Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Free Labour and the Pool of Attention

What is the upper bound limit to the number of social media one can participate in usefully? Any answer will depend on one’s definitions of participation and utility.

I have been thinking about the amount of time and effort expended in maintaining and updating my presence on various social media platforms. What is the most productive use of my time? What has the greatest impact on ‘Brand Me’? What delivers the most benefits for my activity?

To answer those queries I need to review my assumptions about the nature of my relationship with each social media platform. I believe the axiom: “if you are not paying for the service, then you are the product of that service”. Which is a variation on the theories I learned about in Media Studies back in the late eighties where we were taught that newspapers do not sell news to consumers but audiences to advertisers. I am fine with that, as long as the positive benefits that I can extract from using the services still outweigh all of the well-known negatives. (While this is arguably a Faustian bargain, going in with your eyes open is at least the most appropriate stance.) Jeff Jarvis’ ongoing thesis on public-ness is probably the most insightful argument explaining this approach.

What I had not even been considering were the far broader, longer-term, macro-economic implications of the practices enabled by social media. These two articles from February expand on this topic.

They are exploiting us! Why we all work for Facebook for free
This article by two English academics looks at Facebook through the lens of Media Theory and explores the concept of ‘free labour’. Putting their sensationalist headline aside, I think they realise that their ‘free labour’ analogy is a bit stretched and move towards a model of Facebook as a rent on our attention. But they are also aware that there can be no permanent lock-in to any social media network and that Facebook could still be superseded.

The $100bn Facebook question: will capitalism survive ‘value abundance’?
This eye-opening article on the crisis of value by Michel Bauwens refutes some of the earlier article’s arguments. Particularly by identifying the distinction between use value and exchange value. His thesis is that the Internet has facilitated “an exponential rise in the creation of use value by productive publics” which has a deflationary macro-economic impact. This sharing economy sets up many future problems for capitalist systems. Thus his key question becomes:
What will happen with capitalism given social media-based exchanges, commons-based production of software and hardware, and collaborative consumption, on an increasingly massive scale?
The ideas in both of these articles provide much to ponder on.

Update, 22 January 2013
It turns out that, within the EU, wherever there is labour there must inevitably also be taxes. The French government have commissioned a report on the value generated by ‘free labour’ to investigate how they can extract taxes from that value. The report is initially intended as leverage within the larger chess game taking place between Google and the French Press. The taxation angle is one intellectual contortion further than anything I had envisaged when originally writing this post.