[iDC] Trebor Scholz and Paul Hartzog: Toward a critique of the social web

Paul B. Hartzog paulbhartzog at gmail.com
Sat Nov 3 16:18:52 UTC 2007

Greetings all,

Trebor and I have been working on a conversation for some time,
answering questions posed by Pavlos and Thanatos at Re-Public, and it
is now online.  I am posting the link ahd full text here so we can
broaden the conversation. :-)

1) Link:  http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=201

2)  Full text:

Thanasis/Pavlos: How central is the question of "who owns the means of
production" in relation to the net economy?

Paul Hartzog: I think that what is happening now underscores the fact
that ownership was never the issue. Ownership grants you the capacity
to make and implement decisions about production, and to enjoy the
fruits of those decisions. Ownership gives you access to production.
Access has now been disaggregated and mediated.

Consequently, I would say that not "means of production" but "means of
access" is the crucial factor now. Let's look at a concrete example:
Wikipedia. For wikipedia to work you need to have 1) access to the
production, i.e. the pages have to be editable; 2) access to
consumption, i.e. the pages have to be reachable for reading, and 3)
access to the Internet. Governments make access possible for ISPs who
make access possible for end-users, and the owners of wikipedia make
access possible by keeping the servers running and having an
open-editing system. There are numerous points in that chain for
obstruction, surveillance, exploitation, etc.

Just recently we saw, through the user revolt on Digg and the similar
crisis on LiveJournal, evidence of a cultural shift in values about
what it means to participate in network culture. People are
increasingly demanding accountability from the people who run the
servers and the ISPs. Nevertheless, as long as there are servers,
ISPs, and other bottlenecks ¡ª in other words, as long as the Internet
is not fully peer-to-peer ¡ª there will be ways for the powerful to
shut down accounts, block access to websites, etc.

We can see the impact of this shift in a number of current disputes:
The "net neutrality" debate, for example, or the more general debate
over whether internet access should be a private or a public good. The
targeting of ISPs as points of surveillance by governments and
corporations is another example. The economics of the "long tail" is
all about how access changes the dynamics of production insofar as it
affects what will be produced and for whom. P2P file-sharing
applications like BitTorrent enable access to films, music, and other
media outside of traditional (and highly controlled) outlets.

To conclude, what was important about the means of production was that
it was not simply producing an artefact but, as Marx said, an entire
way of life. What is actually being produced is culture, knowledge,
style, routine, class, etc. Anything between the producers and the
production is potentially problematic. Access is what must be

Trebor Scholz: Before answering your question, I'd like to respond to
Paul Hartzog. The corporate lingo of Web 2.0 rings indeed the bells of
openness and newness and it's good that Paul cautions such naivet¨¦.
Even within economically developed countries there are large enclaves
of the working poor, illegal immigrants, and also youth in rural areas
who are the real access-have-less. What does the Web do for them? Any
critique of the Social Web will sound like an elitist problem that
they wished they had.

On the other hand, talk of producers on the Social Web as elite users
is absurd if you think of the 160 million people on the Chinese social
networking site QQ or the 180 million users who have created a profile
on MySpace. Most North American students are on Facebook and the South
Korean social networking site Cyworld counts some 20 million
contributors. On an international scale, social networking sites like
Orkut took over Brazil and India. The age, gender, and language
diversity online has changed for the better and the overwhelmingly
high numbers of users speak for themselves.

In the United States, many people are physically isolated due to urban
sprawl, a culture of fear, overly controlling parental behaviour, a
lost sense of place, and the nature of the job market, as well as
widespread individualism. People move for new jobs and have extremely
short vacations (an average of two weeks total in the United States).
Therefore they simply don't have enough time to meet former friends or
neighbours. Real-life public spaces are not built to accommodate
meaningful face to face encounters but instead serve as transitional
zones of commerce.

The Social Web allows them to stay in touch, make friends, or
reconnect. Social platforms become a partial remedy, a fix for these
societal ills. It would not be hard to find cases of social isolation
but overall the obese teenager or the alienated adult is not a product
of the Social Web but of the described problems of society at large.

In response to the question: those who can get their hands on the
countless "social operating systems" gain the means of web-based
production. The motivating carrot for the participation of networked
publics is the "free" service that does, however, come with the hidden
price tag of utilization. Users read posts on social networking sites.
They tweak the design of their MySpace pages. They enter their status
on Facebook (FB) (e.g., ¦§O. is ummm¡­. not telling you what she is
about to do¡­.or ¦§Y. is feeling pink¡­ or ¦§E. is feeling oppressed by
her hairbrush after coming back from a Patti Smith concert.). They
respond to so-called FB wall posts, create and upload videos, update
their profiles (complain that there is no option to be married to
one's job). Users groom their FB galleries, tell each other if their
photos are hot or not. They poke each other or watch each other's
videos. They friend and unfriend and embed videos. Time can be spent
installing one of the 400 applications on Facebook, or by just
blogging on MySpace and chatting on Skype.

