The Platform Paradox

A familiar arc plays out again and again across the internet:

  1. An underserved market need emerges, often due to the complacency of entrenched players or innovation that opens new possibilities.
  2. An innovative startup addresses this need, creating a superior platform that is more user-friendly, cost-effective, or offers better distribution.
  3. The company experiences rapid growth, leveraging economies of scale and raising venture capital at ever-increasing valuations to develop valuable new features.
  4. Eventually, growth plateaus as the market saturates or competitors emerge. The company, while still providing real value, must focus on revenue-generating features to sustain itself.
  5. To increase customer lifetime value, the company implements platform lock-in strategies such as subscriptions, regulations, walled gardens, or barriers to switching services. It becomes unclear whether users are truly better off.

Many lament the "enshittification" of the internet embodied in step 5, decrying the existence of bad actors. However, the reality is more nuanced. In some cases, these pioneering companies have created markets that would not otherwise exist, offering services that, despite their flaws, represent a net improvement over the status quo.

Moreover, the very concept of an internet monopoly is nebulous. Google, for instance, argues in court that its market dominance stems from superior quality rather than anti-competitive practices. And while it may hold a monopoly, Google doesn't overtly impede users from switching to alternative search engines---a stark contrast to the monopolies of yesteryear.

The Fall of Medium

Medium exemplifies this platform life cycle:

  1. Market Gap: Prior to Medium, there was a dearth of platforms prioritizing high-quality, long-form content. Traditional blogs were cumbersome to set up, ad-ridden, and lacked a cohesive community.
  2. Superior Platform: Medium's clean, ad-free design, emphasis on quality, and built-in social features made it an attractive platform for writers and readers alike. Its algorithm surfaced content based on engagement and quality, giving lesser-known writers a chance to find an audience.
  3. Growth and Feature Development: As Medium grew, it introduced new features like themed publications, attracting high-profile writers and thought leaders.
  4. Revenue Focus: Faced with slowing growth and an unclear business model, Medium introduced a paywall in 2017, prioritizing monetization over its original mission of democratizing publishing.
  5. Lock-In and Diminishing Value: The paywall limited content reach and shareability, while Medium made it difficult for writers to export their work to other platforms. Consequently, many users have migrated to alternative platforms better aligned with their values.

Failing to learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it. When platforms fade away, we lose content. At one time, Medium was the place to write. Now, a lot of the content is inaccessible, and the rest has giant popovers that beckon the reader to—non-ironically, I presume—"Sign up to discover human stories that deepen your understanding of the world." Quora, once a go-to source for insightful answers, has devolved into a walled garden.

The cost isn't just falling into internet obscurity and losing investor money. Several large platforms have established a homeostasis of content that is locked down just enough to force people to have accounts. Instagram has become the de facto communication channel for small businesses in my town, forcing me to create an account to access their announcements. Twitter increasingly locks out logged-out users.

Losing openness

Spotify has streamlined music consumption, offering a vast library with a single subscription. However, its de facto monopoly on digital audio has allowed it to strong-arm its way into podcast ownership and distribution, erecting walls around one of the internet's last open formats.

Anil Dash recently mused:

... being able to say, "wherever you get your podcasts" is a radical statement. Because what it represents is the triumph of exactly the kind of technology that's supposed to be impossible: open, empowering tech that's not owned by any one company, that can't be controlled by any one company, and that allows people to have ownership over their work and their relationship with their audience.
“Wherever you get your podcasts” is a radical statement

This is a freedom we no longer enjoy with music, video, or written content online.

In an alternate timeline, perhaps RSS would have flourished, and Google Reader (or its many competitors) would still thrive. Instead, we're left with a void where personal blogs struggle to distribute content, and nearly all content is centralized on increasingly locked-down social networks.

Being closed-off doesn't always feel bad. YouTube isn't a free and open platform, but their site/app is good enough for most people's use, and embedded videos work fine on 3rd party sites. In an ideal world, creators there would be able to port their audience to new networks, but because YouTube has a super-monopoly (due to high costs of competing, network effects, etc), few people are impacted. Rather, the risk is that closed platforms shut off the opportunity for alternate ways to consume information and leave the door open for the platform to just degrade over time. The "new" Reddit is over 5 years old, and is still slower and less functional than the old Reddit, while they've shut out third-party clients.

This essay is written on my own site, but that is because (a) I want control over publishing in a way that Substack doesn't allow, (b) I enjoy coding. This is not a normal thing. All incentives are for people to use platforms (they're better!), and platforms to increasingly lock down.

I have a love-hate relationship with Substack. On one hand, it has provided much-needed infrastructure for independent writers to publish and monetize their work. By handling the complexities of audience-building, payments, and email delivery, Substack has empowered thousands of writers to pursue their craft professionally.

On the other hand, Substack has gradually raised the walls around its garden. While you can export your reader list, there's no RSS feed for full-text paid posts, the site's performance has deteriorated (to the point where someone created a lightweight mirror for Scott Alexander's newsletter), and features like Notes, DMs, and Chat are entirely platform-locked. These decisions, driven by Substack's need to justify its lofty valuation, come at the expense of openness and interoperability.

The Open Internet We Deserve

We face a paradox. We benefit from the bounties these platforms create—high-quality video on YouTube, a world of music on Spotify, thriving creator communities on Patreon, and thought-provoking writing on Substack. Yet, by sacrificing control and openness, we have the seeds of stagnation and loss of control already planted.

Regulation alone can't solve this conundrum, though enshrining principles like data portability and interoperability into law could help. Cory Doctorow's concept of "adversarial interoperability"—granting explicit rights to reverse-engineer and use APIs—is a step in the right direction, although it raises thorny questions around platform abuse and advertising-based business models. These are solvable, however, if users demand it.

Ultimately, it falls on us to demand open protocols for the platforms we use. As pressure mounts, emerging platforms may wield openness as a competitive advantage, just as Substack did by building on email identity. There may be a regulatory middle ground, akin to Section 230, that provides legal protections for service platforms in exchange for adherence to portability standards.

We must vote with our attention, dollars, and data, intentionally supporting products and platforms that align with our values. By embracing indie software, bootstrapped companies, and open ecosystems, we can shape a future where innovation and openness coexist.

Photo courtesy of Noah Maier

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