– 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