In a recent post, Cory Doctorow explained his theory of “platform enshittification”

It’s enabled by (particularly online) platforms, being the middleman between the purveyors of “content” and their audience, having the ability to directly change how much value they hand out each party and themselves.

In stage 1, the platform wants to attract users, so it dedicates most of the value it generates to them. Us willing consumers embrace this wonderful deal and sign up en masse. Businesses see how many users are on the platform and started becoming interested themselves.

In stage 2, the platform starts shifting the value to the suppliers. The consumer experience declines whilst the platform redirects its value towards its suppliers. They pay businesses or creators to use them. They offer an unmissably cheap way to access big audiences of avid potential consumers just desperate to throw money at them; the users from step 1. Businesses sign up en masse.

In the final stage, the platform starts taking more and more of the value for itself. They take vast swathes of fees from businesses, and deluge consumers in whatever substandard experience is deemed most optimal to generate revenue for the platform’s shareholders, just one level away from being so horrible that the users quit.

This, according to Doctorow, is the death knell for a platform.

He sees this happening with Amazon, which started off making it very convenient for people to find and make good purchases at great prices. They subsidised each sale, causing many of their competitors to close. We loved the prices, and the convenience. Signing up to Amazon Prime for free shipping meant we’d not look elsewhere.

So businesses felt compelled to join as Marketplace sellers. In phase 2 Amazon switched subsidies away from the buyers and to these businesses, providing big audiences with small commissions, and generous payments for creators.

Finally when both buyers and sellers were dependent on Amazon, they shifted the value proposition away from the third-party businesses and to their own shareholders. Seller fees went up and it became expensive to get your product anywhere likely to be seen in a search unless you paid for increasingly expensive advertising. Commensurately, consumers needed to dig deep if they wanted to avoid seeing anything other than spammy ads only tangentially relevant to their searches.

And then there’s Facebook, who first made it easy for us to connect with our friends and family. We’d see everything they had to say, all the nice photos they had and so on. What’s not to love for a user?

In stage 2, they starting forcing users to see posts from people and businesses they never followed. This provided vast amounts of traffic to, for example, newspaper sites. They let third-party businesses microtarget advertising to huge numbers of consumers for not much money.

Finally, in phase 3, once dependency had set in, Facebook cut off the ability for companies to push stories and links into users' feeds unless they paid for the privilege via advertising. Ad prices inevitably went up at the same time as a raft of rules were introduced to keep the user squarely on Facebook rather than the advertiser’s own site. Businesses have to throw money at Facebook in the hope that it’ll force users see a post that they had no desire to ever see, but ideally from the Facebook’s point of view, not one quite so unpleasant that they’ll leave the platform entirely.