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Lack of recourse for users

I keep circling around this topic in my mind, like a vulture following a dying animal in the desert. I wrote about it a little in my piece about the degradation of user level hardware controls through generations of technology (tape decks –> Sonos), but I need to talk about it more – if only to work something out in my own mind.

Cory Doctorow’s recent piece about “enshittification” of platforms comes close to my thoughts on many marks, and he phrases the overall cycle better than I could have, in regards to the shell game of shifting what he calls “surpluses” around to first juice customers into using a platform, and then later to make it sucky, basically, by shifting the surpluses to other parties.

Apart from that for me there is also a governance problem. Users get roped into joining a platform for whatever reason (and the reasons may start out quite good), but once they are there, they more or less have no say in how *anything* goes on the platform, apart from their own modest contributions – which themselves are subject to the curation & moderation whims of the platform as well.

If users don’t like it, they can just leave is the conventional wisdom. But lock-in exists, despite well-intentioned efforts like GDPR dictating that platforms allow (at least EU residents) for exporting one’s data to hopefully bring to another platform. I hear Mastodon has some level of ease with migrating to a new instance, but I haven’t the heart to bother trying any of it out right now.

Crypto and web3 in general offered a lot of (I think empty) promises around some of these issues of governance, and community ownership of decision-making outcomes. Having worked extensively and watched closely the rise and mostly fall of the space, I cannot say that I think these efforts were a smashing success, generally speaking. But at least they were *any* effort at giving users a say beyond “if you don’t like it, you can leave.” It’s a great deal more than I can say for the vast majority of conventional platforms.

Okay sure, if you built and maintain an online space, you certainly have some rights to dictate what goes on there, what is acceptable use, etc. But in order to have acceptable uses, you must first have users. Everything always depends on users and uptake…

And yet users by and large simply have no recourse on platforms when:

  • Product teams make bad or undesirable product changes (e.g., phasing out features you relied on, not building the things people actually want, adding filtering, etc)
  • CEOs make sudden random pivots, forcing the company to follow their latest whim in whatever new direction strikes them this week
  • Hostile takeovers by self-aggrandizing assholes
  • And so on…

If you don’t like it, you can just leave.

How many times are you willing to go through this cycle as a user? How many is enough for you to not want to participate in these games anymore? How many times does it take for you to withdraw from getting excited and contributing your creative effort? When do you just hole up in your own little corner of the web that you can control yourself – like a blog?

I don’t have the answers, but I’ve been squeezing the questions so hard that my hands are bleeding. My eyes popping out of my head. Steam coming out of my ears. It has been with absolute distates, disgust, and mounting fury that I’ve seen these trends play out again and again across apps, services, and platforms. And all for what? For a few hours worth of distraction in the end? It hardly seems worth it.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got on this for now, but will keep hammering away on it in a hopefully more productive manner as time permits.


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1 Comment

  1. Tim B.

    Also should probably add: since we are at an inflection point with the rise of AI tools, this lack of recourse and its negative consequences are going to become ever more exaggerated moving forward, and it makes me feel very nervous and weird for humanity…

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