If you’ve been seeing or hearing enshittify or enshittification in the last week or so, you have one man to thank: Cory Doctorow, the journalist, sci-fi writer, and co-author of the new book Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back.
A post Doctorow published on January 21, 2023, “Tiktok’s enshittification,” was picked up by Wired two days later and reprinted under the headline “The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok”—scare quotes [sic]. From there, its main premise—that it’s not your imagination, the internet really is getting shittier—has been spreading far and wide (Kottke, TechMeme, Hacker News), and enshittify and enshittification have been gleefully adopted and repurposed. A Google search earlier this week turned up 753 results for enshittify and 71,300 for enshittification; in a January 24 post on TechDirt, Mike Masnick wrote about how “The [Milton] Friedman Doctrine Leads to the Enshittification of All Things.”* The terms have even migrated into Italian: “l’enshittification (‘immerdificazione’)” in Attivisimo, “l’enshitting” in Il Giornale. (So far, no Frenchified sightings, possibly because, as James Harbeck has reminded us, emmerder already exists and has its own shades of meaning.)
Doctorow introduces enshittification in the second paragraph of his January 21 post:
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.
Facebook, Doctorow writes, is “terminally enshittified, a terrible place to be whether you’re a user, a media company, or an advertiser.” TikTok is “performing a delicate dance: there’s only so much enshittification they can visit upon their users’ feeds.” Twitter is on a “march to enshittification: thanks to its ‘monetization’ changes, the majority of people who follow you will never see the things you post.”
(I would add that the very platform on which I am writing this post, WordPress, began its own march to enshittification when it replaced its “classic” editor, which allows a writer to simply write, with the “block” editor, which imagines that the act of writing is a Lego game played with sentences.)
“Enshittification” had been on Doctorow’s mind for a while before he wrote that post. In “How monopoly enshittified Amazon,” which he published on Pluralistic on November 28, 2022, Doctorow wrote that Amazon, far from its founding pledge to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” is now “an enshittified endless scroll of paid results, where winning depends on ad budgets, not quality.”
And in a January 28, 2023, interview on the Slate podcast ICYMI (demurely titled “TikTok Isn’t for Creators Anymore”), Doctorow told host Rachelle Hampton that the concept of enshittification had occurred to him during a July 2022 family vacation in Puerto Rico, where he repeatedly failed to connect to TripAdvisor because the site kept timing out while searching not for relevant results but for ads.
That’s the media story about enshittify and enshittification. But what about the linguistic story?
English has many compound shit- coinages—shit-can, shitgibbon, shit-eating, ripshit, shit-kicking, shithole, shitpost, and shit show, for starters, as well as apeshit and its fellow fauna—but not many verbs or portmanteaus. (In the latter category, I was delighted to discover shitticism in the online OED, and even more delighted to learn that the poet Robert Frost was the first to use it, in 1936. It means “a scatological figure of speech.”) Old English had beshit—to foul something or someone with excrement—and it still crops up occasionally; Ernest Hemingway used the past tense, beshat, in Islands in the Stream, published posthumously in 1970. But until now we haven’t had a convenient, succinct synonym for the sort of shittiness-causation that’s a specialty of the present-day internet.
Enshittify fills that lexical gap. To enshittify is to make something shitty—less literal, more metaphorical, than beshitting it. We don’t need a dictionary to tell us this: As people familiar with English, we deduce the definition from the en- prefix and the –ify suffix that bracket Old English shit. What’s interesting, and what may be part of the word’s appeal, is that either one of those affixes would have done the job by itself, because they serve the same function of turning nouns and adjectives into verbs: enlarge, enrage, embiggen; purify, glorify, objectify. We imported both of these word parts from Latin, where en- signified “to cause to be” and –ify comes from facere, “to do, to make.” Doctorow could have coined enshitten or shittify, but he opted to enlargify the word, so to speak.