All these activities create monetary value, which is sometimes based
on involuntary participation. Interfaces put only few hindrances in
the way of contribution. However, it's a breach of the social contract
if users don't know that they are used. At other times, people are
aware of the fact that they are utilized and can live with that. It's
a trade-off¨C corporations get rich while users enjoy the pleasure of
creation and sociality, gain friendships, share their life
experiences, archive their memories, get jobs, find dates and
contribute to the greater good.

To sum up my response to the question, I'd point out that the means of
production are available to networked publics; these tools and
platforms are, however, owned by corporations.

Thanasis/Pavlos: Is exploitation still the key social relationship
that structures immaterial labour and peer-to-peer production?

Trebor Scholz: The situation is complex and paradoxical. I started to
describe it in my previous answer. On the one hand, people are more
easily used through the Social Web. From Heinz Ketchup to Yaadz.com,
companies experiment with crowdsourcing as part of which the work is
outsourced to a large group of people in the form of an open call over
the Internet. The workers/producers receive little or no pay.

Many of the "free" services on the Social Web intrude into the
personal life of the users. Market research leads to well-placed ads
(unwanted content). Dating sites commodify intimacy and spam reigns
supreme. Amazon.com helps people to find books and music but also
erodes valuable processes by which people discover new authors or
artists. It limits the accidents of everyday life, which are the basis
for many enjoyable and meaningful yet inefficient activities. Are
users used? Most definitely. Do they mind it? Not yet.

To technically support the social life of 200 million people is
costly. Google runs thousands of servers. Nevertheless, in the case of
MySpace, News Corp made over 14 billion dollars¡ªthis value is being
created by networked publics. Such monetization of affective labour is
not new. It was first attempted online in 1987 with Lucas Habitat, an
early, technologically influential online role-playing game. Later,
NewHoo (later called The Open Directory Project or DMOZ) made
commercial use of its volunteer editors.

Paul Hartzog: I don't think so. There's a reason it's called the
"sharing economy." The fact that some companies are able to take the
results of that sharing and generate profit is, I think, a
not-terribly-relevant footnote, because it's not where the action is.
The economy in which commodification and the extraction of surplus
value takes place is a very different network than the peer-to-peer
sharing economy. Copyleft and Creative Commons are in place precisely
to prevent the appropriation (via proprietization) of deliberately
open shared works.

You really have two things happening. One is that people no longer
require massive media companies to be effective at getting paid for
their work. Just look at iStockPhoto.com. Now you COULD say that
companies can now get access to good stock photos for less money, and
therefore there is exploitation. But you could also say that
individuals can now get paid directly without layers and layers of
media, distribution, and licensing organizations, and therefore they
are actually circumventing entire categories of exploitation on which
the industrial era thrived. The music industry is another typical
example where all of the money previously remained within a network of
elites who controlled the infrastructure, and almost none of it
reached the creative producers. Now the money goes directly to the
creators. It's not so much who is exploiting whom, but rather that
individuals are now empowered to circumvent previously-existing
exploitative structures and practices. That option for individuals
forces those structures to change.

But even this is too narrow, I think. To stick with the music example,
it is a common belief among music media moguls that without
commodification and financial incentives creators will not create.
Thanks to what Lawrence Lessig calls "remix culture" we know this is
not the case (in fact, artists knew it all along). People don't NEED a
financial incentive to share their bookmarks on del.icio.us, their
photos on flickr, their music on MySpace. And much of this creativity
IS spawned via proprietary mechanisms, for example, the current rage
of "make yourself as a Simpson's character" at
http://www.simpsonsmovie.com, which has even its own photo pool on
flickr.com where people are sharing the images generated on that
proprietary site. Now the Simpson's crew is notorious for their
radical copyright attitude, and yet, individuals are getting a lot of
surplus value out of exploiting the image-building interface and then
sharing all of the images over at flickr.com. This is definitely a
complexification of the traditional "exploitation" rhetoric.

Trebor Scholz: People are being used and empowered at the same time.
It is too early to say how effective new types of content licensing
will be, or in fact are, in preventing (commercial) appropriation.
Being used is one thing; not knowing that your attention is monetized
is another.

