The Social Factory

the blog of King's CMCI PostGrad Society


On Audience Labour in Facebook – notes towards strategic resistance

– Toby Bennett

At last week’s Dynamics of Virtual Work conference (COST Action IS 1202, if you’re interested), recurring themes were circulating around precariousness, prosumption, value-production and audience labour in the digital economy. Various discussions revolved specifically around ways of conceptualising the users of Facebook as workers.

This is not a new topic. Accounts from Dallas Smythe (1977), for example, about the ‘work’ involved in viewing television advertising were frequently drawn into discussion with Tiziana Terranova’s (2000) and Marc Andrejevic’s (2002; 2009) accounts of the or ‘free’ or ‘user-generated’ labour involved in producing online content and networks. Göran Bolin, who spoke on the Thursday, has done good work to reconcile such perspectives with studies of ‘active audiences’ in reception-oriented forms of cultural studies (e.g. Fiske, 1987), bringing the political economy of consumption into dialogue with its cultural forms (Bolin, 2012). Such accounts rest on an understanding of work that prioritises the ‘value’ produced for a brand or platform associated with a private company, by users’ involvement in the systems owned by that company. Accordingly, there was much theoretical discussion over the classification of ‘productive’, ‘non-productive’, and ‘re-productive’ forms of labour.

In reality, this plays out in various recent ‘disputes’ in the (semi-)public arena. In the Fraley vs. Facebook case, cited in the conference’s opening plenary by Eran Fisher, representatives of Facebook’s users sought to argue in the US courts that they had a claim to the company’s profits, as its advertising model relied expressly on their activity and identity, especially through the ‘sponsored stories’ function; Facebook agreed that this was the case but countered that individual users would have to prove that their image had a historical value attached to it. In essence, the case came down to the extent to which usage of social media transformed individuals into ‘micro-celebrities’ through participation.

In a more activist vein, a recent campaign called ‘Wages for Facebook’ saw a scrolling manifesto being circulated on various social media: opening lines – ‘They say it’s friendship. We say it’s unwaged work. With every like, chat, tag or poke our subjectivity turns them a profit. They call it sharing. We call it stealing’. The campaign alludes to the ‘Wages for Housework’ struggles mounted by feminists in the 1970s for recognition of the work that takes place in the home, in care of children and the elderly, and without which society could not be reproduced so efficiently.

Despite its name, Wages for Housework was not necessarily arguing for an hourly rate of pay but for increased awareness of the socially-necessary but ‘hidden’ work (performed predominantly by women) that enables and contributes to economic growth; in practical terms this might translate into policy that promotes fairness in the distribution of wealth, stronger welfare provision, and so on. Wages for Facebook launches a similar argument for the information society. In a post-Snowden world, however, it is difficult to see any positive practical application of ‘increased awareness’, when critical perspectives so often collapse – either into quiet resignation towards this state of affairs; or into the wild and often troubling pronouncements of conspiracy theorists.

Both of these responses renounce a sense of agency. They declare: ‘But what can I do?’ Yet when I have discussed these issues with friends and with students, however, there is a resounding alternative perspective put forward, which goes: ‘No-one is forcing you to use Facebook. They are doing you a favour by creating a platform for you to interact; if you don’t like their terms then you can always opt out’. This argument is attractive because it is positive and affirmational. It reminds us how lucky we are. It is critical, not of corporate structures, but of those individuals who pretend they are in chains, and who like nothing more than to complain.

There are clear contiguities here with a neoliberal discourse of individual responsibility, rational action, and consumer choice. It also seems clear to me that there are several arguments that mitigate against such action.

