Reflections on philosophy and culture

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Users as Workers: the Economy of Identity in Social Media

"Looking in a Mirror" by Louise Èlisabeth Vigèe Le Brun
The great genius of social media is the way it monetizes personal identity - i.e. the way it sells us to ourselves.  Of course, this is in some ways an old phenomenon.  We've been buying idealized images of ourselves for a long time, drawn in by ads designed to solicit a recognition of our better selves in the posed, photoshopped people we see in them - in Radiohead's words, "fitter, happier, more productive."

But I think social media goes one step further - and here lies its true genius.  Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and the like have managed to convince us that they are free.  Of course, in one sense, they are free.  You don't have to pay a monetary fee to use these services.  Instead, the business model of social media takes a cue from commercial television and  radio.  For the privilege of access to the service, the service provider doesn't charge you (the user).  Rather, it charges advertisers for the privilege of access to you.  In this way, you get access to yourself - that is, special tools to craft who you are in public space - free of charge.

However, I think we distort the situation if we end the story there.  Specifically, the economy of labor in social media is profoundly different from commercial television and radio.  That is, in social media, the primary source of labor is the user: users are workers, and are paid a special kind of wages.  These wages are fundamentally affective: in exchange for her labor, the user is rewarded with a sense of authenticity - the sense that she is a self-determining individual, freely constructing her identity in public space.

Why think of users as laborers?  In social media, the overwhelming bulk of the content we consume is generated by the intellectual labor of its users.  In this respect, the business model in social media diverges from that of traditional commercial radio and television.  To use a factory metaphor: the users provide the labor, and their labor is made possible by certain means of production - the platform, the bandwidth, and the interface devices they use (computers, phones, digital readers, etc).  Like a weaver who must purchase a loom to weave the company's cotton she's been hired to weave, users pay for the interface devices and the bandwidth they use to access a social media platform.  Once a user has access, she spontaneously goes to work, not realizing that she is part of Facebook's or Twitter's labor force as she does.

When using social media, we of course consume the content produced by other users: the messages, posts, photos, and links they generate or make available to us.  If we accept the claim that users are the primary source of labor in the social media economy, why not think that the wages we workers are paid is the content we consume?  It's precisely because our employers - the owners of the various platforms - aren't the ones who generated this content.  Instead, they make its channels of transmission - the platforms themselves - available to us.

These channels of transmission are the key.  The platforms we use - which are at the same time the 'machines' on which we labor - aren't neutral pipelines for content.  The form in which content is presented is decisively important.  Before the onset of the tweet, the blog, or the user profile, we had means to transmit the same kind of information: our messages, our photos, our links could be sent via email or posted on discussion boards.  What the presentational forms of the tweet, the blog, and the user profile promise, however, is something altogether different: we encounter them as stages on which we can construct our identities in public space.  Each of us can have a stage of her own on which she can perform an image of who she is - to others, yes, but to herself as well.  What the presentational forms of social media make available to us is an authenticity-effect.  They induce in us the sense that we are masters of our own identities, free to endlessly construct and re-construct who we are.

In a now-famous review of David Fincher's film "The Social Network," Zadie Smith complains, in Kierkegaardian fashion, that our identities are flattened or reduced in our use of social media.  For a long time, I've been grappling with two different reactions to her essay.  On the one hand, I can't help but feel when I read it that she's an old curmudgeon complaining about newfangled technology.  Of course, she is highly aware of the possibility of this reaction:

But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.

On the other hand, though, I'm completely baffled by my own reaction to her essay.  At some level, I completely agree: there is indeed that danger that our selves are flattened and made far too public affairs in the context of social media.

I think I have a handle now on how to make sense of this ambivalent reaction to Smith's worries.  What she underestimates is the seductive power of the authenticity-effect.  More than this, if we accept the user-as-labor model I've sketched, we can see a strong analogy between Smith's message and something from what might seem to be an entirely different context.  Smith is like the labor organizer urging the workers to go on strike.  The workers can - and often do - take this to be an affront.  The organizer is trying to take away our wages, they often think, and in a particularly striking way: she is trying to get us to give up our wages.  But we want those wages!  We need them!  Things are hard enough now: how much worse will they be if we aren't even receiving paychecks because we're on strike!

Monetizing the Authenticity-Effect

If the user-as-labor model is an apt one, we're now in a position to see the core business model of social media in a new light.  As I pointed out before, the major social media platforms generate the majority of their revenue through advertisement.  But the way they have capitalized on advertisement has a key advantage over the way that traditional commercial radio and television did.  In the good old days before on-demand content, before digital video recorders, advertisements were those things we tolerated while waiting to get back to the good stuff: the content we wanted to consume.   Social media has one-upped this business model in a striking and brilliant way: instead of merely tolerating advertisement, the form of presentation encourages us to seek it out.  The profitability of the new model wagers that when we're in the throes of enjoying the authenticity-effect, clicking on the ad or reading the promoted tweet will strike us a means to the very thing we seek, the wages we accrue as we use these platforms more and more: namely, an image of ourselves as constructing and re-constructing who we are.  This is something new, something quite different from what was going on in traditional commercial media.  

Before, I mentioned Kierkegaard.  It's for a long time been relatively clear how to apply his worries about mass media in classics essays like "The Present Age" and "On the Dedication to 'That Single Individual'" to traditional commercial media.  Right now, I'm quite interested in whether we can extend his model to shed light on the situation with the emerging social media.  It's surely been attempted.  As I mentioned above, Smith's essay resonates with Kierkegaardian themes: she doesn't mention him by name, but by now his prophetic diagnosis of mass media is part of the common sense.  Another prominent example lies in the work of Hubert Dreyfus (e.g. in his essay "Kierkegaard on the Internet" and his book On the Internet).  But I'm not convinced these writers have gotten to the heart of the matter, or have seen just how powerful Kierkegaard's insights are.  But more on this another time...


  1. It is my concern that humanity itself becomes the commodity while losing itself in a mosaic that eventually turns into a white flag of surrender, not democratic nor disenfranchised but representative of a movement that does not exist except within the colorful places where our piece fits in while the middle man simply becomes the glue that paints to the wall behind the altar in the church of the spectacle.

  2. Honestly i think the internet has the potential beyond corporatization of a radical libertarianism with the aid of a transparent government and civil rights therein so that the separation of powers can operate in a relm of authenticity we have not yet seen in history.