The smelly truth behind social media's ‘Enshittification’ Trend

Ever heard of ‘enshittification’? This trend looks at how our online lives are gradually becoming degraded courtesy of the digital platforms that we can’t seem to quit. Read on to find out how challenger brands can help reverse this trend.

Benriach Original 10

Ever heard of ‘enshittification’? When blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow coined the term last year, little did he know it would spread like wildfire and be named ‘Word of The Year 2023’ by the American Dialect Society.

Enshittification describes how our online lives are gradually becoming degraded courtesy of the digital platforms that we can’t seem to quit. These platforms, namely our social media playgrounds are becoming worse and worse thanks to the algorithms and interventions used to scale-up the platforms. This, as Doctorow eloquently puts, is causing the platforms to decay into ‘giant piles of shit’.  

Doctorow explains the process of enshittification as follows:

Stage 1 – Platforms are built with people in mind, prioritising their user-experience.

Stage 2 – The platforms start to abuse their users to make things better for their business customers. For example, social algorithms suddenly favour paid-for content and it’s more difficult for users to see the latest content posted by their friends and family. Users become more aware that their data is being sold to the highest bidder.

Stage 3 – The platforms start to abuse their business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Say you’re a media outlet with a Facebook page and you want to share a link to drive consumers to your website. Forget it. Zuckerberg wants users to stay inside the Meta universe, so you better start hiding those links in the comments section.

Stage 4 – Consumers and businesses finally get fed up and leave. The platform dies.

Now, this final stage does inevitably take a long time to come to fruition. Consumers don’t want to close their accounts if their friends and family are still on the platform, and businesses get sucked into the sunk-cost fallacy. They’ve already invested so much in the platform they don’t want to back out now.

Enshittification thrives on a lack of competition, so platforms need healthy rivalry to stay on their toes and ensure they're offering the best services and products for their end-users.   

Twitter is an excellent example of this decline. The channel was once the golden child of the news cycle and an absolute must-have for TV second-screening, but once Elon Musk assumed control of the channel, he stripped all user value out of the platform. Musk claimed to be a champion of free speech while reinstating many controversial accounts who had been blocked from the site for breaching rules, yet at the same time he was also busy blocking his own critics. Hate content spread rapidly, seemingly unregulated. The verification process also changed dramatically, and blue ticks were now available for purchase, leading to a messy swirl of users impersonating brands and celebrities. Twitter as we knew it was well and truly over. What used to be a vibrant hub of live cultural commentary that people checked religiously, soon deteriorated into a toxic social wasteland.

But it’s not just Twitter; enshittification is everywhere. TikTok used to be known for short, snappy entertainment, but now capitalism has got its claws in, and the algorithm is rewarding those who post longer content. Users are inundated with creators dragging out (usually tedious) Storytime videos for as long as possible so they can hit that monetisation mark. Is there anything more frustrating than watching one of those ‘you won’t believe what happens at the end’ videos only to find out it can be summed up as sweet FA?; I think it’s safe to say we’ve entered Enshittification Stage 2.  

However, Doctorow predicts a revolution against enshittification.

He believes it’s coming because the difference between user thinking "I’m on this platform because everyone else is" and "I'm leaving this platform because everyone else has" is a razor-thin edge. Once you hit that tipping point it’s hard to go back.

So how can brands play their part to end this downward spiral of enshittification?  Here are three things that challenger brands can do to fight the algorithm and reverse this trend:

  1. Put people first, not the algorithm. Instead of cheating the algorithm by only using social platforms as a paid-for digital billboard, we helped e.l.f. Cosmetics mobilise their community to put authentic user content at the heart of our Express Your e.l.f. campaign. From social street casting to bespoke TikTok sound videos, we empowered the community to spark a self-expression movement and the results speak for themselves. UK brand awareness has doubled in the last year and 39% of users who recalled our TikTok campaign went on to purchase products.

  1. If you are going to play the algorithm game, make sure you're adding value, not just adding to the content clutter pile. Long-form doesn't have to be long-winded. Take inspiration from Hilton’s 10 minute TikTok ad; thanks to the mash-up of different styles, filters, special effects, and a killer cast of creators, the pace never let up and viewers were hooked from start to finish.

  1. Stand for something. If you are sick of the way the big brands are monopolising your category, then figure out a way to disrupt it. We recently helped Estrella Galicia respond to the enshittification of the Spanish beer category, where big corporations were slapping Spanish branding on UK-branded beer and duping consumers into thinking they were getting the real thing. Our ‘Spanish Not Span-ish’ campaign has sparked a social media movement where consumers are joining us in calling out the pretenders, and we’re even seeing other world beer brand like Budvar joining our authentic beer alliance.

We’ve witnessed first-hand the spread of enshittification across online platforms, deteriorating user experience for profit, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Social platforms will come and go, and there’ll always be a shiny new one on the horizon full of Stage 1 promises for their users, but brands can still build real relationships with their audience that will last far beyond the rise and fall of the latest platform on the block. If brands can diversify their online presence across different communities, then they can find security in multiple touchpoints instead of being beholden to the whim of one social media tycoon. The brands who put their consumers first, add genuine value, and stand up against the debasement of their category will be the ones who win.

Think your category is suffering from a case of enshittification? We’re ready to fight your corner and shake things up.