‘Opting out’ can be:

  • undesirable. First and foremost, using Facebook is often a pleasurable activity that enables new, surprising and enjoyable encounters and experiences. Why should such benefits and pleasures of a technology necessarily be attached to invasive and restrictive frameworks?
  • affectively difficult. Facebook usage can be habitual and unconscious. Not that this in itself is a good thing but it attests to ways in which the desire to be on social media is not always an entirely rational decision.
  • inconvenient. So much interaction and planning happens through Facebook that one can be literally forgotten and excluded in the material world simply by not having a presence in the online world.
  • stigmatising. As Facebook increasingly becomes the norm, those who reject it increasingly become seen as outsiders, cynics, and weirdos.
  • alienating. Facebook is not just content; it is also form – perhaps even a new form of semi-public space. Not only would you be seen as an outsider, and not only would you be excluded from particular events and information, you would be unable to participate in emerging forms of interaction and organisation in this space.

We do not like to consider aspects that impinge on our sense of individual agency, forcing us to consider ways in which our actions are influenced (even determined) by social and psycho-neurological structures. Quite apart from questions of invasiveness over terms of service, once Facebook passes the tipping point for mainstream take-up, exempting oneself from participating in it is not just a simple matter of personal choice. The more pervasive it becomes, the closer this argument gets to the possibility of opting out of capitalism in its entirety – i.e. undesirable, inconvenient and socially exclusionary.

All of which is why I asked the question, in one session of the conference, of what strategies of resistance to such a situation might be diagnosed; or what routes to transformation might be possible. No satisfactory replies were forthcoming, other than some vague murmurs about co-opting the platform. More thought-provoking was a paper by Emma Keltie on her experiences in amateur online television production. Although she had initially approached the medium in a joyful, affirmational manner, seeing the internet as a dialogic space to enable voices from outside the mainstream to gain audiences that wouldn’t otherwise be heard, Keltie narrated how her team’s energies had slowly been sapped by prohibitive barriers to funding and long-winded licensing processes that still favoured the traditional major players.

Though this was not a particularly positive experience, nonetheless the paper constituted an account of a kind of Damascene conversion to structural criticality through participation in creative production, and I wonder if there might be a model to draw on here. One might hope, for instance, that the government’s introduction of coding into the primary curriculum, if handled well, could have the potential to make a step in that direction.

But who knows. Overall, I’m really not sure what the answer is here and am interested to hear what others think.

Andrejevic, M. (2002) ‘The work of being watched. Interactive media and the exploitation of self-disclosure’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19:2, 230–248

Andrejevic, M. (2009) ‘Exploiting YouTube: Contradictions of user-generated labour’, in P. Snickers and P. Vonderau (eds.), The YouTube Reader (Stockholm: National Library of Sweden)

Bolin, Göran (2012), ‘The Labour of Media Use: The Two Active Audiences’, Information, Communication & Society, 15:6, 796-814

Fiske, John (1987), Television Studies (New York: Routledge)

Smythe, Dallas (1977), ‘Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,’ Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1:3, 1-27

Terranova, T. (2000) ‘Free labor. Producing culture for the digital economy’, Social Text, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 33–58

 


Higher Education engagement with the art and cultural sector: bridging community knowledge and practices

Dr Roberta Comunian (King’s College London) and Dr Abigail Gilmore (University of Manchester) recently visited Queensland University of Technology to discuss the relationship between higher education and the creative economy in Australia. Bringing the UK experience into this discussion they consider the role of collaborative frameworks for connecting universities with regional arts and creative industries.

Originally posted on Arts Queenland. See original post here: Arts for all Queenslanders Strategy

roberta comunian

Historically universities have been key cultural players in cities and communities, and the UK higher education sector has long been engaging with arts and culture, for example through hosting museums and performing arts spaces on campus and by engaging in academic research on arts and cultural topics and activities. Latterly, there has been a growing pressure from policy to understand better the real contribution (and impact) of higher education to the arts sector and the creative economy, and also to facilitate and support this engagement to enhance its potential. There has been a marked evolution in the thinking and practice of engagement between higher education institutions and the arts and cultural sector in recent years in the UK, which has been fuelled by a series of policy and consultancy research reports as well as by new funding initiatives such as the AHRC Creative Economy Hubs.

