[iDC] Toward an Ethics of the Sociable Web. A Conversation Between Trebor Scholz and Mark Deuze

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue Jul 3 09:21:00 EDT 2007


Toward an Ethics of the Sociable Web
A conversation between Trebor Scholz and Mark Deuze

TS: Given all the efforts to make use of the affective labor of millions
of users, do you think that we could reach a point where networked
publics feel exploited (or at least used)? Today, there is little
indication of that as people get much out of their online sociality;
they gain friendships, dates, information, skills, and more. At the same
time media giants rake in billions. Just compare NewsCorp's acquisition
of MySpace for $580 million to its projected value of $15 billion by
2008. Centrality and media conglomeration are additional complicating
issues. Largely because of user-generated content, only ten websites are
getting 40% of all page views on the World Wide Web. The rich get richer
and the poor get poorer. Which ethical guidelines do you propose in the
context of the social web?

MD: There are several problems with the way these important issues are
phrased here. The key to understanding the currently emerging
relationships between media consumers and producers, or between media
owners and media workers (whether paid or voluntarist) for that matter,
is their complexity, their reciprocity as well as animosity: their
liquidity. Such relationships are seldom stable, generally temporary,
and at the very least unpredictable. Yochai Benkler and others
articulate in this context a hybrid or new mixed media ecology, typified
by a global digital culture that can be understood in terms of what Lev
Manovich calls a culture of remix and remixability, where user-generated
content exists both within and outside of commercial contexts, and
supports as well as subverts corporate control. So while one can indeed
see the End User Licensing Agreements and Terms of Service of the major
user-created content sites (including but not limited to game modding
platforms, corporate citizen journalism initiatives, and viral marketing
sites) as informal labor contracts, it would be a mistake to presume
that the collective intelligence of the user community thus is
"controlled" by the corporation (or vice versa). For example, as part of
my research I talk with professionals throughout the news and
entertainment industries (both in the U.S. and elsewhere), and many if
not most of them express openly the fear that they have lost control
over their own brands and properties as they get taken up and deployed
by consumers and users in diverse, disorganized, decentralized, but very
public ways.

TS: Again, the platforms of the social media giants make people easier
to use. The mentioned surplus value speaks for itself. There is a rather
obvious paradox of labor and people are being monetized without their
knowledge and that breaks the social contract.

MD: I am not sure I can agree with your concern regarding the behavior
of "media giants," using their impressive earnings as evidence. Not only
does research within such organizations (for News Corp consider Tim
Marjoribank's or Eric Louw's work for example) show that creativity,
commercialism and management operate in much more complex ways than the
singular/monolithic way you suggest, and not only do many if not most
workers in such organizations also just want to tell great stories -
within constraints of commercial and corporate pressures, granted – now
we see consumers (former audiences) move in and out of these
organizations and their creative processes as well. In a world without
any media literacy, that would be a real problem - but frankly, I am
doubtful whether we are still living in such a world. If anything,
consumers-turned-users should be educated/trained to enable them to
engage the "media giants" much more on their own turf. And simply
earning a lot of money does not make a company unethical. There are
important concerns regarding the increased outsourcing (“crowdsourcing”)
of media production to media consumers – not in the least because it
seems to correlate with an increase in lay-offs throughout the media
industries. So education works at least in two ways: in order to survive
in a competitive, globally networked and niche-driven world, media
organizations have to invest in their talent and reconsider
crowdsourcing as a cost-cutting measure, and the people formerly known
as the audience (Jay Rosen’s apt expression) need to become literate
regarding the effective exploitation of their labor. Perhaps we need a
global union for unsalaried media employees?

TS: Education for participatory cultures is, no doubt, a key issue.
Knowing how to navigate the corporate lawn is important. That does not,
however, cancel out peer-to-peer alternatives and public, independent

MD: Indeed, my argument calls for a "not only, but also" perspective on
the emerging media ecosystem. Within such a system there are constant
struggles, between top down and bottom up, between independence and
control, between professionals and amateurs, where opportunities to tell
all stories in all ways are plentiful. I think it is our job to identify
the necessary conditions under which such meaningful and open exchange
can truly take place, while at the same time enabling culture creators
to earn a decent living.

TS: While I concur that we should support cultural producers in finding
novel ways of earning a living, it is important to recognize that the
sociable web today echoes real existing capitalism. Most attention and
influence is concentrated at the core where corporate entities are
situated. Toward the periphery we find the artists, educators,
non-profits, and hard-blogging citizens. There are exemptions but 
let's not mistake them for the myth of the garage entrepreneur or the
American Dream gone wired.

