A Critical Hypertext Analysis of Social Media: The True Colours of Facebook
by Volker Eisenlauer
Published August, 2013
Who Owns the Future?
by Jaron Lanier
Published March, 2013
Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory
by Trebor Scholz (editor)
Published September, 2012
A recent video advertisement by Apple captures perfectly, if inadvertently, the ambivalence of technology’s role in contemporary life. A montage of contrasting shots depicts the variety of human experience and achievement, the panoramic juxtaposed with the intimate: deep-sea divers, a toddler’s first stumbling steps, a hiker on a snow-capped mountain. Everyone, of course, just happens to be using one of Apple’s tablet computers. To a stirring orchestral soundtrack, a voiceover informs us in thrilling tones that while science and technology can do remarkable things, it is poetry that matters because it is what we live for. ‘What,’ we are asked, ‘will your verse be?’
Something odd is happening when a tech company downplays the significance of technology in favour of ‘poetry’. For a start, there is no actual poetry in the advertisement: poems are neither read out, nor written, nor shown in printed form. The voiceover itself is definitely prose, of the variety aptly known as ‘copy’. The word ‘poetry’ is deployed as a metaphor for aesthetic appreciation, creativity, emotion – in short, for affect of all kinds, or at least, all healthy, life-enriching kinds. There are no poets maudits in Apple’s world. And the question ‘what will your verse be?’ implies the existence of a Great Poem, an overarching, composite artwork whose author is humanity itself. The viewer is challenged to contribute to this ur-poem, to make his or her own mark on the totality of human creativity.
It is a cunning humble-brag. We are nothing, Apple is saying; it is all about you and your unique genius. And if our tablets, laptops and smartphones are able to help you to realise your dreams, it will be enough for us to have been able to facilitate you, wonderful you.
Flattery is nothing new, nor is the practice of selling consumers their own image rather than the product itself. What is unusual is the explicit disavowal of the company’s core business: technology. At one level, this is merely a reflection of Apple’s best brand asset, the reputation for an enjoyable and unobtrusive user experience: we care about this stuff so you don’t have to. Beneath and beyond that, though, the advertisement implicitly addresses a set of contemporary anxieties about technology, and tries to reassure us about each one.
We spend an unprecedented amount of time staring at screens – in the office, at home, waiting for the bus – and we worry that this is making us lazy, distracted and introverted, disconnecting us from our own lives. But, Apple says, look at these mountaineers, divers and explorers: the great outdoors is perfectly compatible with the latest gadgets, which can, in fact, help you to share your experience, and let others see how adventurous you are. We worry that our minds and ways of life are being moulded to conform to the contours of new technology. No such thing, Apple’s voiceover tells us in a contralto quavering with emotion: the human spirit is an imperishable flame, and the technology is simply a conduit for even more marvellous manifestations of its boundless creativity. The unremitting buzz of communication provides us with a surfeit of information, available free, yet at the price of our ability to make sense of it. The infinity of the web confronts us with our own finitude, and we fear that the small levees of meaning we have built up against the void are being engulfed by the semantic ocean. Apple soothes us like the mother of a young child on its first day of school: there is a great world out there, and these are your first steps into it.
The trouble is, of course, that no one – and certainly not Apple’s marketing department – has any idea what kind of world we are entering. There are plenty of signs that we are in for a rough ride. The Italian media theorist Franco Berardi describes the dangers in stark terms:
Visiting the place where connectivity rates are the highest in the world, the city of Seoul, I was impressed by the number of pedestrians constantly gazing at the screens of their smartphones … I also noticed their lack of attention to the physical landscape surrounding them. Then I discovered that Korea’s suicide rate is number one in the world.
One response to always-on digital culture is deliberately to carve out periods of offline time: a ‘digital detox’. This pseudo-ethical injunction’s purifying ideology is taken to task as a moralising self-deception by Nathan Jurgenson in the New Inquiry, and by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic as an inadequate, atomised response to a social problem:
individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual’s local, organic dietary habits don’t solve global agriculture’s issues. These are collective problems that will require collective action based on serious critique … I refuse to accept that the only good response to an imperfect technology is to abandon it. We need more specific criticisms than the ever-present feeling that ‘something’s not right’.
It is not easy to analyse technology, let alone posit solutions to its problems, because it is changing so fast. Today’s media landscape is utterly different from the one of only a couple of decades ago. Television programming, for instance, has been enjoying a renaissance. After a bleak period in which schedules were dominated by so-called ‘reality’ shows – the debased and cynical circus maximus of the small screen – we can now enjoy shows with an unprecedented level of sophistication and complex, multi-season story arcs. Both phenomena have been driven by economics. Reality television was a crude tactic to produce programmes without screenwriters, or even actors: it was created, in part, as a response to industrial action by the Writers Guild of America. Economic forces have had a conversely benign influence in the case of premium cable channels such as HBO and AMC. Traditionally, under the advertisement-supported, free-to-air business model, television shows have been geared towards short segments, cliffhangers, episodic storylines and simplistic characterisation: when the advertiser is the only paying customer, the emphasis is on maximising the exposure of advertisements, which puts pressure on television shows to play to the lowest common denominator. With the rise of premium cable, the audience has become an actual paying customer, rather than a captive market for advertisers. The aesthetic heights reached by shows such as The Wire and Mad Men reflect the greater artistic freedom available to screenwriters and directors on premium cable. But that freedom has been achieved precisely because the channels are not available ‘free’, and thus are not dependent on advertising revenue.