Paul Hartzog: Yes, I agree. It's an interesting question as to whether
the requirement for transparency should be a legal solution, i.e. a
law requiring public disclosure, or a market solution, i.e. users
demanding that sites disclose or going elsewhere. It's too early to
tell which way that will play out, I think

Thanasis/Pavlos: What type of sociality does the 'Social Web' produce?
How does it deal with the problems of individualisation and community

Paul Hartzog: I think this is a key area where we can identify what is
working and what isn't, with respect to the future of social
technology and online participation. One can think of the two types of
sociality being produced as two forces, one pulling towards
individuals, and the other towards communities.

First, you have systems with an individualistic ontology. In these
systems, the infrastructure exists to provide the ideal rational
utilitarian user/consumer with some obvious personal benefit. If the
individual utility drops too low, the user leaves. In my opinion, this
kind of sociality is not really about community at all. You don't feel
a sense of community with other visitors to amazon.com who just
happened to rate or comment on the same book you did.

Contrasted with that, you have online communities where the
participants see the community as something beyond themselves. In
these spaces, individuals are willing to transform themselves for the
good of the community. I have witnessed this firsthand recently, in
fact. A long debate about the core values of that community resulted
in the creation of new spaces to accommodate the questions raised. The
whole affair reminded me of the U.S. civil-rights era.

Where this distinction is analytically useful is that you can
immediately see that certain kinds of online participants would
naturally fall into the first category. These folks are really only
concerned with the first type of sociality: sociality with an agenda.
It should be noted that both the site-builders as well as the users
can fall into this category. I don't really GO to amazon.com to be
social; I go to buy books. Conversely, the second category regards
sociality as an intrinsic good, a process to be engaged in for its own
sake. The difference between the two is typically self-organization.

This distinction goes all the way back to Aristotle and the idea that
we are only fully human when we are engaging in the governance of our
community. The first key point is that you can identify which type of
sociality you are likely to encounter by simply looking at the motives
of the community creators. The second key point is that very often
communities escape from the motives of the creators and do something
novel. This distinction has a significant consequence for political
theorizing. In the physical world, a citizen can typically engage
solely in the governance of a single geographical entity (sometimes
nested entities). This meant that the primary political-theoretical
conversation concerned the "best" or "optimal" form of government, and
this has remained the case for thousands of years. However, now,
online, people can and do simultaneously engage in numerous
communities with widely varying forms of governance. So the question
changes from having to pick one type of regime and argue for it, to
simply being able to navigate as a participant the advantages,
disadvantages, and rules of appropriate action from community to
community. In addition, participants bring their experiences and
expectations with them from community to community. Many communities,
many forms of governance, many kinds of participants. I think this
multiple-identity and community mobility ultimately creates a
participant (citizen) who is much more sensitive to the joys and
challenges of an actively engaged political life.

Trebor Scholz: Typologies of participation on the Social web would
need to start with a separation of voluntary and involuntary
participation (e.g., data mining).

The main activities on the Social Web are commenting, tagging,
ranking, forwarding, reading, subscribing, re-posting, linking,
moderating, remixing, sharing, collaborating, favoriting, writing;
flirting, working, playing, chatting, gossiping, discussing, and

A crucial phenomenon of the Web is that of captive community. Users
contribute their content to social environments and are not able to
take it with them if they wish to leave (eg., when you have uploaded
years of your home videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr). User's
friends are concentrated in only a few places, which is a key
motivating factor for people to congregate there. Content, therefore,
is also concentrated, which makes these sites more attractive. This
captivity is not accidental but is rather central to startup business

Thanasis/Pavlos: How does this sociality address the question of
cultural difference? Is it gender-blind?

Trebor Scholz: Cultural difference is a big issue. 1.114 billion
people use the Internet today - this number is so high due to the
growth of the economically developing world. Half of this population
is made up of women today. Things are changing in terms of the gender
dynamic: within the 25-34 age group, women now dominate the Web.
However, in many participatory environments women prefer to read and
participate silently (forward, copy, comment). Cultural difference is
interesting to observe with regard to the success of certain social
networking sites.

MySpace and Facebook took off in North America and Australia. Facebook
is more popular outside the US than Myspace. LiveJournal rules Russia.
Orkut's 68 million users are mainly from India and Brazil as well as
Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador,
Guatemala, Honduras, Kuwait, Mauritius, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Peru,
Portugal, Romania, Thailand, and Tunisia. Fotolog is the default in
South America while Mexicans love hi5. Why do certain social
networking sites dominate countries far away from their US American
origin? A recent study by Zahir, Dobing and Hunter suggests that the
colour schemes of the portals of these sites have something to do with
it. But people also want to spend time where many other people are and
once a site became the default for a certain age group in a geographic
region, it's hard to break that.

