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April 02, 2007

[iDC] A critique of sociable web media


Community as Product

Perhaps this exchange could lead us to deepen our earlier debate about possibilities for a radical critique of sociable web media.

If you agree with Paolo Virno's and Maurizio Lazzaroto's theory that argues that "virtuosic performance" and "the act of being a speaker" is the new immaterial labor [of the North], then yes, the sociable web is the new "factory without walls." I, for one, don't sign off on the fucked up naturalization of the exploitation labor that is so dear to capitalism. Where are the people who care if big profits are made of their distributed creativity? Most participants are not conscious of their embrace of market-based behavior. The most central sites of the World Wide Web create massive surplus value and small startups are frequently bought out by the Walmarts of the Internet (NewsCorp, Yahoo, Google) the very moment that they attract sufficient numbers of page views. People spend most time on the sites of these giants and not in the "mom and pop stores." Almost 12 percent of all time spent by Americans online is spend on MySpace.

Nicholas Carr pointed out that forty percent of all web traffic is concentrated on ten websites (www.sina.com.cn, www.baidu.com, www.yahoo.com, www.msn.com, www.google.com, www.youtube.com, www.myspace.com, www.live.com, www.orkut.com, and www.qq.com).

Most of these sites owe their popularity to the wealth of content generated by the visiting net publics that spend significant amounts of time on these very, very few sites thus creating wealth for a handful of corporate owners. What pulls people in?

In a recent interview with Forbes Video Network, Jay Adelson (CEO of Digg.com) was asked "What's going to keep people to come back?" Adelson responded:

"Community is what really keeps people coming back. These people are passionate about what Digg has done for them. The user experience they get from being part of that community is only getting better each day."

Attention translates into concrete monetary value and community is the product. Crude offline capitalism is replicated online, much against the hopes of early cybernetics and the linked back-to-the-land, countercultural aspirations of the late 60s and early 70s that Fred Turner talks about.

The dynamic of-- being used-- may hold much less true for peripheral websites in the concentric hierarchy of the participatory web. The online "mom and pop store" has a much more benevolent ratio of participant benefits versus the company's running costs. And then there are also the two or three non-profits like Archive.org and Craig Newmark's initiatives holding up 'Fort Hope.' They are, to be sure, not dominating the read/write web.

The immaterial, "affective labor" of net publics produces data. Contributors comment, tag, rank, forward, read, subscribe, re-post, link, moderate, remix, share, collaborate, favorite, write; flirt, work, play, chat, gossip, discuss, and learn. They fill in profiles: 120 million people shared detailed personal information with NewsCorp, for example. 18 million students shared personal details in their Facebook profiles with Yahoo. They share information about their favorite music and clubs. They are not shy to list the books they are reading and the movies they are watching. They detail their sexual orientation and postal address complete with hometown, phone number, and email address. They share pictures, educational history and employment. Profiles, even if only visible to their buddies (and well, Yahoo), they list their daily schedules, general interests, and friends.

It seems obvious that all this channeled networked sociality represents monetary value. Post-dot.bomb, the Google zars would not buy a very young video website like YouTube for the price of the New York Times Company if there would not be a clear monetary value.

The dicey ethics related to property issues and exploitation of labor of *the core of the sociable web* becomes apparent if we look at Yahoo's privacy policies for Facebook.

"Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience."

That is a dream come true for any market researcher. But it does not stop at bizarre privacy policies, Yahoo also claims rights over the content on Facebook:

"By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content..."

The picture of net publics--being used--is, however, complicated by the fact that participants undeniably get a lot out of their participation. There is the pleasure of creation and mere social enjoyment. Participants gain friendships and a sense of group belonging. They share their life experiences and archive their memories. They are getting jobs, find dates and arguably contribute to the greater good.

The scale and degree of exploitation of immaterial labor is most disturbing when looking at the highest traffic sites. The sociable web makes people easier to use and this dynamic will only be amplified by the increasing connection of mobile devices to the big social networking sites.