(For the record, at least one person has tried to make shittify happen. There’s a February 18, 2008, Urban Dictionary entry that defines shittify as, strangely, a noun: “a horrible state of life; when you [sic] life becomes so shitty, espicially [sic] if your name is meghan, and your life come crashing down.”)
When I asked my Strong Language colleagues to weigh in on the linguistic features of enshittify, they pointed to this quality of “morphological redundancy.” Linguist Todd Snider noted that redundant affixes are unusual in English word-formation “and perhaps more consciously coined to be silly, rather than an un-engineered development.” And Stan Carey, who co-founded this blog, pointed out that if Doctorow had coined “enshitten” instead, “it would have echoed ‘embiggen’ much more obviously. But ‘enshittify’ is more readily nouned.”
The –ify suffix has special qualities of its own. In Making New Words (2014), R.M.W. Dixon observes that –ify “may be used for jocular effect within a fairly intimate register.” W.S. Gilbert coined matrimonified in The Grand Duke, probably to rhyme with personified; speechify, writes Dixon, “can refer to adopting an arrogant speech-making-like tone in the course of everyday conversation.”
As an element of company and product names, the –ify suffix has been astonishingly— even ludicrously—successful. Beginning around 2008, when the audio-streaming site Spotify was founded, hundreds of brand names have followed the –ify formula: Abilify (the depression drug), Expensify (accounting software), Shopify (e-commerce platform), Forgotify (an app that “plumbs Spotify’s unheard depths to present you with a random m selection from the zero-listen archives”). I’ve written frequently about –ify names, and in 2014, my naming colleague Christopher Johnson compiled 338 –ify brand names in a chart; many of them, Chris observed, “put the suffix gratuitously onto a word that’s already a verb. That shows that this is no normal English morphological process. It is a naming fad gone amok.” And it didn’t stop in 2014: I’ve continued to document iffy new –ifys such as 3Dify, Gmailify, Procurify, Mintlify, and UVify.
All of which is to say that enshittify and enshittification are primed for neologistic success. That’s not an easy achievement: As Allan Metcalf wrote in Predicting New Words (2002), most newly coined words fail. It’s not enough for a new word to fill a semantic gap; it also needs to satisfy what Metcalf called the FUDGE factors: Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of uses, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept. By those criteria, Doctorow’s inventions strike me as pretty fucking FUDGE-y. Frequency? See my second paragraph, above. Unobtrusiveness? The words already feel familiar. Diversity? Just think of all the enshittification out there. Generation of other forms? I heard Doctorow use “de-enshittification.”
As for endurance, that one’s always hard to predict. But I’m betting on enshittify and enshittification for the long, shitty haul.
WordPress began its own march to enshittification when it replaced its “classic” editor, which allows a writer to simply write, with the “block” editor, which imagines that the act of writing is a Lego game played with sentences.
YES. Thank you.
I was peripherally aware of enshittification since it started appearing in headlines lately, but I knew little or nothing about its origin and spread, so this post was really helpful.
There was a great appetite for beshit synonyms centuries ago: both for words meaning “defile with dirt/shit” (becack, bedo, bedung, begrime, bemud, bemute [when a bird drops one on you], bescumber, beshite, besmut, conskite, etc.) and more generally for coinages using the be- prefix. Google has a few inevitable hits for beshittification.
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The satisfying term “crapification” has been in use, with basically the same sense, for a few years now. “Enshittification” definitely has more punch.
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The pedant in me must point out the Gilbert first used “matrimonified” in The Pirates of Penzance, to rhyme with the equally made-up “parsonified”:
You shall quickly be parsonified,
Surely autoshittify would be more apt, as the management do this to their own processes?
Or upshittify, to mock business jargon. “We have managed to upshittify our user interface by 175% this quarter.”
Chaucer’s good Parson is contrasted with a bad priest, who is foul while his flock is spotless: “A shitten shepherd and a clene shepe.”