[iDC] A critique of sociable web media
trebor at thing.net
Sun Apr 1 21:47:44 EDT 2007
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.
PS: I'll add the necessary references to this text and post it on my blog.
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