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.”

My critique of Prener’s piece is that he assert that Facebook benefits more from the online social networking than its 845 million users; this is an empirical question—one that requires further evidence an calculation. If we assume Prener’s $3.2 billion figure is correct, Facebook is making only $3.79 in ad revenue per user. I would guess that many, if not most, users believe Facebook provides them with benefits that exceed that sum. In any case, exploitation still exists regardless of who benefits most.

Christopher Land and Steffen Böehm echo Prener in their piece: “They are exploiting us! Why we all work for Facebook for free.”  They too see Facebook’s profit model as dependent on exploitation. But they approach the issue from a slightly different theoretical bent. Drawing on Herman and Chomsky’s famous work on mass media, Land and Böehm argue that users (not content) are the primary product that social media creates, since it is users that are being sold to advertisers. They also observe, sardonically, that Facebook users experience a double-freedom insofar as users efforts are non-coerced but also unpaid. But just as Marx noted that capitalism achieved a monopoly over the means of survival (that is to say, people have to sell their labor to survive because that are otherwise denied access to the mean of production), Land and Böehm argue that Facebook (and capitalism, more broadly) have achieved a monopoly over the means of online social networking.

Land and Böehm might have improved their analogy by spelling out that social interaction fulfills a natural human need and that participation on Facebook is coercive because so many invitations, conversations, memes, etc. are accessible only through the platform, thus non-participation leads to non-inclusion and social isolation. A more important issue I see with their argument, however, is the apples-to-apples comparison between broadcast media consumers and social media prosumers. Herman and Chomsky were focused on the broadcast media’s production of passive subjects; social media, on the other hand, is significant in that it produces active subjects (or, rather, subjects produce themselves for social media [see: Gilles Deleuze, "Post-script on the Society of Control" and Nathan Jurgeson, "Experiencing Life Through the Logic of Facebook"]). Herman and Chomsky were less concerned with exploitation than with political acquiescence. If Herman and Chomsky are correct in assuming that passivity in the realm of broadcast media consumption passes over into the realm of politics, then activity in the realm of social media prosumption might equally be expected to translate into politics (though Chomsky himself remains skeptical). In any case, while broadcast media consumers are subject to manipulation, it is unclear that they are subject to exploitation.

In my piece, “Facebook is Not a Factory (But Still Exploits its Users),” I argue that Facebook use benefits both users and owners, but, while Facebook gains monetarily, users receive immaterial benefits. This qualitative/quantitative difference in the forms of capital derived from Facebook makes it difficult to compare the relative degree of exploitation between Facebook use and traditional labor. However, we can infer that Facebook is probably not more exploitative than conventional labor and is certainly less alienating.

The critique I have of my own piece (pointed out by Alexis Madrigal via Nathan Jurgenson) is that I use Facebook’s total market valuation in estimating the rate of exploitation for each user. This valuation is, of course, highly speculative and also includes so-called “constant capital.” It is more appropriate to do as Prener has done and use ad revenue as the basis for calculating the rate of exploitation.

Clearly, the consensus among this group of authors is the exploitation is an integral part of Facebook’s operation; however, questions remain as to its scope and significance.

Follow PJ Rey on Twiter: @pjrey

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