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


Doing Women’s Film and Television History Conference 2014

Read Tamsyn Dent’s report on the panel she did with CMCI’s Bridget Conor and Natalie Wreyford at the Doing Women’s Film and Television History Conference 2014. The panel was entitled “Forget the female, take that away from my job title, I’m a writer and I expect to be treated the same’: Challenging myths of participation in creative work. Reflecting too perhaps, Nicki Menaj’s comments yesterday that she no longer wants to be considered just a “female rapper”.

Tamsyn Dent

Conferences are a great way to get away from the computer screen, share ideas, thoughts on research and catch up with other academics from related fields so I felt very honoured to have a paper accepted as part of a panel presentation on the 2nd ‘Doing Women’s Film and Television History’ conference organised by a committee of academics from the Women’s Film and Television History Network (click on link to take you straight to their site).

The purpose of this conference is to provide a space for academics, activists and industry professionals to consider the specific contribution of women to film and television. Given that women have been significantly contributing to film and television for over a hundred years, it is perhaps a little depressing that this is only the second year that the conference has been running but here’s hoping that its scope and status continues to develop into…

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The ‘Work’ of the PhD – Doctoral Students as Interns?

by Toby Bennett

It seems that every week there is another set of articles written on the perils of pursuing a PhD. One would think that the message has been driven home by now: following a doctoral degree (especially one in the arts and humanities) is long, expensive, emotionally exhausting, and intellectually draining; to do well you must be obsessive-compulsive, have little in the way of a life outside your studies, and probably find it difficult to communicate with others; at the same time, you are consciously aware of the need to self-professionalise – to network, gain teaching experience, and publish research; finally, not only are you unlikely to find a job within the academy, if you do find one it will be unsecure and underpaid, and if you look elsewhere, you may find your qualifications actually hold you back. That’s not to mention satirical sites like PhD Comics and lolmythesis, or the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter, where you can lose yourself for hours in the warm glow that comes with knowing others are similarly doomed. And so, we persevere.

This ‘anxiety industry’ that has built up around university life, and particularly PhD life, worries me because the generalised air of bewilderment and discontent that it points to is symptomatic of a lack of agency. That’s to say – we do not fully understand the system in which we find ourselves, we have little faith that the system understands it either, and so we don’t know how to act in a way that might serve us best. So we just do the same thing that’s always been done, hoping for the best and regularly seeking solace in the fact that no one else seems to understand it either. At best we may find solidarity in the sharing of woes – at worst, however, the sheer volume of toxicity may threaten to finally overwhelm us.

Part of the reason we feel bewildered, however – the university’s in-built contradictions – may paradoxically be the same reason we see to persevere. The life of the academic is not a social one, we are told; research is carried out by lone scholars in an ivory tower – yet to succeed we must network and build an ‘impact’ profile. The university too has multiple roles to play in the contemporary society: educating, skilling, and researching for its own sake; producing economic and cultural value in equal measure. The PhD student, I would suggest, must also negotiate a fragmented subjectivity – and bringing this fragmentation into view may help, at least, to orient our paths.

In this post I try to talk about some of the crossovers between cultural and creative industries and the university; consider the ways in which academia is increasingly thought of as an industry; and then argue that this discourse produces two economic subject positions with which PhDs routinely identify – the customer and the entrepreneur – that may contribute to this feeling of anxiety and disorientation. I end by suggesting that there is a third figure that we can deploy – the intern – which might prove disruptive to such a situation.

Cultural and Creative Work

My own PhD investigates creative work – specifically that carried out in the music industry – and I am sensitive to the discourse that builds up around these jobs, often lending them mythic status. For example: in the music industry we have the hedonistic and often exploitative A&R man, with ‘great ears’ and an ‘instinct’ for hits; in academia on the other hand, we have the lone scholar, holed up in the ivory tower, producing work of great insight and feeling. Different mythic figures, but both, in their own way, providing an alluring and individualised ideal of self-realisation and reward – one which shapes our understanding of what we are doing, where it’s possible to go, and how it’s possible to achieve it.

