[iDC] Immaterial Labor

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Sun Aug 5 08:57:39 UTC 2007

Thanks very much, Brian and Davin, for your contributions.

To really get a sense of what constitutes immaterial, "affective labor" on
the Social Web (beyond quick value judgments one way or the other), one
has to be deeply emerged in it, actually talking with people who are
commenting, tagging, ranking, forwarding, reading, subscribing,
re-posting, linking, moderating, remixing, sharing, collaborating,
favoriting, and writing to flirting, playing, chatting, gossiping,
discussing, and learning. Add to this the creation of virtual objects in
virtual worlds like SecondLife.

It's true, over 180 million people shared detailed personal information in
their profiles with NewsCorp, for example. 18 million students shared such
details in their Facebook (FB) profiles. Both numbers are growing and the
privacy policies of FB is disturbing.

Plenty of hype and all this activity, call it utilization, labor,
production, or "immaterial labor"-- increased Myspace's value from $580
million (2005) to $15 billion (by 2008).

Users share information about their favorite music and clubs, they list
the books they are reading and movies they are watching.
"I really use the sites as a way to keep up with others and as a result of
peer pressure." said one Facebook user whom I interviewed.
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, list their daily schedules, general interests, and friends.
Facebook managers even want to know how you met your newly acquired
friend. Did you live together, traveled together, met randomly, or through
a friend? This, indeed, is the dream of any market researchers with value
being created based on attention, ads, profiles, good old consumption,
transaction commissions (eBay), and also spam, and surveys.

On the other hand, the picture of net publics being used is complicated by
the fact that participants undeniably get a lot out of their
participation. There is the pleasure of creation and mere social
enjoyment. Anger, frustration, and joy become manifest and are being
shared online. Knowledge is created socially and participants gain
friendships and a sense of group belonging, perhaps even call it a virtual
"home." They share their life experiences and archive their memories. They
are getting jobs, find dates and arguably contribute to the greater good.

Selfish motivations are intermixed with benefits for Yahoo, and the larger
online community of Delicious users. David Weinberger interviewed Joshua
Schachter and asked about Delicious' financial model. Schachter responded:

"The same as any other advertising-backed discovery engine, like Google.
The people who are using it are paying us with information. Ten times the
number of people are on the site but not signed in than those who are
signed in."

The many thousand users of the social bookmarking service Delicious save
bookmarks on the Delicious site in the first place for their own benefit.
They may be teachers who can save articles for their classes.
Alternatively, they may write a dissertation and use the service to keep
track of source materials and commentary online. They can create a wish
list for their wedding.  They can find podcast sites that others
recommend. They can plan a trip- save links to hotels and excursions. They
can save bookmarks for websites of interests and add a bit of commentary.
They can create a cookbook by saving it every time they come across a
valuable recipe on a website. Also groups can share an account and benefit
from their collective research. Corporate, collective and individual
benefits all come together. Yahoo makes money. The individual gains and so
does the larger group of Delicious users: *individualistic collectivism.*

Virno talks about "the act of being a speaker" as the new kind of labor.
Business gurus like Tapscott describe users/producers on the Social Web as
the "economy's primary engine of wealth creation." Terranova thinks that
"Free labor has become structural to late capitalist cultural economy."
Yale law professor and former treasurer of a kibbutz, Yochai Benkler
proposes: "The key is managing the marriage of money and nonmoney without
making nonmoney feel like a sucker."

The smooth running of the new market economy is the goal behind the
comments by Benkler, Fox, and Jarvis, ... forget about labor dynamics,
they seem to say, just don't feel so bad, used, or, ... exploited.

Back in the iDC archive I found Eric Kluitenberg's comments, which can
perhaps be a starting point to point forward.

"... the quest for self-determination and  meaningful and memorable
experiences ultimately will hinge on people's understanding that they are
not merely consuming a product, but that they are actually participating
in a meaningful social process not guided by an extrinsic logic (profit),
something that rather has intrinsic, or 'sovereign' value. I don't believe
that these two can be fused into one as a business process always
necessarily relies on an external utilitarian motive beyond the object
itself (profit, market share, enhancing brand recognition, long-term
consumer franchise, etc..), while we can learn from Bataille that the
sovereign (experience) is 'life beyond utility.'"

I'm not sure if life beyond utility is possible today.
What's your take?

-Trebor Scholz


"Facebook | Policy." Facebook. 24 May 2007. 12 Jun 2007

Jarvis, Jeff. "BuzzMachine Blog Archive Who owns the wisdom of the crowd?
The crowd.." BuzzMachine. 26 Oct 2005. 12 Jun 2007

Schachter, Joshua. "y.ah.oo!." Delicious blog.  9 Dec 2005. 12 Jun 2007

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams.  Wikinomics: How Mass
Collaboration Changes Everything. Ottawa:  Portfolio Hardcover, 2006.

Terranova, Tiziana. "Free Labor." Universitat Oberta de Catalunya UOC. 15
Aug 2000. 12 Jun 2007

Kluitenberg, Eric. May 2006. 12 Jun 2007

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