#109: Platform Ruins

If you missed it: I published an eBook of collected essays last week. Get one!

Here’s a thought that’s been on my mind for years, which I finally articulated this week: We design new products with insufficient attention to the voids they’ll leave behind after they cease to exist (shoutout to Sarah Perry for the void metaphor). Depending on your age, you’ll be able to come up with a certain list of places, things, and institutions that felt immortal at their peak of importance but then vanished. If you’ve lived through the entirety of the software-eating-the-world era, as I have, that list will be pretty long, and now the process has advanced far enough that even much of the software itself has died out. Some products don’t even need to disappear to leave a hole: Facebook is still very much alive, but it’s shrinking in an interesting way—you could say that its demise is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. In my personal milieu, however, Facebook has lost much of its relevance, relative to ten years ago; for most of us who haven’t quit the platform altogether, inertia is the main reason it still staggers along. And that shrinking process has created voids that we don’t sufficiently acknowledge.

Facebook is proof that totalizing ambition produces the most damaging voids. In an era of monopolistic concentration, this visible example suggests that the worst is yet to come. Facebook, like many other digital products, aspired to ubiquity and immortality, but unlike most others it has approached both, achieving the rare feat of becoming a kind of infrastructure for life—which may already seem like a distant memory to you, depending on how successfully you’ve detached from it. Most products never matter nearly as much, and thus don’t leave behind meaningful voids, but Facebook rewired social life altogether for people of a certain generation: During its first decade or so, it was how we remembered birthdays, how we invited one another to parties, and how we formalized promising new social connections (remember when you’d meet someone new and then immediately become their Facebook friend?). The coherent system that unified all those little rituals has fragmented, after erasing many of the previous customs that it streamlined, and without satisfactory replacements, in my opinion. In the post-Facebook era, which many of us are already living in, there is no single platform, or place, where we can even expect to find everyone we know, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there never is again in our lifetimes. But enough about Facebook.

Many companies still aspire to accomplish what I just described. The increasingly-maligned model of VC-funded, loss-leading hypergrowth in the pursuit of market dominance, understood another way, is a quest to create voids that matter, voids that will hurt if we let them emerge by rejecting the product currently filling them (the fissures of a post-WeWork world are at least perceptible now). In the early ‘00s, when Blockbuster died out, it was clear that something better was replacing it (there’s a nostalgic counterargument that I’m tempted to indulge, but let’s just accept this). Today, it’s more common to watch something decline without a replacement that’s clearly better. It’s easy to understand why physical media led to file-sharing and then streaming, but what comes after Netflix and Spotify? Does anyone think it’s likely to be another improvement? I don’t, and the companies’ Facebook-like pursuit of absolute ubiquity is why. Unlike the immediately-filled Blockbuster void, I fear the Spotify void. I already got rid of all my CDs. The residue of buildings and cities determines what gets built on top of them, and if we’re conscientious, we’ll build with a more distant future in mind.