Paul Hartzog: Well we've known for some time that cultural difference
affects knowledge and sociality in a deeply fundamental way. The book
Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff details how
cultural differences affect not only category construction, but even
things as basic as colour perception. These differences also appear in
gender studies. In fact, one of my personal crusades has been against
the fact that the west has been manufacturing and exporting computers
whose file systems as well as their operating systems are constrained
by a western male hierarchical model, i.e. a tree of folders.
Globalization and its resultant interpenetrative sociality needs to be
sensitive to these elusive, often hidden, modes of domination.

But, as Trebor notes, there is a kind of counter-force that works
against global homogeneity, and it manifests in the way that different
groups have different modes of online participation. Culture is one;
gender is another. There are others: wealth, accessibility, etc. In a
general way, it can be useful to say that women tend to participate
one way and men another, or that the rich participate one way and the
poor another (for example, Danah Boyd's recent exposure of class
divisions being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook), but that doesn't
get us to the why of it all.

If our technologies are not difference-blind, then it is clearly
because we, as human beings who have choices in how we deploy
technology, are not difference-blind. But often what we are is blind
to ourselves - our prejudices, our judgements, our habits, etc. The
internet-worked world brings a lot of that to the forefront, and
suddenly, you have some computer programmer somewhere whose work is
going to be deployed globally, and he has to contend with the cultural
biases in that work in a way that he never had to before. And not just
individuals, but entire industries of knowledge production are pushed
to adapt to this new environment.

Thanasis/Pavlos: You both maintain, at different degrees, a critical
caution towards the Web 2.0 hype. What type of activism would you say
would be more productive in relation to Web 2.0: the appropriation of
the existing platforms of the social web, the creation of alternative

Trebor Scholz: If we aim to live ethical lives in the context of the
(mobile) Social Web, we'll need any platform¨C corporate, hybrid, or
non-market that can serve as a place for meaningful interventions.
Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture writes that

   "The debate keeps getting framed as if the only true alternative
were to opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating
acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper
by small alternative presses" (pp. 248-49).

There are a few new fields of possibility in which networked publics
can fight back. In September 2006 communal negotiating power was made
apparent when 741,000 users joined the group against the introduction
of the RSS feed on Facebook. The company withdrew the feature. In the
past, such joint action of consumers was not as easy. Today's
information flows make it simpler to organize such a "rebellion."

There are also many non-profit tools, peer-to-peer solutions and
hybrid environments, and ethical businesses such as Craigslist. I'm
also curious about ways in which individuals are making money on the
Social Web-from Google Adsense to YouTube's planned user pay-back

An additional example is the art practice of Kevin Killian, a San
Francisco poet, who wrote 1525 reviews on Amazon.com (as of January
7th, 2006), arguably starting a new genre of literature. In a small
bookstore in Brooklyn I found a booklet of the reviews that he wrote
on Amazon.com. These texts are not really reviews, they are
autobiographical fiction in the form of reviews, ranging from sweet
potato baby food to Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.

Thanasis/Pavlos: How far are we from substantially connecting this
type of activisms with offline critical practices?

Paul Hartzog: I think both kinds of engagement have costs and
benefits. Clearly the appropriation of existing platforms saves on
development costs. My earlier example of the alternative uses which
have appeared on flickr.com is an example. No open-source group had to
go invest time and money in an alternative photo-sharing platform.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that online platforms, which have
been launched for specific reasons, will embrace or even tolerate
alternative uses no matter how creative or popular. Even gmail might

Therefore, when faced with the constraints of existing structures, it
is often the case that people will choose to, or be compelled, to turn
aside and create something new on their own. This is the primary
reason, in fact, why I keep returning to Hannah Arendt as a political
thinker. From her we gain insight into the ability of people to
undermine ostensibly illegitimate political and social practices, not
by attacking them, but by simply engaging in some other practice that,
by its very nature, calls the existing practices into question and,
eventually, to account.

Ultimately, I think this is where Marxism fails, except maybe for
Gramsci's "war of position." It's the "tar baby" principle: You become
attached to what you attack. You don't want to take on those
structures at the sites that they have defined, and which they hold,
because, first of all, they operate in that space better than you do,
and, second, you end up taking on their negative features in order to
confront them. You lose a lot of yourself in that kind of terminal
opposition. What you CAN do is refuse to play by their rules, and go
off and explore what it is like to play by some other rules. Early
hackers did this, and so we ended up with open-source. I think "long
tail" and gift economics point outward as well. MMORPG money markets,
shared credit, and even systems that circumvent money (like FreeCycle)
are all pioneering the new landscapes.