Trebor Scholz

PS: I'll add the necessary references to this text and post it on my blog. http://collectivate.net/journalisms/

Pat Kane wrote:

Great piece, Trebor, but just a few semi-naive questions I want to throw in:

* What about the civil liberties dimension of omnivorous data capture? I just finished reviewing Lessig's Code 2.0 (the updated version) http://theplayethic.typepad.com/play_journal/2007/03/the_fair_cop_in.html, and I've been chilled to the bone by his prescription of an 'digital identity passport', as a solution to spam, and a means of managing information privacy vis-a-vis the state and corporations (though he sets out some really surprising threat-to-state preconditions for legal disclosure of digital identity). Google's revelation that it's only going to keep 18 months of your websearching only makes you realise how much they *were* keeping - and when Google told the Feds to butt out, when they wanted to look at their user archives to research porn use, it makes you realise that we should be replacing 'in God we trust' with 'in Google we trust' on the dollar bill. That seems far too much civil responsibility for one shareholder-driven corporation to bear. But Lessig's 'ID card' vision of the net - all derived from his vision of the net as a constitutional phenomenon, an 'architecture of value' - feels far too grown-up for me. But I think I'm going to have to grapple with it. Adam Greenfield's musings on 'a jurisprudence for everyware' are also interesting here (use yer cached, http://tinyurl.com/3bw7la).

* But isn't there also something about advertising on the social web that, at the very least, puts it in its proper place - ie, as secondary to the social experience? We can bemoan and drum our fingers at the interstitials that stand in the way of us getting to that Salon article - but let's be honest, how many of us fulfill the advertiser's aspiration and click through to a website for yet another stylish people carrier, or post-colonial alcoholic spirit? In terms of an old-fashioned (and yeah, ok, social-democratic) Habermasian framework, this feels to me like the "system" (or various systems) very much being rebalanced in terms of the values of the "lifeworld" (or community). But maybe I'm being too politically boring here...

* ... Because I'm also an avid reader of the autonomists, and there's a recent interview with Virno that really focuses the political question of how immaterial labour might or might not become a class for itself, as much as in itself: http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?id=06/01/17/2225239&mode=nested&tid=9

"The global movement ever since Seattle resembles a half-functioning voltaic battery: it accumulates energy without rest but does not know how and where to discharge it. We face a marvelous hoarding to which no adequate investments correspond at this time. Or do we face a new technological apparatus, powerful and refined, for which we, however, ignore the instructions? The symbolic-media dimension has been at once a propitious occasion and a limit. On the one hand, it has guaranteed the accumulation of energy; on the other, it has hindered or deferred to infinity its application.

"Every activist is aware of this: the global movement does not yet manage to have an effect—I mean, to have an effect with the grace of corrosive acid—on the current capitalist accumulation. From where is the difficulty born? Because neither the profit margin nor the functioning of constitutive powers have been disturbed more than a tiny bit by the new global movement? To what is this paradoxical “double bind” due on which basis the symbolic-communicative sphere is both an authentic springboard and the source of paralysis?

"The impasse that seizes the global movement comes from its inherent implication in the modes of production. Not from its estrangement or marginality, as some people think. The movement is the conflictual interface of the post-Fordist working process. It is precisely because, rather than in spite, of this fact that it presents itself on the public scene as an ethical movement.

"Let me explain. Contemporary capitalist production mobilizes to its advantage all the attitudes characterizing our species, putting to work life as such. Now, if it is true that post-Fordist production appropriates “life”—that is to say, the totality of specifically human faculties—it is fairly obvious that insubordination against it is going to rest on the same basic datum of fact.

"To life involved in flexible production is opposed the instance of a “good life.” And the search for a good life is indeed the theme of ethics. Here is at once the difficulty and the extraordinarily interesting challenge. The primacy of ethics is the direct result of the material relations of production. But at first glance this primacy seems to get away from what, all the same, has provoked it. An ethical movement finds it hard to interfere with the way in which surplus value is formed today. The workforce that is at the heart of globalized post-Fordism—precarious, flexible border-workers between employment and unemployment—defends some very general principles related to the “human condition”: freedom of language, sharing of that common good that is knowledge, peace, the safeguarding of the natural environment, justice and solidarity, aspiration to a public sphere in which might be valorized the uniqueness and unrepeatability of every single existence.

