A beginner's guide to enshittification

Welcome to The Attentive Rebellion, the newsletter that helps you stop wasting time and attention on stuff that doesn’t matter — and start focusing on what does.

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Today, let’s focus on enshittification.

First, credit where credit’s due to journalist, activist and author Cory Doctorow for absolutely nailing the coining of this term.

In my pantheon of Internet-age made-up words, enshittification now reigns supreme…coming in well ahead of second-place “catfish” (already a word but you know what I mean).

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What is enshittification?

To summarize, this is how Doctorow encapsulates the lifecycle of today’s digital platforms:

They launch.

They grow.

They go viral.

They get annoying.

They die. 

As evidence, he illustrates that the most recognizable cases (i.e. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter) have followed a predictable pattern of deteriorating quality:

  • Initially, they provide real value to users, leading to growth.

  • Next, they shift to extracting maximum revenue through coercive means (ads, fees, manipulative algorithms).

  • Finally, enshittification ensues (TikTok, he argues, has recently entered this phase).

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Why does it matter?

Just about everyone uses these platforms; many of us A LOT. Some of us rely on them for work, maybe even as a primary source of income.

My reason for highlighting enshittification is not necessarily to pile onto the “shit on social media” movement.

But if you’re going to spend time (and attention) on these platforms, it behooves you to understand how that attention is being manipulated and monetized.

Have you ever felt “locked” into a platform even as it visibly declines in quality?

That’s by design these “high switching costs” didn’t materialize by accident. Some examples of switching costs:

  • Social cost: Getting off Facebook can feel like leaving your friends and family members.

  • Data cost: Losing information like posts, photos, conversations and purchased content (books, movies, etc.)

  • Audience cost: Perhaps you spent a ton of time building an audience and an expert reputation on a single platform.

  • FOMO: Fear of missing conversations and connections.

Once dominant, these platforms make it harder to leave — allowing them to retain captive audiences even as the content itself continues to enshittify.

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What can you do about it?

There’s good news: as the user experience worsens, these switching costs decline.

And as more people leave, the reverse effect tends to kick in — there's less reason to stay. So even more people start to leave.

As you first start to consider your POV on any given channel, simply understanding the growth-to-decay platform lifecycle is a useful place to start.

Now, when you recognize enshittification in progress, you’ll be reminded to continuously assess and reevaluate whether the platform still merits the time and attention you spend on it.

Keep in mind that over time, switching costs will decrease as alternatives arise.

So in short, stay vigilant. Platforms inevitably change, sometimes rapidly (hello Twitter). Be ready to switch as the cost/benefit equation shifts.

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Dive deeper

🔗 Doctorow’s full post [link]

🔗 NY Public Radio On the Media podcast interview [link]

🤔 Attention Worthy (related reads)

 We Don’t Need a New Twitter | Cal Newport argues in The New Yorker that the aggregation-for-profit model of Twitter (and wannabe replacement platforms Threads) has failed to serve users' genuine need for meaningful communication. Instead, he suggests we return to the early Internet's small community ethos for a more authentic and human online experience. [link]

 On the Birth of a New Internet | From fellow indie newsletter creator Mariya Delano, this one got my wheels turning. Her post explores Mastodon and the Fediverse as user-controlled, non-commercial alternatives to the legacy big tech platforms.

If that sounded like gibberish to you, this should get you up to speed. [link]

 Are we approaching The Great Log-off? | A British journalist for ES Magazine ponders the future of social media amid today’s tumultuous landscape and ongoing enshittification. [link]

🛠️ The Attentive Toolbox

Freedom | App & Website Blocker

If you’ve ever run a Google search for a query resembling “social media blocker” or “block distraction app,” you’ve probably encountered Freedom.

I tried this app a few years ago, ultimately determining after the free trial period that I can adequately manage my own browsing behavior without a blocking tool. Others swear by it, however, so let’s dive in.

What it does: 

  • Blocks distracting websites and apps of your choosing for designated periods of time

  • “Lock Mode” lets you set a length of time you CANNOT disable the blocking, removing any temptation

  • Plays “focus sounds” (ambient noise, i.e. coffee shop bustle, birds in a forest, etc.) to facilitate concentration

Where it excels:

  • Quick and easy setup process

  • Blocks sites across devices like phones, tablets, and laptops (unlike most other tools)

  • Effectively breaks distraction habit loops by removing the option to mindlessly check or scroll

  • Scheduling functionality helps build healthy routines

  • Integrates with other popular productivity tools

Where it lacks:

  • Lock Mode seems to be Freedom’s most polarizing feature — interestingly, based on my research, many find it either too restrictive or too easy to bypass

Is it for you?

Overall, Freedom is one of the most widely used tools for creating distraction-free time to focus on a task or do deep work, effectively eliminating temptation across devices (in most cases).

While extreme blocking isn’t for everyone, it’s 100% worth considering if you’re struggling with real tech addiction.

🔗 Try out Freedom [link]

*Note: I noticed that Cold Turkey is frequently cited as a preferred alternative to Freedom — its proponents suggest that it offers more value as a one-time purchase versus the ongoing subscription model used by Freedom.

What’d you think of this edition?

🔥 Super valuable, I'm sharing it with everyone [this]

🦥 Meh, it was okay [this]

⚠️ Not worth my attention, sir [this]

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