And this points to the other question concerning "offline" critical
practices. Specifically, as writers like Paul Dourish, Malcolm
McCullough, and others are pointing out, we are facing the "end of
cyberspace." In other words, as the information world becomes layered
onto the physical world by mobility and ubiquity, the whole
online/offline distinction becomes less useful as a framing metaphor
(e.g. see Alex Pang's http://www.endofcyberspace.com). It is not a
"here" and "there," but rather, a relationship of complex landscapes
that intersect and interact at many points. I don't think we are far
from that now, but I definitely think that the younger generations
have a much better intuitive sense of what it requires of them to
participate in that kind of world. What I think will become
increasingly important, and here I know Trebor would agree, is that we
mobilize (both in the sense of "carry around" as well as "use") our
critical faculties regardless of the particular social space in which
we are present at that moment. It is "presence" that is useful as the
new metaphor. On which landscapes are we present, and what do we want
to do there?

In other words, in one space, you have a group of players who are
saying "you have to do it our way or else," and their model is an
industrial-era model. The individuals and groups that choose not to
detach themselves from those structures and practices will make
themselves disappear just like Tower Records, EMI, and others (and I
include traditional firms and governments in that group). Meanwhile,
in this other space you have a group of people who are saying "Hey,
look what we are doing! It's pretty neat. Come join us if you are
interested in cooperating to create some new rules."

The invitation is always open.

Trebor Scholz: In 1991 Peter Lamborn Wilson (a.k.a. Hakim Bey) wrote
Temporary Autonomous Zone, in which he used historical examples to
describe the tactics of shaping temporary spaces that elude formal
structures of control. The essay inspired Internet pioneers to
experiment with the freedoms afforded by Internet. There was, for
example, De Digitale Stad ("The Digital City"), which was launched by
De Balie and XS4ALL as a publicly accessible (free-net) system with
the goal of bringing politics and citizens together in an online
community. Geert Lovink referred to De Digitale Stad as "a social
experiment in Internet freedom." It was the attempt of staying
independent in an increasingly commercial environment.

Many of the altruistic projects that are still alive and kicking
today, however, were funded by money entrepreneurs made in the early
and mid 90s. Just take Archive.org. Brewster Khale was one of the
first Internet entrepreneurs who made the 15 million dollars that
allowed him to build Archive.org. Mitch Kapor made 100 million dollars
with Lotus 1-2-3 and then set up the Open Source Foundation. The
Omidyar Network was set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar with the
goal to "enable individual self-empowerment on a global scale" and
employ "business as a tool for social good." Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com
funds progressive film productions and has his independent space
travel program.

But that's not the only way. There is Michael Hart's Project
Gutenberg, which is driven entirely by volunteers, without the initial
money making scheme, without the resistance from within (the fortune
100) that so many in the US argue is inevitable. Project Gutenberg
(PG) is the "oldest digital library built on volunteer efforts to
digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works." It is one of the
largest single collectiosn of free electronic books, or eBooks,

Third, there are uses of technologies and platforms against the
intentions of the inventors. Twitter is used as human right advocacy
tool in Egypt. Blogs are important in authoritarian regimes.
Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg provided the 741,000 people who
joined the Student Against Facebook NewsFeed with a tool to unite
against the company.

On May 1, 2007 an article appeared on Digg.com's homepage that
contained the encryption key for the AACS digital rights management
protection of HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Digg removed the submissions
and banned contributors. Many users saw the removals as a capitulation
to corporate interests and an assault on free speech. The Digg
community staged a widespread revolt. One of the Digg users referred
to it as a "Digital Boston Tea Party." Digg's Kevin Rose responded:

   "[A]fter seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of
comments, you've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting
than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective
immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code
and will deal with whatever the consequences might be."

While I think that there are definite limits to the negotiating power
of networked publics, these examples show that they have certain
manoeuvrability and that this space for manoeuvre has become larger.
Capitalism has always given space to such critical movements. Now it
is easier for users/producers to join up, complain, strive for free
cooperation and for the renegotiation of some rules, as Paul mentions.
This, however, has nothing to do with deep-rooted social change.

PaulBHartzog at PaulBHartzog.org
PaulBHartzog at panarchy.com
PHartzog at umich.edu
The Universe is made up of stories, not atoms.
                --Muriel Rukeyser

See differently, then you will act differently.
                --Paul B. Hartzog

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