In a desperate attempt to please Wall Street investors, tech companies have chased short-term trends, which is making the online experience worse.
In the past few years, people who use Google have come up with a very specific complaint: they can’t find any answers. When you search for “best PC for gaming,” you get a page full of ads instead of helpful information about which PC to buy. The actual search results, on the other hand, are full of low-quality, search-engine-optimized affiliate content that is meant to make money for the publisher rather than give good answers. Users have had to use tricks and workarounds to try to find useful information among the ads and low-quality chum. Simply put, Google’s most popular service now stinks.
And Google isn’t the only tech giant with a core product that is slowly getting worse. Facebook is supposed to be a place to find and connect with friends, but it constantly fills users’ feeds with sponsored (or “recommended”) content and seems to bury the things people want to see under what Facebook thinks is important. And as journalist John Herrman wrote earlier this year, the “junkification of Amazon” has made it nearly impossible for users to find a high-quality product they want. Instead, people are sent to result pages filled with low-quality products from sellers who know how to game the system.
All of these bad experiences online are signs of a sneaky underlying disease: In Silicon Valley, the stock price of a company has become more important than the user’s experience. Tech companies like Google, Amazon, Meta, and others have made money off of confusion by constantly testing how much they can mess with and trick users. Instead of trying to come up with new ideas and improve the useful services they offer, these companies have followed short-term trends or tried to completely change their businesses in a last-ditch effort to please Wall Street investors. Because of this, everyone’s online experience is getting worse. It’s harder to buy the things you want, harder to find the information you need, and harder to talk to other people.
giving up on the main product
In the 2000s and early 2010s, tech companies actually made new and interesting products. They made our lives easier by turning our phones from simple two-way communication tools into ways to learn more, stay in touch with friends, and keep track of our own lives. This led to the explosive growth of Silicon Valley: company valuations went through the roof, revenue growth was exponential, and new users joined by the boatload. As the number of people who are just getting online has gone down in recent years, simple math says that the rate of growth will slow. The Valley was in a crisis because of this slowdown. Tech companies have been flailing around for the past few years, trying to find a second growth engine that will make them grow as quickly as they did in the beginning. In the process, many of these companies have given up on their original goals and are trying to squeeze more money out of their old products and please Wall Street by making every interaction with a customer more profitable.
In some of the worst cases, tech giants have given up on the ideas that made them famous in the first place in an attempt to get back in the game. Meta, the company that used to be called Facebook but changed its name, is the best example of this disastrous search for a second act. Meta was the most successful social media company because it was an easy and appealing way to keep in touch with friends. But over the years, the company has made a lot of the experience behind sponsored content and confusing extra features harder to understand. Because of this, fewer people are using Facebook’s apps, and the company’s once-explosive growth in revenue is slowing down. But instead of trying to get people to use its products again, the company decided to focus on the metaverse as a whole (hence the name change). CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s goal is clear: he wants to own a “second internet” where people can meet and socialize. However, the virtual-worlds idea is almost dead on arrival, since so few people are joining because, well, it stinks. Still, the company spent more than $13 billion last year on the idea to try to make it happen. And its main product, well, that’s been hurt a lot. Both Facebook and Instagram, which is arguably the company’s most important product right now, are stuck in an endless tug-of-war between users who just want to see content from their friends and people they actually follow and the app’s developers, who are trying to force-feed people sponsored TikTok-style reels and money-making content that even celebrities have complained about.