"The ethical instance, while taking root in the social working day, flies over it at a great height without altering the relations of force that operate at its interior. Whoever mistrusts the movement’s ethical attack, rebuking it for disregarding the class struggle against exploitation is wrong. But for symmetrical reasons, they are also wrong who, pleased by this ethical attack, believe that the latter might put aside categories such as “exploitation” and “the class struggle.” In both cases, one lets slip the decisive point: the polemical link between the instance of the “good life” (embodied by Genoa and Porto Alegre) and life put to work (the fulcrum of the post-Fordist enterprise)."

--- I think it's so productive to muse on this Virno passage, both for where it might be right and wrong. To what extent are we 'ignoring the instructions' of these new technological apparatuses - or testing them to their limits (ie, if YouTube gets too censorious, where do we go next to 'become the media')?

His point about the "symbolic-communicative sphere" being both "an authentic springboard and the source of paralysis" is also acute - anyone observed how the New Tories in the UK are radically embracing the social web (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/george_osborne/2007/03/the_internet_is_changing_the.html, http://www.webcameron.com)? And how they're also combining that with a explicit politics of the 'Good life' - General Wellbeing (GWB) instead of GDP as the index of progress for societies, etc? (See http://theplayethic.typepad.com/play_journal/2006/05/well_beings_or_.html). Now, if anything looks like an "ethical instance" flying over the conditions of the 'social factory' without 'altering the relations of force that operate at its interior', it's going to be the British Tory Party 2.0.


Pat Kane

Nocolas Ruis III wrote:

The problem with this analysis is that it completely ignores the fact that we are all capitalists. Yes, the scales of exchange are unevenly balanced, but where in the world is such not the case?

Rather, we must seek to cultivate democratic spaces of exchange that are more equitable, and structures of governance that do not add insult to injury...an
egalitarian modulation process of equity, where the highest, is not so high (no trillion dollar salaries for film actors and basketball players,CEOs, etc.) and the lowest is not so low (no starvation, abusive exploitation, etc. on the plains of poverty).

Herein lies the importance of the political. It is not that we will not be capitalists--this has already been decided by virtue of our birth as living capitalizing beings, driven by the currency of the Code; that genetic protocol of environmental utility and capitalization. Every breath we take is a capitalization on the environment we exist within...


Burak Arikan wrote:

Thanks for this post Trebor.

So what can we do against networked exploitation?

I think an obvious strategy is to exploit those exploiters. Google Will Eat Itself (GWEI)[1] and Amazon Noir[2] are good examples for finding the holes in sociable web media systems and using the holes for reverse exploitation.

I think another strategy is to stay in context for collective action while all those sociable web media giants are fighting with each other for your attention (aka attention economy). There are many ways to stay in context such as email lists, forums etc. and all that social software actions as Trebor mentioned: commenting, tagging, ranking, forwarding, linking, moderating, remixing etc. Tools and environments for such actions are mainly provided by giant corporations, and under US laws, one who aggregates information owns it. But we can make our own web services for staying in the context, just like the way we can setup and maintain an old email list technology.

So this brings in the discussion of "open service provider". As open source software development communities demonstrate, we can collectively create value independent from the capitalist exploitation. If we are in the software-as-service era [3], support and use open service providers as much as you support open source software. It is very important to intensify and redirect our collective techno-cultural production to a territory that is formed more by individual’s free-will than capital's interests. But of course making one open alternative for each commercial-social web tool/environment is not all that relevant, it sounds just like making the free version of MS Office. So an open service provider can use existing techniques but I think they should invent new types of interaction and aggregation for the good of the community.

I use software-as-service strategy in my artwork. They are not commercial services nor utilitarian. I believe that building an open service is closer to making a cultural product than making a commercial one. As Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble puts it the relation of the creative expression to social processes is as important as the materials, processes, and products. [4]

Burak Arikan

* A version of this email is also posted in my journal burak-arikan.com/blog

[1] GWEI. gwei.org

[2] Amazon Noir amazon-noir.com

[3] Open Source Paradigm Shift, Tim O'Reilly. http://tim.oreilly.com/articles/paradigmshift_0504.html

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Posted by jo at April 2, 2007 08:17 AM