The degrading of big tech

Posted to: DEV; Hacker News

I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling the effects of Twitter’s X’s enshittification, followed by Reddit’s . People mostly younger than me probably feel the same about TikTok, a story which, along with that of Amazon, helped Cory Doctorow solidify the term. Even before Twitter was bought by the Muskrat, Facebook’s Meta’s downfall was strongly predicted (and continues to play out before our eyes), and I personally feel Google is going through a slower, decades-long enshittification since about 2010.

My initial perspective on this was filled with schadenfreude. X is quite clearly imploding (albeit a bit slower than some anticipated), and is already a shadow of its former self and in obvious decline, losing the richest man in the world at least tens of billions in the process, directly through his micro-mismanagement. That’s satisfying.

And it’s not just schadenfreude: Given the horrible shit he’s pulled - laying off thousands, forcing draconian working hours etc. - I desperately want those management tactics to fail as obviously as possible so other business are less tempted to follow suit. And they are quite obviously failing, even despite the propaganda efforts of the big tech monopolists.

On top of that, I am of course against monopolies. So, theoretically, it’s a positive development for ex-Twitter users to be diversifying into Mastodon, Bluesky or Threads.

The problem with this positive narrative is that these platforms had become important public services. The one I feel most keenly is the loss of Twitter as a reliable central hub for brands. Toxic as it was, I still used to be able to rely on Twitter as a place to complain about bad company practices and have a good chance of getting an official response from the company, or simply ask for support and have a better chance of a response than through the company’s official support channels. I used to be able to search Twitter to watch the development of social movements, and rely on it to find communities of activists.

Nowadays, you can rely on brands being on X less and less, and even if they are there you can’t rely on getting a response. On top of that, I simply don’t want to use X ‘cos it makes me feel icky. I use Mastodon as an alternative, which I love. But the Fediverse doesn’t yet have the penetration to make it anywhere near as reliable as Twitter used to be.

The same sort of thing is true of Reddit. Reddit was such a source of internet-community-truth for people that they used it instead of Google - which is also a testament to how much less effective Google’s search engine is nowadays for discovering good results than it used to be. Nowadays, following their great mod purge, there has been a huge dampening of the community and impoverishing of the content, with people experimenting with various alternatives like Kbin.

In the long term, I hope this is a positive development. I hope we learn our lessons, that ActivityPub and Bluesky’s AT protocol resolve their differences and standardise, that over time people realise that the Fediverse is the answer. I hope we get to an online social world that is both standardised and decentralised - i.e. where you can reliably follow any person or brand on any platform through a shared public protocol.

But that will take years or decades. In the mean time, we have lost and continue to lose a huge amount. These platforms aren’t just manipulative monopolies, they are also the fabric of society. And as they unravel, we are all poorer. Our ability to communicate and participate in democracy is greatly degraded.

I suppose the conclusion I’m building to is that, in a healthy society, this would be regulated. Yes, we shouldn’t be letting these monopolies develop in the first place. But once they have developed, and they become effectively privately owned public infrastructure, they then shouldn’t be allowed to do real damage to their platforms without public oversight.

Unfortunately the obvious analogy might be to the “too big to fail” banks in the financial crisis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Following the financial crash, the administrations chose to give lots of money to the banks, with very few strings attached. But they didn’t have to do that. They could have created public funds to help people, or better yet to nationalise the banks like in the 1930s.

Basically there are lots of options for the state to step in and mitigate the damage, and there are plenty that don’t directly benefit the monopolists. I suppose what I’m saying is maybe we should consider these bastards to be “too big to fail”, but the state should just respond to it better than Obama et al did.

By @nottrobin