The wealth of writing that has come out of research into the cultural and creative industries has defined the work that goes on in them as varied, gratifying, and driven by passion – but that it takes place in an unequal, irregular, precarious, and psychologically gruelling ‘reputation economy’. In this context, the sharing of news articles and blogposts online is akin to the sharing of ‘war stories’ that Bridget Conor identifies amongst screenwriters, and which I recognise in my own research context. It is through such sharing activities that these myths endure. Historically, however, researchers in this field (the CCIs) have been slow to consider their own work in the terms described above – perhaps due to unwillingness to consider what they do as ‘work’, or education as an ‘industry’. While anthropologists and social scientists write reams about the difficulties of ‘access’ to the cultures they are researching, rarely do they set their sights on the one in which they are already immersed.

The University as Industry

But the university is indeed an industry – and has become increasingly so since New Labour’s democratisation of access to university education and the change in funding that has accompanied it. Contrary to popular belief, however, no longer does it belong in the tertiary sector, providing a public service. If that were so, the Department for Education would surely be responsible for its policy – as its cognate Dept for Education and Skills was in 2007. Its modern governance by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills now demonstrates the precedence of its primary and secondary industrial operations. And so the academia industry has two main purposes: natural resource extraction of knowledge for the contemporary ‘knowledge economy’ – and the production of workers to work in it (here we might take a moment to reflect on Marx’s dry comparison of the ‘teaching factory ‘to the ‘sausage factory’). Yet, as the concrete economic conditions upon which the university is founded continue to shift, the orthodox understanding (and its mythology) is now starting to be unsettled.

This change is embodied in the individual narratives of academics who were once bastions of the lone scholar model and now find themselves amongst its fiercest critics: the likes of Stefan Collini, the Cambridge don, whose book What Are Universities For? finds him waged in frequent battle against David Willetts; and Andrew McGettigan, the graduate from the CRMEP (a veritable ivory palace of obscure continental philosophy), who has moved from polemics about Benjamin, Brecht and Levinas to increasingly being the  go-to voice on higher education policy, last year finding himself in front of a government select committee as a result. (For introduction to the debates, Collini’s LRB review of the latter’s book is essential reading).

The Work of the PhD

Some of Ros Gill’s recent papers on work in the ‘neoliberal’ university, meanwhile, have ‘broken the silence’ on what it means to actually work in this new environment, making apposite comparison to the plight of cultural workers. In her most recent paper there is an all-too-brief but nonetheless very welcome acknowledgement of the role that PhDs have to play in this ‘aristocracy of labour’, often delivering teaching programmes for little money, and with minimal support. But the work of the PhD is not limited to Graduate Teaching Assistant. It is a time of change, an apprenticeship of sorts, in which a student becomes a professional. Simply because the work they carry out as an academic-in-training is unwaged and may not directly contribute to turning profit does not mean that it should not be recognised as just that – work.

As the journalistic products of the anxiety industry suggest, the PhD is constantly engaged in a kind of ‘work on the self’ that Gill elsewhere identified as being constituent of creative labour. But in some ways, the kind of self-work that is called for in the CCIs is, by virtue of being recognised as an industry, more easily attained – and more readily codified in policy (e.g minimum wage or employment-related benefits). Academia is less certain of its industrial status and more reliant on obscurantist myth as a result.

The Fragmented PhD Subject

In what follows, I identify three different subject positions that occupy divergent (and often conflicting) economic relations, but which nonetheless the PhD is obliged to occupy simultaneously. The first two are:

1)      The customer – the student as student, who pays handsomely for their education and expects access to support/resources, and a certain quality of service in reward.

2)      The entrepreneur – the student as prospective academic, foraging at the edge of academic knowledge in pursuit of their own original contribution, who must announce and defend the value they bring, and perhaps even create new disciplines of study.

Put this way, we can recognise the ways in which each instance is simultaneously repressive and empowering. In the first instance, the transactional relationship that establishes the university as retailer of knowledge (a scarce resource in high demand – or how else would we explain its price tag?) makes its affordability a constant concern – but as long as they can pay the fees then, even if we see this relationship as ‘devaluing’ the delivery of education in some way, nevertheless ‘the customer is always right’ and the university must submit to their demands. In the second instance, the sheer intellectual grit that is required to carve out a niche and to communicate the fact that that niche is relevant, exciting, and valuable will wear down even the sharpest (and most financially solvent) mind – but the inspirational mythology of the lone scholar pays dividends here, when we imagine the artist-author-genius we will be recognised as, once our hard work pays off.