Initially, relationships between higher education and the arts and cultural sector have been characterised by the assumption that knowledge sitting within academia can benefit the work and practice of creative practitioners and organisations. Although this ‘ideal type’, which we call in our typology the ‘injection model’, is still relevant to today’s collaborative practices (especially in the case of consultancy work and commissioned research), it remains quite unidirectional. Similarly, collaborations which position higher education institutions as ‘cultural agents’ in their own right (often via their own galleries and cultural infrastructure) can have limited scope in linking university stakeholders with local communities to widen participation.

However, other modes of engagement are emerging to take central stage in this landscape, which question and blur the boundaries and roles of academia and the arts sector. Two dimensions are key to these new, more essentially collaborative approaches: firstly, human capital, and secondly, the production of shared space or ‘third space’.

In reference to human capital there is a clear acknowledgement both within academia and the arts world that collaborations and exchanges are based on individuals and their networks and knowledge. Here the arts is a source of knowledge assets for academia, as theoretical knowledge requires the importing of practice-led expertise, for example professionals engaged in teaching as guests and sometimes even in tenured, permanent positions. Similarly students and academics are encouraged to take part in community cultural activities, which see their ‘local citizenship’ and ‘social responsibility’ as a key element in the dialogue. One interesting case study of shared human capital is at University of Manchester, where the Director of the university-owned Whitworth Art Gallery, Dr Maria Balshaw, is also Joint Director of the Manchester (City) Art Gallery, and has just become the Strategic Lead for Culture for Manchester City Council (you can listen to Dr Maria Balshaw talking about this here).

Shared spaces are another key form of engagement which instigates collaborative practice.  Some shared spaces are physical infrastructures (for example incubation spaces, shared facilities), others are virtual platforms or ‘third spaces’, where academic knowledge mixes and negotiates with specialist knowledge from the art sector and its communities. An example of creating shared space is the curated Public Programme ran by Nottingham Contemporary in close partnership with the local universities (listen to the presentation of Isobel Whitelegg on this project here).

The AHRC-funded research network ‘Beyond the Campus: Higher Education and the Creative Economy’ tries to capture these modes of engagement and dialogue that enable higher education and the arts and cultural sector to add value to each others’ work via collaborative practices and knowledge exchange. It can be difficult to capture the nuances of the wide range of interactions taking place but we hope that a better knowledge of these modes of engagement – and their limits and challenges – can give both academics and creative practitioners better tools for future collaboration on and off-campus.    Whilst early research shows a reciprocal commitment from both parties, there are also challenges and difficulties emerging in the findings specifically in reference to institutional and practical processes and structures and also connected to motivations and rewards for collaboration.  It would be interesting to find out whether these challenges are relevant in the Australian context and whether arts organisations face different issues in their work with academia in Queensland?

Dr Roberta Comunian and Dr Abigail Gilmore

Dr. Roberta Comunian is Lecturer in Cultural  and Creative Industries at the Department for Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London.  She previously worked at the University of Kent and at the University of Southampton. She holds a European Doctorate title in Network Economy and Knowledge Management. She is interested in: relationship between public and private investments in the arts, art and cultural regeneration projects, cultural and creative industries, creativity and competitiveness.

Dr Abigail Gilmore is Director of the Centre for Arts Management and Cultural Policy at the University of ManchesterHer doctoral research, awarded by the University of Leicester, was on popular music, cultural policy and local music scenes and communities. She has been involved in a range of policy-related academic research projects, including an AHRC funded study of the Millennium Dome, the development of local cultural strategies and creative industries mapping, before going on to work in advisory and consultancy positions to the cultural sector with government departments and non-departmental bodies in the North West, for the last five years.

The research network is supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

Feature image:  Queensland Academy for Creative Industries  Photo by Dr Abigail Gilmore