The cost/benefit constellation of affective labor is, without question,
complex, but that does not mean that we have to become corporate
apologists. The question of ethics of participatory context-providing
giants (companies that facilitate the social networked life of hundreds
of millions of users) is related to transparency, privacy, and ownership
of uploaded content. 

On the one hand, there is no question that it is extremely expensive to
run hundreds of thousands of servers and keep the networked publics
content with more widgets. Large-scale business certainly has the
capability to create very convenient networked environments.

On the other hand, NewsCorp is unethical not because it makes billions
of dollars but because most kids using these platforms are not aware
that their activities are heavily monetized.  The specific situation on
Facebook, which currently comes second in terms of the number of
users--right after MySpace-- does not make much of an effort to let its
users know that:

"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..."

In addition, Michael Zimmer recalls that NewsCorp tried to change the
MySpace Tersm of Service so that even if users removed their account
information, NewsCorp still retained rights to the content. Zimmer says:
"To me, there should be no limit for corporate transparency. It is
crucial that users know exactly what information is being collected and
for what purposes." 

Richard Sambrook, director the BBC World Service, responded to my
question about values in a recent interview "In terms of serving the
public interest, independence and accountability, again these are all
strengthened by encouraging participation and being open to the views
and the input of a wide range of users. ... Transparency about the
news-gathering and selection process is as important as the journalism
itself in retaining that trust."

The ethics of participation is grounded in the transparency of the
"rules of the game." Also business strategist Don Trapscott and media
philosopher David Weinberger don't hesitate to agree with that. If I
know that I am used, if I am aware that my social emotions are
monetized, and I can tolerate that, then the social contract is not

How many companies,however, make an effort to ensure that users know who
owns their content, what happens with the information they provide in
profiles, and that leaving their social operating system will be hard.
Which company supports the export of uploaded content and user contacts?
The seamless interoperability is much less a reality than many people

John Henry Clippinger argues for a unifying identity meta system across
contexts and adds that "identity systems must only reveal information
identifying a user with the user's consent." The realities of
implementation of transparency, privacy, and intellectual property are,
of course, very multi-faceted but there is such thing as unethical

MD: I am not contesting any of this, of course transparency and media
literacy are key, and it is our responsibility as media educators and
their corporate responsibility as good business practitioners to work
with users rather than trying to co-opt or control them. The pre-World
Wide Web experience with fan cultures has already shown us that such
business strategies simply do not hold, and ultimately contribute to a
brand’s downfall and loss of credibility. On the other hand: it is
difficult for big mass media enterprises to retool, to reinvent – since
they are used to be in control of the media marketplace in a context of
information and channel scarcity. We should therefore not forget that
most of these companies are still new at the
online/converged/interactive game, so perhaps we cannot blame them for
trying to cut and paste their top down control model onto the World Wide
Web (that does not mean its okay - its just a more grounded perspective
on the current staple of co-opting practices). I operate under the
assumption that such a strategy will fail, and that a new one, as
advocated by Sambrook and others, of transparency, co-creation and
participation will prevail. Indeed, I find it more inspiring to search
for instances, examples, initiatives, values and praxis within (or: at
the margins of) the professional media world where there is diverse and
complex co-creative collaboration and exchange, rather than just
lamenting those evil corporations that just do not tell you in all
honesty that all they want is to control you and the dollars you spend.

TS: How do you interpret the "Facebook rebellion" in September 2006 when
over 700.000 users stood up against the introduction of a RSS feature
that, according to many students, breeched their privacy? I'd propose
the protest as an expression of a kind of communal lock down (even if
the word “protest” may sound a bit dramatic). Again, the exit costs for
Facebookers are simply too high. Just consider that Facebook dominates
the American university market in terms of social networking. Students
have all their friends on that platform and much content (pictures,
videos, text entries, diaries), none of which they could easily take
with them should they decide to leave. Their only chance is to protest
as moving on to another platform would be too socially costly. They
"outsourced" their memory and now they are a "captive community." How do
you interpret this incident?

MD: First, I would contend that Facebook users are not "captive" (nobody
is forcing them in or out), but the observation that users increasingly
enact some kind of critical agency in the face of less-than-convenient
features of social networks (especially the often complete lack of
transportability in migrating avatars, content and databases between
different sites). Again, I would hesitate to frame all things occurring
in this media environment in terms of binary oppositions. Sure,
companies are trying to monetize the collective intelligence of
cyberspace. And yes, users sometimes accept, and sometimes reject the
conditions under which their participation is enabled. But the
interdependency of all the actors involved makes for a more complex and
liquid reality than simply one of all-powerful professional producers
versus hapless, captive and easily exploitable users.

