The robber barons of the 21st century are the platform owners. They have combined the power of network effects with a 20th century corporate capitalist, winner-takes-all approach. Amazon is choking the book publishing industry, Google is dominating advertising, and telecommunications companies are using their control of the pipes to directly compete with service providers. Now Uber is going after the taxi and car rental industries, getting to be larger than established rental car brands, with none of the overhead. All of these companies provide initially good services to customers. But over time their monopolistic tendencies kill competition and the entire ecosystem of innovation.
I wrote the above paragraph is 2014, not mentioning Twitter, which until recently was where journalists, institutions, and governments shared what was happening and fed the algorithms that showed what was trending. In some ways Twitter was the pulse of the world and helped drive the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and many other causes. It was the main source of visitors to this blog when I deleted Google Analytics several years ago, as a way to ignore vanity metrics.
In 2015 I defined platform capitalism as having four contributing factors, which when combined, create a perfect opportunity for maximum extraction from the free work of the many.
- A platform — a web site and/or mobile application.
- A critical mass of users — upwardly mobile knowledge workers, especially those in Silicon Valley or the tech sector.
- Desperate service providers — people with no ability to organize due to weak or non-existing trade unions in their field, who see opportunities for better cash flow.
- Lack of regulations and oversight — bureaucracies that either cannot keep up with technology advances, or political leadership that condones poor working conditions in the name of progress.
This is pretty well what Twitter became and those who built reputations on the platform are still loath to leave, in spite of what Musk is doing, such as suspending accounts of journalists and banning links to other sites, such as Mastodon.
Elon Musk’s antics at Twitter have been a wake-up call to many. They are beginning to realize that the platform monopolists and the surveillance capitalists are at war with us — citizens of the world. They have engaged some of the best minds — from psychology, cognitive science, usability, addiction research, human factors engineering, anthropology, etc. — so that our evolutionary developed cognitive biases are used against us to sell us more crap. It’s becoming obvious that monopolies are not good for democracy.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” —Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)
I have recommended that we can and should support global social movements that promote human values. Educators should focus on developing social media literacies so that all citizens can be active and engaged online. Sense-making and media literacy skills are critical for everyone. We can also build better models to replace the current ones. Why should we replicate market capitalism with its clone, platform capitalism, when platform cooperativism is a better model for humanity? In this world of global digital networks, we can be the media.
Mastodon — an open and federated protocol/covenant — may be part of the way to a more cooperative web. Mastodon is not owned by anyone and cannot be autocratically controlled like Twitter.
“We contrast Mastodon’s covenantal federalism platform governance with the contractual form used by corporate social media. We also use covenantal federalist theory to explain how Mastodon’s users, administrators, and developers justify revoking or denying membership in the federation. In doing so, this study sheds new light on the innovations in platform governance that go beyond the corporate/alt-right platform dichotomy” —The Digital Covenant: Non-Centralized Platform Governance on the Mastodon Social Network
I think we are at an exciting juncture in the history of the web. Musk — with his behaviour verging on sociopathic — has shown the world the inherent anti-democratic nature of consumer social media platforms. He has done us all a favour by giving a loud and clear wake-up call. Already we are seeing governments move to Mastodon as well as one of the largest associations in the world — ACM — providing free accounts to anyone. Cooperation is finally rising and pushing back the free-for-all of market capitalism.
These are indeed interesting times and I live the sense of reinvention that in the air.
That should of course have been love but maybe live works too 😉
This is powerful, Harold, and I’m so glad Euan’s post pointed me to it. I especially like “ In this world of global digital networks, we can be the media.”
Yes. We can.
Hope springs eternal!
Facilitation and moderation matter.
I’m all for these tech bros being idiots. The more idiotic the better. Let them kill off their own platforms and maybe many more would wake up and realise they’re better off without them. Let Twitter self implode and I do hope the rest go as well.
Great post Harold. Thanks
Thanks, Shaun! Happy new year to you and yours 🙂
Cory Doctorow describes the platform capitalist model:
“Here is how platforms die: 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.”