Data Archives as Digital Platforms

From Cory Doctorow’s article, based on a 1936 original drawing by Wanda Gag for ‘Hansel and Gretel’ by the Brothers Grimm.

Cory Doctorow recently coined the term ‘enshittification’ in relation to digital platforms, which he defines as the way in which a platform starts by maximising benefits for its users and then, once they are locked in, switches attention to building profit for its shareholders at the expense of the users, before (often) entering a death-spiral (Doctorow 2023). He sees this applying to everything from Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok, Reddit, Steam, and so on as they monetise their platforms and become less user-focused in a form of late-stage capitalism (Doctorow 2022; 2023). As he puts it:

… first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. (Doctorow 2023).

For instance, Harford (2023) points to the way that platforms like Amazon run at a loss for years in order to grow as fast as possible and make their users dependent upon the platform. Subsequent monetisation of a platform can be a delicate affair, as currently evidenced by the travails of Musk’s Twitter and the increasing volumes of people overcoming the inertia of the walled garden and moving to other free alternatives such as Mastodon, Bluesky, and, most recently, Threads. The vast amounts of personal data collected by commercial social media platforms strengthens their hold over their users, a key feature of advanced capitalism (e.g., Srnicek 2017), making it difficult for users to move elsewhere and also raising concerns about privacy and the uses to which such data may be put. Harford (2023) emphasises the undesirability of such monopolisation and the importance of building in interoperability between competing systems to allow users to switch away as a means of combatting enshittification.

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