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Humans Have Become The Internet's CPU, And Platforms Have Become Their Bosses
A few months ago, when I got back into piano, I was frustrated that I couldn’t learn songs I knew. I went to Fiverr and found a nice man in Pakistan that painstakingly creates arrangements into .midi files that can be played in an app called Synthesia. For the price of about $40, he hand-creates arrangements of whatever I’ve thrown at him - Queens of the Stone Age songs, mostly - intricate masterpieces of music education, bespoke for me, one stupid man failing to really get anywhere on the piano. Back in the old days of Fiverr, I paid $5 (nothing costs $5 on there anymore) for a basketball player to do tricks for a fake commercial for something called SlothChat, and I don’t remember what the joke was, really. I’ve used Instacart to get food delivered, Cameo to get someone a funny video from a D-list celebrity, 99Designs to get what can only be described as an unfair amount of designs for a logo, and a Taskrabbit to take away a vast amount of cardboard from a move in his truck.
The internet has slowly transformed into a human vending machine, a means through which we can connect with some humans for free, but when we have specific demands, we can oftentimes simply spend money to fulfill them. “Spending money on services” is hardly a new thing, but what is new is the platformatization of human labor, buoyed by the advent of the gig economy, the global availability of high (enough) speed internet, and, of course, easily-installed payment rails. It has never been easier to send and receive money, and thus it has never been easier for people to find ways to monetize seemingly every human action.
Almost anything is for sale, and tech companies have found that the right approach is to create nothing of their own, and have other people pay you for creating and selling their own things.
There was a time in the media where every startup wanted to be the Uber for X - a trend that died when it became obvious how expensive having an ever-present network of people was difficult. What capitalism learned from that experiment was that the truly valuable part of the startup was not, in fact, the delivery of things fast, but the ability to create a rat king of small businesses and then deliver their services as their own. In some ways this was a net-positive - for those who wanted to make a quick buck, say, cleaning a house or taking people’s recycling - but the lock effect of taking someone’s labor and making it your own on a platform is that they truly beholden to the platform itself.
This is the apex of hustle culture - the ability to monetize just about any human action or task into a marketable and monetizable chunk. And with any price tag you put on something, there will always be someone to do it a hair cheaper, thus driving down prices as a whole and devaluing almost any piece of labor. This becomes more challenging depending on the task and the industry - Atrium, a company trying to create a “software-based lawfirm,” shut down last year, for example - but for your money you can have an incredible amount of singular human tasks taken care of on the internet.
While the platform requires humans to operate, the human beings that become dependent on the income of the platform and the ease of acquiring work don’t have the ability to easily seek that work elsewhere without sacrificing the business that comes through the platform. In the same way that Doordash and Postmates have eaten into the margins that restaurants have by creating the default platforms to get food delivered, companies like Handy and Taskrabbit eat into the work that general contractors can get by adding payment rails and gig economy features that would be difficult to build alone, all while taking a cut. And as these companies grow their hold on particular industries, it becomes increasingly difficult for businesses to stand their ground as customers come to expect gig-economy style ease-of-use features that are difficult to build yourself.
This is the specific shackle that a lot of these platforms hold - they know that most small businesses would not have the means to build these features themselves (or any features), and consumers have the expectation of “there’s an app for that.” The platform grows because of consumer spending habits, and thus the platforms become the de facto choice for labor. The result is that while these internet products require human beings to actually function, they also create a dependency that means that the host dependent on the parasite to live.
It goes beyond contracting, too. Sex workers have become dependent on OnlyFans, meaning that when a celebrity joins the platform and profits, causing the platform to massively change its terms of service and payment terms, they are left with very few other choices than to accept them and keep using the platform. Uber drivers - for the very same reasons that Uber exists - cannot easily get a job driving cars for cab firms, and basically have to accept whatever scraps Uber and Lyft give them. Uber’s acquisition of Postmates further dilutes the competition that forces companies to pay delivery drivers well, and in some cases entirely locks them out. And consumer spending moving toward expecting a simple, app-based website with easy, secure payments means that the larger a platform grows, the harder it becomes for the industries and workers on them to have any power.
There are positives, of course. OnlyFans has allowed sex workers to make an income and monetize their audience, though as mentioned the platform comes with the cost of total control over their income. Fiverr allows people to monetize skills in far off countries that they would otherwise not use, and fulfill a need for, say, someone who wants to post Watto from Star Wars in Joker makeup. These platforms do hold a utility and do add some good to the world in theory, and can end up making money for people who would otherwise not have a way to monetize the thing they’re good at.
It’s a double-edged sword. You can now theoretically make money from almost anything online, and as a result people are able to create income streams that were difficult or impossible to sustain before. However, the more consistent those streams become, and the more reliant they are on said streams of income, the more likely they are to be used by the platform and its owners. While platforms like Substack and Patreon allow you to “keep” your audience, that is largely because they are dependent on you already owning that audience to begin with - your following is not something that Substack can “take." The more generalized the service, the more likely you are to be used or controlled by the platform, and the more likely you are to depend on said platform. And, of course, the more reliant you are on the platform as your sole source of income, and the more reliant on the specific features of the platform to market and deliver your service for you, the less likely you are to leave.
The ultimate goal of these platforms isn’t simply to make things easier for consumers, but also to become the consumer of new business channels. Instead of creating competing businesses, tech has found a way to acquire small businesses before they become businesses, and then use the leverage of owning said business to make it difficult to impossible to find customers outside of their channel.
In the process, they create a defensible monopoly - there’s plenty of competition, as long as you use one service to find it.