Laid out like this, we can see how the benefits and drawbacks of doing a PhD go hand in hand. At the same time, we recognise also the schism between these first two subject positions clearly, as we experience our own split relation to the consumption and production of knowledge. Transitioning from the former to the latter in a kind of apprenticeship, we are simultaneously paying for and earning our training, unsure which position we occupy, because we are both and neither at the same time. The mythologizing discourse of political rhetoric (consumer sanctity) and academic lore (the greatest minds of our generation) work together here to paper over the cracks, emphasising the empowering aspects and playing down the repressive. To be clear: it is difficult to imagine exploitation occurring in each of these two cases.

PhD as Intern?

If we explicitly think of the university as an industry, however – indeed as one of the creative industries – then I would suggest there is a third subject position that is not so easily spun, despite being fundamental to the modern PhD experience:

3)      The intern – who enters the labour market for the first time on a fixed-term contract, with no promise of employment at the end. The intern is poorly remunerated for their time, if paid at all; ultimately, the reward lies in ‘opportunities’, which they must exploit at all costs if they are to find the career they seek – and if you fail, well, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.

The figure of the intern has the benefit of portraying PhDs as (potential) workers. Their position within the hierarchy of the academia industry is more apparent – and they are perhaps more easily thought of as subjects prone to exploitation. Internships are often valuable entry points into difficult -to-reach careers. But in the popular imagination they are not so obviously empowering (as the head of Island Records says ‘they call it work experience and internship now but back then it was a tea boy’). At the very least, internships are now registered in the popular imagination – whereas, much of the unpaid labour that goes on inside the university is (as Ros Gill notes) ‘almost entirely invisibilised’. In reality, of course, unfunded PhDs (who remain the majority case) are worse off than interns: not just unwaged, they are paying – heavily – for the privilege.

When I left my career in a music company for a PhD, the links between creative work and academic work seemed obvious to me and I was surprised at others’ frequent difficulty in recognising this. I had brought some assumptions and expectations from my former workplace with me – assumptions about being a ‘colleague’, albeit a junior one; expectations of contributing to a lively ‘research culture’. This was, perhaps, naïve and arrogant, like the founder of a small Shoreditch internet start-up imagining himself strutting around at Davos. I am lucky to be funded in my research while the university waives my tuition fees, giving me the illusion of a monthly ‘salary’ and negating my identification with the ‘customer’ relation – but in the entrepreneurial common-sense of PhD life, I have not yet earned the right to be considered an equal. Of course, I understand this necessity. My inexperience spurs me on to work harder on my research and my university is well-equipped for providing resources and support to help PhDs negotiate their paths, steering adeptly between satisfying consumer rights and career training.

Very rarely, however, are doctoral students considered to be already working: improving their CVs; presenting at conferences; contributing to teaching; taking on extra tasks and departmental citizenship roles; attending committee meetings; making use of opportunities and otherwise demonstrating the myriad ways in which they will work well in a future university environment. Though they are taken for granted, it is the anxieties caused by these future-oriented activities that most often pop up in the articles and forums referred to at the start of this post, as well as in conversation. Weirdly, the problem is not that these anxieties are unspoken but that they are endlessly repeated, remaining nonetheless invisible. Perhaps if we think of ourselves as interns, and not customers or entrepreneurs, then we might find ways of articulating such a situation better.

The Libidinal Economy of Music Videos by Toby Bennett

In 1981, Video famously Killed the Radio Star with the launch of MTV. This was supposed to be pop music’s moment of Wagnerian spectacle, the harmonious integration of artforms in glorious technicolour – and, yes, there are plenty of examples that live up to such a claim. But it turns out that if you chisel away at a Gesamtkunstwerk for long enough, then all you’re left with is twerk. It’s a familiar story: MTV now rarely shows music videos (even if it does sync music harder and faster than almost anyone else), online streaming sites have become the medium of choice, and videos themselves are talked about in terms of their view-count far more than their creativity. So, over thirty years later, has YouTube finally killed the music video?

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