user, safe in the knowledge that the cost of leaving is higher than the cost of staying and tolerating the platform's abuse.

This is the problem with "feudal security" – the warlord who lures you into his castle fortress with the promise of protection from external threats is, in reality, operating a prison where no one can protect you from him:

Rather than fighting to abolish dark corners because only the worst people on the internet use them today, we should be normalizing dark corners, making it easier for every kind of user to find a cozy nook that is shaded from the baleful glare of Zuck and his fellow, eminently guillotinable tech warlords:

Enshittification is relentless. The collapse of the restraints that penalized tech companies who abused their users – competition, regulation, interoperability and their own workers' consciences – has inculcated every tech boss with an incurable enshittification imperative.

Efforts to make the platforms safer for their users can only take us so far. Fundamentally, these vast, centralized systems that vest authority with flawed and mediocre and frail human dictators (who fancy themselves noble, brilliant and infallible) will never be safe for human habitation. Rather than focusing on improving the platforms, we should be evacuating them:

Online communities that control their own moderation policies won't always get it right. But there is a whole host of difficult moderation calls that can never be adequately handled by outsiders overseeing vast, sprawling platforms. Distinguishing friendly banter from harassment requires the context that only an insider can hope to possess.

We all deserve dark corners where we stand a chance of finding well-managed communities that can deliver the value that keeps us stuck to our decaying giant platforms. Eventually, the enshittification will chase every user off these platforms – not just kids or sex-workers or political radicals. When that happens, it sure would be nice if everyone could set up in a dark corner of their own.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Argentine philosophy prof faces prison time for posting unofficial translations of out of print Derrida texts

#15yrsago US Attorney mistakes 419 letter for a submission from a Madoff victim

#15yrsago One quarter of all British govt databases are illegal

#5yrsago Unnamed stalkerware company has left gigabytes of sensitive personal info unprotected on the web and can’t be reached to fix it

#5yrsago Philadelphia city council candidate says his secret AI has discovered disqualifying fraud in the nominations of 30 out of 33 candidates

#5yrsago After fatal crash, Boeing reverses sales policy that locked out some safety features unless airlines paid for an upgrade

#5yrsago Wireless vulns in Medtronic’s implanted defibrillators allow remote shocks, shutdown, denial-of-service battery attacks and data theft

#5yrsago Grandson of legendary John Deere engineer defends right-to-repair and condemns Big Ag for “taxing customers”

#1yrago Kickstarting the Red Team Blues audiobook, which Amazon won't sell

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

A photo of me onstage, giving a speech, holding a mic.

A screenshot of me at my desk, doing a livecast.

Recent appearances (permalink)

A grid of my books with Will Stahle covers..

Latest books (permalink)

A cardboard book box with the Macmillan logo.

Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: The Majority of Censorship is Self-Censorship

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla