Posts Tagged ‘ exploitation ’

Gamification, Playbor & Exploitation

I’m posting to get some feedback on my initial thoughts in preparation for my chapter in a forthcoming gamification reader. I’d appreciated your thoughts and comments here or @pjrey.

My former prof Patricia Hill Collins taught me to begin inquiry into any new phenomenon with a simple question: Who benefits? And this, I am suggesting, is the approach we must take to the Silicon Valley buzzword du jure: “gamification.” Why does this idea now command so much attention that we feel compelled to write a book on it? Does a typical person really find aspects of his or her life becoming more gamelike? And, who is promoting all this talk of gamification, anyway?

It’s telling that conferences like “For the Win: Serious Gamification” or “The Gamification of Everything – convergence conversation” are taking place in business (and not, say, sociology) departments or being run by CEOs and investment consultants. The Gamification Summit invites attendees to “tap into the latest and hottest business trend.” Searching Forbes turns up far more articles (156) discussing gamification than the New York Times (34) or even Wired (45). All this makes TIME contributor Gary Belsky seems a bit behind the time when he predicts “gamification with soon rule the business world.” In short, gamification is promoted and championed—not by game designers, those interested in game studies, sociologists of labor/play, or even computer-human interaction researchers—but by business folks. And, given that the market for videogames is already worth greater than $25 billion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that business folk are looking for new growth areas in gaming.

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Notes on Virno, the Multitude, and the Web

Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning. From the point of view of “what” is done and “how” it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment. It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. -Virno (Grammar of the Multitude, p. 103)

I’m deep into my second comprehensive exam, so I’m going to self-servingly post some notes on various things I’m reading. (Feedback is most welcome.) Though Paulo Virno only mentions the Web once in In Grammar of the Multitude (p. 43), the four lectures that comprise the book are of deep relevance to the political economy of social media, particularly in situating them in the broader historical trend toward post-Fordist production.

Let’s start by unpacking that phrase “post-Fordism.” Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s innovations in assembly line production in his automotive plants. The assembly line had profound social consequences in that it made the tasks of each worker so repetitive and simplified that anyone could do them. That is to say, the assembly line created a de-skilled workforce. Fordism is also generally linked to Taylorism, which refers to Fredrick Taylor’s attempts to introduce scientific rationality in the workplace through time-and-motion studies and pay-for-performance. Continue reading

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

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.

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

Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media

For nearly two centuries, the term “production” has conjured an image of a worker physically laboring in the factory. Arguably, this image has been supplanted, in recent decades, by office worker typing away on a keyboard; however, both images share certain commonalities. Office work and factory work are both conspicuous—i.e., the worker sees what she is making, be it a physical object or a document. Office work and factory work are also active—i.e., they require the workers’ energy and attention and come at the expense of other possible activities.

The nature of production has undergone a radical change in a ballooning sector of the economy. The paradigmatic images of active workers producing conspicuous objects in the factory and the office have been replaced by the image of Facebook users, leisurely interacting with one another. But before we delve into this new form of productivity we must take a moment to define production itself.

Following Marx, we can say that any activity that results in the creation of value is production of one sort or another. Labor is a form of production specific to humans because human are capable of imagination and intentionality. Continue reading

Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

The New School held a conference last week that may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.

The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels that I attended. The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the product of this implosion. Panelists generally seemed to assume that playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon. However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism. She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market. These activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like music or quilting, are even done collaboratively. Given the resemblance to hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm. In fact she claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves. In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we find our own distanced reflections.

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Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media

(Reposted for Sociology Lens)

President Obama recently gave a eulogy for the legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, on which occasion, he delivered the nation this message:

We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. [...] Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

The president waxed romantically about the old media and spoke with the sort fondness that one expects at the funeral of an old friend (or cherished institution). He was hopeful about the future of conventional media. But, eulogies are a post-mortum affair. And, for all the president’s accolades, “the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites” appear to have won the day.

In fact, these days, one can hardly avoid stories about the death of print media. Last December, the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Michael Hirschorn warned that “End Times” might be drawing near for the America’s paper of record. A recent article reports that the crisis is spreading to other forms of conventional reporting such as photojournalism. Michael Bowden has even gone so far as to announce that we have entered a “post-journalistic age.”

Two explanations for the crisis in the conventional media have been circulated by none other than the the conventional media itself. Both share the same theme: blame the consumer!

The first explanation posits that Americans these days are just plain dopes. This argument has a venerable history among media critics and has been a central theme in such diverse works as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and Andrew Keen’s recent The Cult of the Amateur. In its modern incarnation, the assumption is that a less intelligent society naturally consumes less quality reporting, thus diminishing support for the industry.

The second explanation holds that people have been seduced by the allure of free content on the web and now expect all information to be free. These latter critics believe that a generation is emerging who have seldom, if ever, paid for content and simply lack the basis from which to judge the quality of various information venues. Wired magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, discusses the technological innovations which influence changing attitudes toward content in a new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, though he is not so pessimistic about the implications of “free” for the quality of content.

Regardless of their truth or falsity, such theories totally miss the overwhelming structural forces at play in the crisis of conventional media. The real threat to these institutions has little to do with taste or educational development. Rather, it is, largely, economic. The concept of “prosumption” has already been addressed several times on this blog, but as a refresher: prosumption refers human activity that combines aspects of both consumption and production. And, it is prosumption that most threatens the business model of the conventional media. Why? Because prosumption best serves the principles of capitalism in which the various form of media compete.

The increasing presence of prosumptive activities in our daily lives (most notably as a result of the important role that the Internet now in the lives of most people) has meant that people are busy doing free labor on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Put simply, prosumption is more efficient. By efficiency, I do not mean that more quality/quantity of unique content is produce with less labor. On the contrary, prosumption is less productive. Bloggers, Twitters, and other online posters produce extraordinary amounts of (often redundant) content, but the end result is that more work produces less information of value to society. The blogosphere may require a thousands times the labor and laborers it takes for one newspaper to break the same number of stories. But how, then, is the blogosphere more efficient?

The answer lies in the Marxian concept of exploitation. For Marx, exploitation had a very specific meaning: the amount of value that the capitalist extracts from a laborer’s activity. If we accept Marx’s definition then we might say: exploitation is more efficient when the capitalist is able to capitalize on a greater proportion of the laborer’s labor and returns less to the laborer in the form of wages. Thus, the most efficient mode of organization would be one where the capitalist capitalizes on the laborer’s labor and returns nothing in the form of wages. This maximized state of efficiency describes what we find occurring on the Internet today. It is more efficient to not pay a hundred people to do a job than to pay one person to do that job. It is with this most basic logic of capitalism that the private conventional media must compete. So far, they are losing.

If the public wants to retain the quality of these traditional venues, I suggest we rapidly examine alternative funding models such as NPR’s or the BBC’s, which continue to remain successful, in part, because they simply remain outside the logic of capitalism. Without quick action, I fear many of these conventional media institutions will be dismantled beyond repair.

Square-eye Obama on a “Difficult Time for Journalism”

Square-eye“Exploitation,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Andrew Kliman, ed. George Ritzer

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