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Tag Archives: exploitation

This post originally appeared on Cyborgology – read and comment on the post here.

The semantics of Silicon Valley Capitalism are precise, measured, and designed to undermine preexisting definitions of the things such capitalists seek to exploit. It is no coincidence that digital connections are often called “friends,” even though the terms “friend” and “Facebook friend” have very different meanings. And then there is “social,” a Silicon Valley shorthand term for “sharing digital information” that bears little resemblance to the word “social” as we’ve traditionally used it. From “Living Social” to “making music social,” “social media” companies use friendly old words to spin new modes of interaction into concepts more comfortable and familiar. It is easier to swallow massive changes to interpersonal norms, expectations, and behaviors when such shifts are repackaged and presented as the delightful idea of being “social” with “friends.”

But is this “social” so social? Yes and no and not quite. To elaborate, we propose a distinction: “Social” versus “social,” in which the capital-S “Social” refers not to the conventional notion of social but specifically to Silicon-Valley-Social. The point is, simply, that when Silicon Valley entrepreneurs say “social,” they mean only a specific slice of human sociality. Read More »

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A wildly improbable thought experiment: what if Facebook moved to a micropayment model and gave users, say, $1 for contributing value to their site?

This would be a raise, of course, because we are currently paid $0 in wages. However, I’ll argue that if Facebook paid its users there would be a user-revolt.

First, Facebook makes money. That you diligently provide them with your personal data makes you an unpaid worker in their digital goldmine. In the traditional Marxist framework, exploitation is measured by the surplus value the worker creates (profits over and above wages). And since our wages on Facebook equal zero, exploitation would, then, be infiniteas Christian Fuchs likes to point out. However, others have also looked at the non-monetary value of using Facebook:

Second, you (arguably) get value out of Facebook through building an online identity, socializing with others and so on -and all this is at no monetary cost.

And it is this second point that explains why Facebook users do not currently feel overly exploited: they view the site and its value in non-economic terms. However, were Facebook to start paying users there would be a gestalt shift towards economic thinking that would lead them to feel exploited. That their labor was only worth a dollar would be insulting. Monetary compensation would key users into thinking of their activities as labor or work rather than as leisure or fun.

I find this thought experiment interesting because of the counterintuitive idea that getting more money would in effect anger people. Is this what you think would happen if Facebook paid us? ~nathanjurgenson.com

by nathan jurgenson

500px-Google_wordmark.svgFollowing PJ Rey’s excellent summary of the Internet as Playground and Factory yesterday, I offer a few additional observations from the conference this past weekend, focusing on Web 2.0 capitalism, and Google as the primary target. The roughly 100 presenters were not joined by Google, as the company said that the conference content seemed “slightly anti-capitalist.” Much of the content, indeed, took the corporate ownership of our productive labor online to task.

A common theme was how to discuss Marx’s Labor Theory of Value with respect to Web 2.0. Clearly, companies are exploiting our free labor, but they do not have to coerce us. Julian Kucklich argued that we now have exploitation without alienation. That is, our unpaid labor is used for corporate surveillance and profit, even if the labor is not alienating or “foreign to ourselves.” Simply, we like using Facebook, Twitter and so on. However, Kucklich further argues that we are taught to think Facebook is fun, that companies use the “ideology of play” to seduce us into producing (or better, prosuming). Martin Roberts, in, ironically, perhaps the conference’s most entertaining presentation, also took to task the culture of “fun”, arguing that we have been trained to see our work as “fun”, making us more productive for the capitalist system. Christian Fuchs most forcefully argued for a communist Internet, stating that exploitation on Web 2.0 is infinite because users are not being paid material wages. A good Marxian, he downplayed the importance of immaterial value gained through sites like Facebook because we live in a capitalism system based on the material. And Ulises Mejias takes Web 2.0 to task for the creation of corporate Monopsonies, where we have seen Facebook, Amazon, eBay, YouTube, Google and so on become corporate titans of Web 2.0 capitalism. He argues that using these corporate Monopsonies is dangerous and irresponsible, calling for open-source and public versions of these types of services.

Thus, it is clear to see why Google was reluctant to join this conference. Frank Pasquale forcefully called on Google to be more transparent. Given what was discussed above, as well as Google’s central status in our day-to-day knowledge-seeking life, Pasquale leaves us with questions to ponder: should its page-rank algorithm be public? Should Google be allowed to up-rank or down-rank links based their relationship to the company? Should Google be able to simply remove pages from its listings? Should Google be forced to let us know when they do these things? ~nathan

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by nathanjurgenson

Apple-iPhone-001Recently, this blog [note: this was originally posted over at Sociology Lens] has focused on the labor of the crowds. I have posted that the “prosumers of the world should unite” and have continued to write on the topic. Bmckernan expertly handled the topic when discussing “light” capitalism and more recently pj.rey convincingly demonstrated that prosumption is a structural force at play in the death of old media. This post is driven by the recent announcement that Facebook, now nearly the size of the United States, has become profitable (or “cash flow positive“). This re-ignites the debate around companies profiting from increasingly personal and intimate information about ourselves and our lives.

As prosumers on Facebook (that is, we both produce and consume the content on the site), we display ourselves and our socializing with others, and it is precisely this data, this digital goldmine, that Facebook leverages for profit. Another trend of intimate data being shared has to do with “geotagging” and “location awareness” tools.

Location awerness simply refers to tools -often utilizing “smart” mobile phones that are GPS-enabled and always in our pockets- that track and display one’s geographic location. The Loopt iPhone app does just this by keeping track of where the user is and helping them share the information with others. Yahoo has the Fire Eagle service, Google has Google Latitude, and Twitter has also begun to “geotag” tweets with their geographical location. Given these technologies, we can share our past and current geographical locations with ourselves and others by plotting them on maps, posting them as our Facebook or Twitter statuses and so on.

In these examples, we see that the very titans of Web 2.0 capitalism are set to profit (or at least try to) from another intimate source of data: where one is physically located at any given moment. The degree to which these tools become ubiquitous is the degree to which our very lives become a source of ‘intimate profit’. To this point, and I’ll leave with a question to tackle in a later post: does it matter that companies profit from increasingly intimate user-data regarding their self/their socializing/their very location if users find these tools useful? ~nathan