Tuesday, January 31, 2023

How can enshittification happen?

Cory Doctorow has a great piece in Wired, "The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok. Or how, exactly, platforms die." It's about that we regularly see companies make their product worse and worse until it hits a tipping point, then the company loses its customers and starts dying.

Enshittification eventually causes the company to die, so isn't in the best interest of the company. It's definitely not maximizing shareholder value or long-term profits. So why does it happen?

Cory Doctorow does have a bit on the why, but could use a lot more: "An enshittification strategy only succeeds if it is pursued in measured amounts ... For enshittification-addled companies, that balance is hard to strike ... Individual product managers, executives, and activist shareholders all give preference to quick returns at the cost of sustainability, and are in a race to see who can eat their seed-corn first."

That's not very satisfying though. I mean, the company dies. Execs are screwing up. Why does that happen? What can be done about it? That's the question I think needs answering.

Understanding exactly why enshittification happens is important to finding real, viable solutions. Is it purposeful or unintentional on the part of teams and company leaders? Is it inevitable or preventable? If you get the root cause wrong, you'll get the wrong solution.

My view is that enshittification is mostly unintentional. I think it's a result of A/B testing, mistakes in setting up incentives, and teams busily optimizing for what's right in front of them instead of keeping their eye on the prize.

I don't think executives intentionally drive companies into the ground. I think most execs and teams have no idea that this path they are going down will cause such long-term harm to the company. If most really don't want to destroy the company, that leads to different solutions.

Layoffs as a social contagion

Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote about the recent layoffs at tech companies, saying that it hurts the company in the long-term, but CEOs can't avoid the pressure to join in.
[CEOs] know layoffs are harmful to company well-being, let alone the well-being of employees, and don’t accomplish much, but everybody is doing layoffs and their board is asking why they aren’t doing layoffs also.

The tech industry layoffs are basically an instance of social contagion, in which companies imitate what others are doing. If you look for reasons for why companies do layoffs, the reason is that everybody else is doing it ... Not particularly evidence-based.

Layoffs often do not increase stock prices, in part because layoffs can signal that a company is having difficulty. Layoffs do not increase productivity. Layoffs do not solve what is often the underlying problem, which is often an ineffective strategy ... A bad decision.

For more on the harm, please see my old 2009 post from the last time this happened, "Layoffs and tech layoffs".