TS: In the case of Facebook, it's hard to not perceive this platform as
a social imperative for college students in the United States where 85%
of all students have a profile there. If you don't want to be a social
outcast, you better join. Apart from the significant peer pressure, as I
said, it is a considerable  loss of weak ties but also content if you'd
decide to migrate to another platform.

Do you think that users should have full control over their own content
on a social platform?

MD: Yes, but to a large extent, I think they already do (and such
control also depends, as you argue, on users investing time and
resources in understanding or even rejecting oppressive terms of
service). The problematic areas are in the fields of copyrights and
privacy (that are often related, such as in the case of the commercial
repurposing by companies of user-generated content like personal

TS: The facts on the ground of the dominating social  platforms look
different. Users do not know what happens with the very detailed
information that they contribute. A quick look at Yahoo makes that

"Yahoo! reserves the right to send users unsolicited emails without an
option to be removed  from this email list. All content a user
produces (including emails and instant messages) can be read by Yahoo!
employees. Your personal information may be disclosed if Yahoo!
believes it to be in its best interests."
Also Facebook has clearly stated that it owns all content uploaded to
its site. On the social web it is the exemption that users have control
over their own content. 

MD: There is a difference between not knowing or not being interested in
corporate content regulations, and not being able to control your own
content. I agree with the first premise, but also want to articulate
that the opportunities for knowing and enacting agency are there, too.
Sure, social pressures make it difficult to stay inside or leave. On the
other hand: in a hyper-individualized society being part of Facebook or
MySpace is, to some extent, temporary, and not being part of it can be
an equally significant symbolic act of membership of other social
networks. So again, the either/or perspective (being "in" or "out") just
does not seem adequate to explain or predict what is happening in our
media life today. Overall, I am just not convinced that such categories
– any categories – are that stable to be able to base longterm theories
or models on.

TS: When advertising started in the United States in the 1880s it was
soon associated with the loyalty to and identification a brand. Is not
MySpace very similar to that? There is, of course, the difference that
MySpace is not a product per se (i.e. compared to Coca Cola) but rather
it is a context-providing platform. Today, community is the product but
loyalty to a brand is still as desirable for the enterprise. Where do
you see the difference? What has changed?

MD: Today, everything and everyone is a commodity that needs to be
marketed, presented, constantly updated and remade, and sold. Every
Facebook profile or MySpace page is an ongoing advertising campaign. As
Zygmunt Bauman argues, in today's "consuming life" people are
simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they
promote. I prefer to think of this inevitable catastrophe (in Bauman’s
terms) as one that potentially opens up new power relationships, new
ways of organized networks of users/producers acting collectively where
collective action otherwise has been marginalized or cancelled out.

TS: I do not share the inevitability of everything becoming a product
that you assert. Capitalism, in your paradigm, sounds like a
trans-historical imperative. 

MySpace is pushing for "engagement marketing." It aims at "power users"
or what they call "influencers," people with thousands of "friends" on
MySpace. NewsCorp may offer them money in order for them to recommend
products that they like to their social network. 

Do you agree with Zizek who stated that "it's possible to imagine the
end of the world; it's not possible to imagine the end of capitalism."   

MD: Intellectually, Zizek calls for an important insight into the way we
critique the information age: it is often (and at least in part)
premised on a model of society that is in part responsible for creating
the conditions for the very system we criticize. However, I am less
interested in imagining the end of capitalism than in teaching students
to be as creative and independent as possible when entering the global
media marketplace. On a different level of abstraction there are - there
must be - plenty alternatives to the capitalist model- and even
"capitalism" is a more complex system than we often presume it to be.
The economy of culture and the culture of economy is a crucial object of
study in this regard – opening up a perspective on markets, economies
and capital that does not necessary require a polar position of culture
and creativity at the other end of the spectrum.

TS: Are there any alternatives in sight? What about an independent,
public social networking site? 

