Lately, we have been doing lots of work, for others. For free.
Millions of users of sites like Facebook and MySpace are clicking away at their profiles, adding detailed information about themselves and others. “We” are uploading content to sites like Flickr, YouTube, the microblogging service Twitter and many others, and our labor creates vast databases about ourselves –what I previously described as a sort of mass exhibitionism.
Facebook’s profit model is built upon an ownership of its user’s labor, specifically, the intimate detail of our lives and self-presentations. This is an example a larger trend of “prosumption,” that is, the simultaneous role of being a producer of what one consumes. In the material world we are doing this more often by scanning and bagging our own groceries, checking ourselves onto planes and into hotels, etc. The websites mentioned above are part of the user-generated and social turn the Internet has taken in the last few years –what has come to be known as Web 2.0. And prosumption generally, and especially on Web 2.0, is the mechanism by which we become unpaid workers (“crowd sourcing”), producing valuable information for the benefit of businesses. This is the almost endlessly efficient business model of Web 2.0 capitalism.
Karl Marx argued for taking control of the means of production, and on Web 2.0, to some degree, we have. But what remains in the hands of the few, the businesses, is the profit-potential. Facebook’s reach is ever-growing and the company is valued at $15 billion dollars as of 2007, precisely due to the data that users donate to the site.
Perhaps many do not mind giving away their labor because they enjoy the services provided, such as the richly social Facebook platform. However, we should also ask why the personal data of ourselves, that we are producing, does not belong to us? Given the successes of non-profit/open source software and applications (e.g., Linux, Firefox, etc), shouldn’t we be calling for a non-profit/open source social networking platform (i.e., an open source Facebook-like platform) where businesses do not own the highly personal data about ourselves and our socializing? What other ways can we think of that removes the link between our data (and labor) and corporate profit? ~nathan