Tag Archives: labor

Coincidental Consumption & the Thinkpiece Economy

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___With the Lilly Allen “Hard Out Here” video blowing up teh interwebs this week, I wanted to briefly revisit and expand on my earlier piece on “trolling as the new Love & Theft.” You can read it here. In particular, I want to expand my argument there in the direction of a conversation Nathan and I were having Tuesday over Twitter. We were talking about the idea of “coincidental consumption.” There Nathan defined it as a “passive byproduct of the sharing economy.” I don’t think it’s entirely passive..or active–it’s a both/neither case, as I see it. Coincidental consumption requires activity, input, and attention; it’s just that all these are indirect, or, if direct, momentary digressions. It’s a co-incidental consumption: it happens together with the primary mode of attention and address, but as a secondary or tertiary (and so on) concern.

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“social” versus “Social”

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. (more…)

Gamification, Playbor & Exploitation

I’m posting to get some feedback on my initial thoughts in preparation for my chapter in a forthcoming gamification reader. I’d appreciated your thoughts and comments here or @pjrey.

My former prof Patricia Hill Collins taught me to begin inquiry into any new phenomenon with a simple question: Who benefits? And this, I am suggesting, is the approach we must take to the Silicon Valley buzzword du jure: “gamification.” Why does this idea now command so much attention that we feel compelled to write a book on it? Does a typical person really find aspects of his or her life becoming more gamelike? And, who is promoting all this talk of gamification, anyway?

It’s telling that conferences like “For the Win: Serious Gamification” or “The Gamification of Everything – convergence conversation” are taking place in business (and not, say, sociology) departments or being run by CEOs and investment consultants. The Gamification Summit invites attendees to “tap into the latest and hottest business trend.” Searching Forbes turns up far more articles (156) discussing gamification than the New York Times (34) or even Wired (45). All this makes TIME contributor Gary Belsky seems a bit behind the time when he predicts “gamification with soon rule the business world.” In short, gamification is promoted and championed—not by game designers, those interested in game studies, sociologists of labor/play, or even computer-human interaction researchers—but by business folks. And, given that the market for videogames is already worth greater than $25 billion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that business folk are looking for new growth areas in gaming.

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Fifty Shades of Grey and the Ethics of Fannish Prosumption

Screenshot of 50shades.com in 2010.

When the novel Fifty Shades of Grey was published, it sparked a wide range of slightly frothy responses, from the (shocking!) truth about its history as Twilight AU (Alternate Universe) fanfiction to the (even more shocking!) indication that many women like to read erotic fiction and that sometimes that erotica can get pretty kinky. Much of the press coverage that paid attention to the fandom aspect of the story focused on the copyright issues inherent in fanfiction and other transformative works, which is still up for some debate –  and which, thanks to Fifty Shades, will likely continue to be debated into the foreseeable future.

To the extent that people seem willing to own that there might be something ethically amiss with the publication and subsequent success of Fifty Shades, the copyright issues seem, again, to be the primary focus. These rest not only with the fact that Fifty Shades began life as a work of freely available fanfiction and was then “pulled to publish” (removed and altered) — this is not an entirely uncommon phenomenon in publishing or in fandom, though opinions regarding its integrity as a practice vary somewhat in both spheres — but with the extent to which Fifty Shades appears to be different from its fandom incarnation. Which is to say, hardly at all, as the book blog Dear Author demonstrated.

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Will the IPO Change the Way Users See Facebook?

Tomorrow’s initial public offering of Facebook stock has both business and tech commentators chattering away (though, in most mainstream publications, there isn’t meaningful distinction between the two). Technology coverage is too often reduced to the business of technology. Consider the top four tech headlines on the New York Times site today: “Long Odds on a Big Facebook Payday,” “Ahead of Facebook I.P.O., a Skeptical Madison Ave.,” “Spotify Deal Would Value Company at $4 Billion, “Pinterest Raises $100 Million.”

Buried in the all the personal investing advice, some interesting quesitons are being raised. For example: How can a company with few employees and so little material infrastructure generate so much value? What is it that Facebook actually produces? Is an economy based in immaterial products and services sustainable (especially given that it’s profitability is largely dependent on it’s ability to drive additional consumption in other sectors through advertising)?

But there are also a lot of questions that aren’t being asked—the kinds of culturally significant questions that business folks and economists aren’t (though perhaps should be) interested in. Here, I want ask one such question: Will Facebook’s transition to a public corporation change the way users perceive their participation on the site? While I can only speculate about how this institutional change will effect users, I want offer a few reasons I think Facebook’s IPO may cause users to see themselves in more of an explicit work-like relationship with Facebook (based on rationalistic principles of minimizing cost and maximizing gain) and less a part of some sort of non-rationalized gift economy (based on principles of sharing and reciprocity). I should be clear, here, that I am talking about users’ relationship to the platform, not their relationships with each other. Users are, of course, primarily motivated to use the platform because of their relationships with other users; however, as recent privacy debates have illustrated, a user’s perceptions of Facebook are important in determining how users use the platform and whether they use it at all. (more…)

Augmented Activism: A Tactical Survey (Full Essay)

This is the full Augmented Activism essay. The two parts provide prescriptive tactics for how to incorporate technology in activist work. Part 1 was originally posted here and part 2 was here.