MD: Optimist that I am, I'm sure there are hundreds if not thousands of
those in operation already, in various P2P, open source, or otherwise
“alternative” capacities. Yet an exciting alternative to me does not
necessarily exist outside of the capitalist/corporate model. Again, I
find it more inspiring to think of hybrid models, complex alternatives.
Of course your perspective is perfectly valid and important, I just
choose a different route towards audience empowerment and corporate

TS: So far, I can't locate any public, independent social networking
site that manages to support social life on a significant scale. There
is much pervasive surveillance on the sociable web, which makes it hard
to build trust into any corporate platform with our data. 

Today, Facebook is seen as a convenient place to conduct background
check. The LA Times reported on June 25, 2007 that Rupert Murdoch has
subjected MySpace in China to heavy censorship. Yahoo's reputation has
already suffered from their complicity in the arrest of pro-democracy
activists in China.  Or, take Facebook Terms of Service where it says

"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..." 

Do you think that users are really aware of this fact?

MySpace is a surveillance ground for police going after illegal
activity. But censorship on MySpace in the United States has been
battled by MoveOn for its refusal to run an ad about a political issue,
its deletion of the most popular Murdoch parody profile, its deletion of
profiles with homosexual-related content, its disabling of a MySpace
blog forum where user discussed censorship issues, its disabling of
links to YouTube in December 2005, and many other sites including
VideoCodeZone, Revver and Stickam.

You may describe these problems as dilemmas that companies need to
address head-on to be successful. But are not there vital interests of
marketers that are simply at odds with values such as transparency or
trust? David Weinberger recently pointed out that marketing is about
entering a conversation in order to influence it. Where do you locate
realistic limits to corporate transparency?

MD: Perhaps you are right when you express the worry, that many of not
most (and especially the youngest and the newest) users do not
understand or even read the conditions and rules which govern their
interactions online. On the other hand, I do believe the level of media
literacy in this context is rising, and will continue to do so, in part
because of the work of media educators and scholars. Furthermore, the
surveillance you talk about can increasingly be characterized as a
reciprocal transparency, or perhaps even a participatory Panopticon:
with half of the population on the planet owning a cell phone, everyone
is watching (sometimes, through digital cameras, literally) everybody
else. This gives shape to new problematic or worrisome situations, as we
know that surveillance does not work for deviants, but rather functions
as a illusory device for the rest, increasing Homeland Security in the
U.S., however understandable as a response against an attack, cannot
deter terrorism, but primary is intended to make most Americans feel
safer when shopping or traveling. So what will happen if everyone
surveys everyone else? What are the social consequences of a P2P
Panopticism? The whole of the world and our lived experience in it can
indeed be seen as framed by, mitigated through, and made immediate by
pervasive and ubiquitous, personalized and converged, digital and
networked media. This world is what the late Roger Silverstone in his
last book considers a "mediapolis": a mediated public space where media
underpin and overarch the experiences of everyday life. Combining such
insights with critical and complex notions of a mixed media ecology,
media researchers - as scholars of the new human condition - can explore
new avenues of research and understanding. But we have to be critical of
easy and convenient intellectual endeavors based on simplistic models,
categories and reductionist theories.

TS: I agree that reading the Terms of Service needs to be an essential
part of the list of skills for participatory cultures but the
participatory panopticon does not really work as a metaphor for me; the
situation that you describe has little in common with Bentham's
panopticon. What would be a more useful model for a situation in which
everybody watches anybody else?

MD: That is a stark assessment. if the primary function of the
panopticon is for society to police itself, the current participatory
media  environment (and especially its corporate tentacles like MySpace
or Cyworld) works pretty well. Often, you really have to know specific
web designers or net artists and their communities online to find
deviance, difference, the unexpected. Just as a panopticon in terms of
security and surveillance ultimately functions to police just those
submitting to being policed, I think the same goes for the current

However, your challenge is inspiring: what would be a more useful model?
There are several useful concepts generated in recent literatures, some
of those I already mentioned: the mixed/hybrid media ecology (Benkler
and others), Henry Jenkins' concept of convergence culture, the culture
of remix and remixability developed by Manovich, Silverstone's
mediapolis, and perhaps my own notion of a life lived in (rather than
affected by) media, a media life. Each of these models contributes to
describing and explaining what is going on, but indeed, sometimes fails
to offer instruments to effectively critique it. I especially recommend
Silverstone's last book, Media And Morality, for an inspiring call to
arms in that context.

TS: Jamais Cascio, the Worldchanging.com founder who introduced the
term "participatory panopticon," points to important changes in the
nature of surveillance. “Sousveillance” reigns supreme when thousands of
demonstrators use their easily concealed cameras to submit photo and
video evidence of police violence to the web. Cascio mentions Video the
Vote, Witness, and The Blair Watch Project, all attesting to the power
of "see--snap--send" as method for political action.

