Speak No Evil
John Herrman’s recent piece about the “junkification” of Amazon is among the latest of many essays observing the internet’s apparent descent into entropy—an ongoing degradation of user experience across various platforms, and a corresponding corruption of whatever aesthetic unity they once had. About Amazon, Herrman writes, “More products are junk. The interface itself is full of junk. The various systems on which customers depend (reviews, search results, recommendations) feel like junk.” Amazon search results are increasingly clogged with sponsored items and SEO word salad, a trash pile through which users must sift to find what they actually want. Google search results have followed a similar trajectory. Most social networks, meanwhile, seem to be barely suppressing a tsunami of bots and spam at any given moment, while simultaneously encouraging the users themselves to post like bots (think of every Instagram caption that’s jammed full of hashtags). Cory Doctorow calls this the “enshittification” of platforms: “Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they’re locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they’re locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit.” Only in the first stage of that process are users the top priority; thereafter, the platforms’ visual incoherence merely expresses their diminished role.
If the users aren’t the target audience, then who is? The internet’s messy aesthetics offer a clue. Sarah Perry defines “mess” as an implied order that has been subverted—a broken promise, a failed intention—and that is in fact what every sponsored post and SEO text string and spam message and pop-up ad signifies, a gradual retraction of a platform’s original breezy promises and the substitution of a more desperate monetization imperative, a bait-and-switch so gradual that we barely notice until enshittification reaches a fairly high threshold and one day we visit Amazon’s website and realize it’s hideous. SEO (and similar efforts to actively game a platform’s algorithm) are interesting because computers are the explicit audience; the fact that users must see it too is merely an unpleasant side effect, a result of the strategy’s necessary embedding within content. If platforms could conceal the visual chaos of this algorithmic manipulation, maybe they could delay our awareness that we have been monetized more aggressively. And in an oblique way, now, AI promises to help clean the mess up, by removing humans from various steps of the process, streamlining other steps, and making today’s crude hacks unnecessary. When more of the internet consists of computers talking directly to one another, whatever SEO still occurs will happen in the background; AI-generated objects will themselves be optimized, with less need for descriptive text—a condition foreshadowed by TikTok’s UX. The result of all this may still be ugly, but the reasons won’t be as obvious. It will likely feel less “messy.”
Ironically, the physical world has already been cleaned up in this way, with information receding from the landscape as the digital sphere absorbs it. The 20th-century cityscape was saturated in text, relative to today’s. Clocks, printed documents, and even wayfinding signage have since declined in importance alongside analog media of every kind; much of what remains in physical public space is due to inertia, aesthetic appeal, uneven technological adoption, or a fetishization of physical objects in the face of dematerializing forces. Phone numbers are still the underlying system that organizes our contacts, but we never have to see a given number again after adding saving it the first time (and frequently not even then). Information is always being pushed below the user interface, replaced with more intuitive symbols; we might expect this to make the digital environment less semantically cluttered, as it has the physical environment, but the internet is still in its noisy 20th-century era, with discarded newspapers littering the proverbial sidewalks, and AI might be the outlet for that clutter just as digital technology was for analog information. And if the previous transition is any indication, we might even find ourselves nostalgic for the “enshittification” aesthetic once it’s gone, decorating our digital walls with SEO keywords and hashtags like exposed brick and pipe, and collecting the internet’s once-ephemeral detritus the way we collect vinyl.
I wrote for Dirt last week about FTX and the grift-to-content pipeline, making the case that media representation of scams creates an incentive for them to keep happening.
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The Great Dumpling Drama of Glendale, California—or, why a popular restaurant moved from the fancy newer mall to the shabbier older mall, and how malls can still function as vibrant public spaces. (thanks for sending, Kyle)
Liminal spaces and non-places as “narrative deserts” where nothing exciting is meant to happen. “I heavily misjudged the ratio of Places to Non-places in the US because, if you watch Hollywood movies and TV shows, you would think that everyone walks to their neighborhood diner to meet friends and have interesting conversations. Narratives only unfold in Places, so my impression of the US was over-indexed on them.”
A developing crisis: Americans are forgetting how to hang out.
Literally the first thought I had after thoroughly enjoying Substack for the first few hours was, How long until it becomes extremely shitty? I think on some level everyone expects digital spaces to eventually become trash – enshittification has become part of the deal of being online – but do you think there is any meaningful effort to make things less bad? Somehow I don’t think AI is going to make the internet more beautiful.