Part 1

Academics usually do not talk about “tactics.” There are theories, methods, critiques, but we -as professionals-rarely feel comfortable advocating for something as unstable or open to interpretation as a tactic. In the latest edition of the Science, Technology, and Human Values (The flagship journal for Society for Social Studies of Science) three authors threw caution to the wind and published the paper “Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey” [over-priced subscription required]. While the content of the paper is excellent, what excited me the most was their decision to describe their new “bag of tools” as a set of tactics. Kavita Philip, Lilly Irani, and Paul Dourish take a moment in their conclusion to reflect on their decision:

We call our results tactics, rather than methodologies, strategies, or universal guarantors of truth. Tactics lead not to the true or final design solution but to the contingent and collaborative construction of other narratives. These other narratives remain partial and approximate, but they are irrevocably opened up to problematization. (more…)

Panel Discussion: Is Facebook Use a Form of Labor?

The Organizations, Occupations, and Work blog (associated with the American Sociological Association) organized an interesting panel discussion between Chris Prener, Christopher Land, Steffen Böehm and myself. I’ll summarize/critique the positions here and provide links for further reading.

Chris Prener initiated the conversation by asking “Is Facebook “Using” Its Members?” Prener claims that, though the company gives users “access to networks of friends and other individuals as well as social organizations and associations,” Facebook—with it’s advertising revenue “somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.2 billion”—” benefits far more in this somewhat symbiotic relationship.” He concludes that Facebook, and social media more broadly, represent “a [new] space where even unpaid, voluntary leisure activities can be exploited for the commercial gain of the entities within which those activities occur.” (more…)

Facebook is Not a Factory (But Still Exploits its Users)

This piece is posted in cooperation with the Organization, Occupations, and Work Blog.

Facebook’s IPO announcement has stirred much debate over the question of whether Facebook is exploiting/using/taking advantage of its users. The main problem with the recent discussion of this subject is that no one really seems to have taken the time to actually define what exploitation is. Let me start by reviewing this concept before proceeding to examine its relevance to Facebook.

Defining exploitation. The concept of exploitation came to prominence about a century and a half ago through the writings of Karl Marx, and he gave it a specific, objectively calculable definition—though, I’ll spare you the mathematical expressions. Marx starts from the assumption that value is created though labor (most people today acknowledge that value is contingent on other factors as well, but we need merely to accept that labor is one source of value for Marx’s argument to work). According to Marx, humans have an important natural relationship to the fruits of our labor, and our work is a definitive part of who we are. Modern capitalist society is unique from other periods in history because workers sell their labor time in exchange for wages (as opposed to, say, creating objects and bartering them for other objects). Capitalists accumulate money by skimming off some of the value created by worker’s labor and, so that the wages a worker receives is only a fraction of the total value he or she has created. The portion of the value created by a worker that is not returned back to that worker (after operating costs are covered) is called the rate of exploitation. (more…)

Google Goes Nielsen

Not long after the release of Google’s widely discussed and hotly contested privacy policy, which shares user data across its websites, the company is now offering to compensate customers for the data that they provide. Closely resembling the television tracking techniques used by  Nielsen, Google offers users who participate in the screenwise program up to $25 in Amazon gift cards for allowing Google to monitor their online activities. Users can even opt to be more extensively surveilled and earn up to $100.  While some (in particular, those in the comments section of the article linked above) view this as a cheap payoff for strong privacy violations, others are happy to receive monetary compensation for engaging in everyday leisure activities. This latter group is evidenced by a temporary hold on signups for the new program due to overwhelming interest.

Debates will likely ensue over the cost of privacy, the blurry line between labor and leisure, and the degree to which surveillance can—or should—be resisted.

[Editor's comment: while this is only a small test, might we envision a model where users are paid for their data? Would it work? What are the implications? ~nathan]

Consumer Activism in the Social Factory

Editor’s Note: This post was written in response to PJ Rey‘s “Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media” and the text is reposted from mrteacup.org.

PJ Rey has a very interesting post up at Cyborgology about issues of production and labor on social networking sites that has some connections with things that I have been thinking about.

The point seems to be a partial critique of the social factory thesis – that social networks exploit the social interactions of their users, turning it into a kind of labor. This critique turns on the idea of “incidental productivity.” Rey claims that some activity on a social network does not fall into the category of labor as defined by Marx; or to put it another way, the Marx-influenced theory of labor is not conceptually broad enough to cover every type of activity that occurs. Rey proposes the concept of incidental productivity, which seems to mean value that is silently produced as a side effect of some other activity that the user is engaged in. The important point is that users are not aware of the value that they are creating, so this is not labor.

So far, I agree with this. There is only one very small point of disagreement, which is where Rey says in the final paragraph, “A quintessentially Marxian question remains: Who should control the means of incidental production?” I claim that this concept of incidental production is ultimately the liberal-capitalist problem of consumer rights and protections. (more…)