However, the panopticon, as metaphor, does not fully fit here as its
core characteristic cannot be applied. The idea of the panopticon, of
course, is to allow usually a single observer to observe all prisoners
without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or

The fact that one never knows when one is watched, however, matches the
idea of the panopticon. Today, people are largely aware of the
transparency of their lives, their vulnerability to surveillance by the
many and it's not just one watchman but all of us, as of course you
point out. Perhaps "many-to-many surveillance" is a better-suited term
to describe this situation, which is not the same like sousveillance.

Jenkins describes fan cultures that in some way "spy" on TV production
companies (e.g., Survivor) but he does not really address many-to-many
surveillance very much. Manovich and Benkler don't focus on

MD: Indeed, this would call for a more holistic approach to media life –
one that includes the role personalized and portable multimedia
technologies play in collective surveillance as well as collective
intelligence. My best guess at this time would be is to open up the
analytical field for interventions that include, rather than reject, the
role companies and corporation have to play in all of this. Let me
repeat my core argument here: our concerns regarding the  role and
business practices of multinational media corporations in the 
emerging global media ecology are important markers for a critical media
research agenda. However, a juxtaposition between "them" (the
corporations, the Market) and "us" (the activists/P2P users/the People)
is, if anything, just a very small part of the picture, and it rather
unreflexively reproduces Adorno/Horkheimer-type false dichotomies that
are perhaps convenient, but really do not seem to do much justice to
what Louw calls the "communicative complexity" or what Bauman would
suggest as a "permanent impermanence" in the media world today. Sure,
power is unequally divided, especially if one thinks in terms of returns
on investment, but the studies I know signal that at any given moment
even the smallest independent entrepreneur or fan community can be
extremely powerful vis-a-vis the global media system for example: if you
are a developer specializing in Wii or PS3 games today, you have a lot
of power because Nintendo and Sony are desperate to build a catalogue.
However, as an Xbox 360 developer it is much more difficult to remain
autonomous. On the other hand, if you are an avid XNA Studio Express
user, you can circumvent Microsoft on its own console and play your own
games with your friends online. There is power everywhere, and that is
where my research and teaching are located.

TS: I agree that there is no complete autonomy, not even temporarily,
and that the “us” versus “them” dichotomy is indeed a dead end. Brian
Holmes and other wrote convincingly about the managerial other within

However, at the same time not all narratives are equally valid and
shades of complex gray should not trick us into academic positions of
mere observation!! There are large corporate participatory environments
and, as Alain Badiou would suggest, there is an ethics of each specific
situation. Despite Google's corporate motto "Don't be evil," there
evidentially is such thing as unethical behavior when it comes to those
who facilitate large-scale sociality. Business strategists, Tapscott in
"Wikinomics" for example, love the idea and work hard to teach the
corporate world how to "bleed" the enterprise into distributed networked
publics-- blurring the edges between hanging out online and creating
wealth for platform-facilitating others. 

It is part of capitalism's game plan to leave the players at the bottom
of the pyramid enough room for maneuver, sufficient flexibility to not
feel exploited or oppressed. While the power that you assign to
developers only speaks to a small group of technically empowered experts
(or professional/amateur hybrid users), I do agree, that today, the ease
of information flows allows groups of people to coalesce (not in a class
sense, to be sure). Speaking out to a corporate entity is harder for
people who drink a new variety of Coke than it is for Facebook users.    

MD: I am hesitant to think of capitalism as a singular entity with a
linear "game plan" - that view does not seem to be supported by the
evidence from media research as far as I am aware of. My own work
focuses on the working lives of media professionals in different fields
(as documented in "Media Work", published in 2007 by Polity Press), and
considers how these people, often working within one or more
"capitalist" media corporations, manage their “workstyles”: their ways
of working and being at work. Such workstyles for example give meaning
to a delicate and continually contested balance between creative freedom
and job (in-)security, between autonomous production and user-producer
co-creation, between telling the stories they want to tell and remaining
commercially relevant. If anything, what I see and hear from these media
workers offers quite a few fascinating markers on a future roadmap for
ethical, diverse and transparent participatory media practices, and most
certainly suggests that media capitalism is as much to blame for
exploitative and controlling business models, as it can be an effective
agent in circumventing, exposing or even erasing such ways of doing
things. To paraphrase the late Richard Rorty: that gives me social hope.

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