Archive for May, 2012

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. Continue reading

Social Media: You Can Log Off But You Can’t Opt Out

We all know them: the conscientious objectors of the digital age.  Social media refusers and rejecters—the folks who take a principled stance against joining particular social media sites and the folks who, with a triumphant air, announce that they have abandoned social media and deactivated their accounts. Given the increasing ubiquity social media and mobile communications technologies, voluntary social media non-users are made increasingly apparent (though, of course, not all non-users are voluntarily disconnected—surely some non-use comes from a lack of skill or resources).

The question of why certain people (let’s call them “Turkle-ites”) are so adverse to new forms of technologically-mediated communication—what Zeynep Tufekci termed “cyberasociality”—still hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by researchers. This is important because abstaining from social media has significant social costs, including not being invited to or being to access to events, loss of cultural capital gained by performing in high-visibility environments, and a sense of feeling disconnected from peers because one is not experiencing the world in the same way (points are elaborated in Jenny Davis’ recent essay). Here, however, what I want to address here isn’t so much what motivates certain people to avoid smartphones, social media, and other new forms of communication; rather, I want to consider the more fundamental question of whether it is actually possible to live separate from these technologies any longer. Is it really possible to opt out of social media? I conclude that social media is a non-optional system that shapes and is shaped by non-users. Continue reading

The Myth of Cyberspace

“The Myth of Cyberspace” appears in The New Inquiry Magazine, No. 3: Arguing the Web.

In the early 1980s, when personal computing first became a reality, the faces of glowing terminals had an almost magical aura, transubstantiating arcane passages of 1s and 0s into sensory experience. In fact, the seemingly impenetrable complexity of what was unfolding behind the screen created a sense of mystery and wonderment. We were in awe of the hackers who could unlock the code and conjure various illusions from it; they were modern magicians who seemed to travel between two worlds: reality and cyberspace. One day, we imagined, these sages of cyberspace would leave their bodies behind and fully immerse themselves in the secret world behind the screen. Such images manifested themselves through the decades in films like Tron, Hackers, and The Matrix and in the fiction narratives of the cyberpunk genre. When the public internet first emerged, images of cyberspace were already deeply embedded in our collective imagination; these images have become the primary lens through which we view and evaluate our online activity. For this reason, tracing the genealogy of the cyberspace concept reveals much about present cultural assumptions regarding our relationship with information technology.

The term cyberspace was first coined by author William Gibson. In Neuromancer, he imagines it as

a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system … Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.

A “nonspace,” meaning that cyberspace lacks the physicality that “space” conventionally implies. Gibson’s cyberspace is an imaginary setting where information takes on some of the properties of matter. Yet, cyberspace is transcendent; it requires leaving behind the body and the physical world that contains it. When hackers “jack in,” they are no longer conscious of the physical world. The hacker trades a physical body and environment for one constructed of digital information. It is important to note that, as the cyberpunk genre evolved, it increasingly wrestled with forms of consciousness that blended sensory inputs from physical and digital sources. Nevertheless, cyberspace, as an ideal type, involves total separation of physical and digital. Continue reading

Privacy & Publicity on Facebook: The Virtues of Being Discreet

Let’s start with a simple question: Would you use Facebook the same way if you knew others were notified when you viewed their page? Certainly, Facebook collect this sort of data on your viewing habits, and the decision not to share information about who has visited you profile is an intentional one. In fact, many sites—perhaps, most notably, dating sites like OkCupid—make the ability to track visitors a central part of their site design. OkCupid regularly sends emails to users when a good match views their profiles. The idea is to turn passive lurking into active interaction. Of course, the purpose of a dating site is to connect strangers.

Lurking, however, has become a definitive part of the Facebook experience. As we now know, most Facebook friends are people we have meet in person. Facebook doesn’t need to break the ice. Yet, users rarely interact with many, if not most, of their Facebook friends. So, why be friends at all? Of course, the answer is that we love to stalk the people in our social networks, especially those weak links on the margins whose live we aren’t keyed into through regular interaction. Today, Facebook stalking plays the same role (albeit more efficiently) that gossip chains played in generations past: It keeps us connected through heavily-mediated and indirect forms of interaction. And, both gossip and Facebook share the unique property of making us more visible to each other. Continue reading

Alienation, Exploitation & Social Media

I just published a piece in a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist on the topic of Prosumption and the Prosumer. The article will likely be of interest to many of Cyborgology blog readers. In it, I consider the applicability of Marx’s two main critiques of capitalism—alienation and exploitation—to social media. Though Marx was describing the materialist paradigm of factory production, it is useful to see how far these concepts can be stretched to account for the immaterial paradigm of digital prosumption, because, even if we observe weaknesses in how the concepts graft on to social media, these observations become a starting point for new kinds of theorizing.

Additionally, I found it important to try to bring alienation into the conversation surrounding social media. Thus far, most Marxian analysis has focused solely on exploitation (many hyperbolically claiming that we have entered an era of hyper- or over-exploitation). I argue that exploitation has remained a constant between material and immaterial modes of production and that what is most remarkable is the fact that productivity occurs on social media with so little alienation.

You can access the article on the publisher’s site or as a .pdf here.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist at the University of Maryland working to describe how social media and other technology reflect and change our culture and the economy.

Homeless Hotspots: Exploitation Masquerading as Charity

This week, an ad agency (BBH Labs [see: previous stunt]) succeeded at its goal of grabbing headlines (see: Pitchfork and Wired) by employing homeless people as mobile WiFi hotspots for SXSW. While the scheme purports to be an attempt at “charitable innovation;” it is, in reality, a stunning expansion of neoliberal economic principles by turning exploitation into a feel-good sport.

The scheme distributes MiFi devices capable of sharing 4G connectivity to passersby. The homeless workers wear shirts that state “I’m [name], a 4G hotspot” and list the directions for connecting. Users must text the name of the homeless workers that they have encountered to a particular number and they then receive login credentials and a convenient link to a website that touts the benevolence of the ad agency responsible for helping both the user and the poor homeless person in front of them.

Users are also prompted to make a donation to the homeless person providing them with WiFi service. According to the firm’s “Director of Innovation, ” Saneel Radia, the program is a “charitable experiment” aimed at “charitable innovation.” The Homeless Hotspots website compares itself to street newspapers run by the homeless

Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

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. Continue reading


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