Journalism, meanwhile, is in the opposite situation. The combination of revenue sources that once kept the newspaper business solvent – large advertisements, classifieds, and the price of the paper – have all but dried up, or slowed to a trickle. Readers have much wider choices, as new media organisations proliferate, diluting the value of advertising space. We have also become accustomed to getting stuff for free: reading news, placing classified advertisements on sites like Gumtree or Craig’s List. Without a subsidy system like the one that underpins journalism in Scandinavia, the anglophone nations have taken a typically laissez-faire approach: live and let die. The newspaper industry has endured a dismal period of contraction, retrenchment and economic rationalisation. Attempts to charge readers for online access to news websites with a ‘paywall’, ranging from total lockdown to the crack dealer approach (first few hits for free) have met with limited success. Serious newspapers have shrunk from broadsheet to tabloid; experienced journalists are laid off at the same time as programmers and information architects are hired to facilitate the relentless process of digitisation.
The shift from page to screen is not simply a question of format: the medium is a far from neutral conduit of content. A newspaper only needs to be produced once a day; a website must be updated constantly to remain relevant and to compete for the flickering attention of online readers, who are free to switch from one publication to another on a whim. And while the newspaper used to offer a range of reporting all packaged up and sold as a unit, the finely-grained statistical reporting available on websites allows editors and owners a view of their readers’ behaviour that is far more sophisticated – and dangerous. For editors facing tough times and the threat of closure, the expensive stuff (investigative reporting, foreign correspondents, detailed analysis on the basis of local knowledge that might take years to accumulate) begins to seem a less affordable luxury, when what is driving the traffic are ‘listicles’, link-bait, celebrity gossip and lifestyle pieces.
These changes to media are centrifugal: the proliferation of new venues leads to a fragmentation of the media landscape. It is striking, however, that for media that did not exist prior to the internet – digital-native media, we might call them, such as social networks – the tendency has been towards centralisation. Not everyone has an account on Facebook, but enough of us do that not having one has become inconvenient. The transformation of how we communicate with each other has been extraordinary in its suddenness. A decade ago, keeping up with our friends’ lives was a hit-and-miss activity, entirely word-of-mouth. Now, we stay in touch passively via a stream of updates and photos that the system guesses, based on an aggregate of behaviour: ours, our friends’, and our friends’ friends’.
It is worth interrogating that last point a little, because with social media the devil is in the details. In fact, the details are the source of its multi-billion-dollar value. The exact algorithm by which our Facebook stream is determined is, of course, a closely guarded trade secret. But we know the basic elements from which it is constructed: comments that are made, ‘like’ buttons that are pressed, the number of times and the frequency that one person views another’s profile page. The more interest we show in another person, the more likely it is that Facebook will include that person’s news in the stream of information it presents to us.
This function, this automatic curation of a personalised news feed, is made to appear natural, but it is, in fact, an extraordinary feat of engineering that harnesses a vast body of data in order to provide a highly individuated and customised – yet entirely automated – experience. The ways that Facebook allows us to interact with each other are likewise designed to appear similar to real-world interactions. Commenting on someone’s status seems superficially similar to talking to that person. Pressing ‘like’ appears to be a generalised way of expressing a wide range of possible attitudes, depending on context: approval, acknowledgement, solidarity, sympathy, amusement, or even agreement with someone’s disapproval of something.
Volker Eisenlauer’s worthy (and rather plodding) study of these processes, A Critical Hypertext Analysis of Social Media: The True Colours of Facebook, describes in painstaking detail the ways in which the acts that Facebook allows us to perform appear to be natural extensions of offline social interactions, but are in fact translated by Facebook into a specific set of predefined speech acts that may or may not correspond to what we intend, and are often broadcast to a much broader and more diffuse audience than we realise. Eisenlauer’s example is a woman whose boyfriend has died in a car accident. A couple of months later, she changes her relationship status on Facebook from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘single’. She does not realise that in doing this, she is broadcasting this change of status to her entire network, not all of whom are aware of her recent bereavement. One male acquaintance takes note and attempts a flirtation, with predictably embarrassing results.
Eisenlauer identifies a number of predefined paths into which Facebook channels its users’ activities – status updates, comments, ‘likes’, shares – and suggests that in doing so, Facebook moulds the interactions between people to such an extent that, in any conversation between two of its users, it can be said to comprise a ‘third author’. Indeed, it is a uniquely powerful one, able to set the terms of what kinds of utterances can be made and who gets to read them. This channelling of activity is not unique to Facebook. Twitter, for instance, provides a slightly less opaque service – everyone who ‘follows’ you will read what you write, if they happen to check their feed at the right time – but it is even more controlling, drastically limiting the length of each utterance, and providing a mechanism for ‘retweeting’, or repeating what someone else said. This amplification effect provides a platform of unparalleled scope for discourse that strikes a popular chord.
I am not sure how useful Einsenlauer’s notion of a ‘third author’ is. It seems inadequate to characterise the effect a social media platform has on its users’ discourse, let alone on society. But it is certainly true that Facebook is a far from neutral platform that does shape the kinds of conversations which take place within it. The real-time response from our social network acts as a feedback mechanism, rewarding certain kinds of discourse with a flurry of comments and ‘likes’, and meeting others with a discouraging silence. The presence of people from many different areas of our lives tends to push us into an artificially coherent presentation of self that used to be necessary only on those rare occasions when people from all aspects of life were present, such as at weddings or funerals. The kind of self that can be presented in these circumstances tends to be inoffensive, tamed, bland, dumbed-down and utterly inauthentic. One becomes, in effect, the manager of one’s own personal ‘brand’, and is thereby vulnerable to all the alienation and hypocrisy contained in that unlovely word.
This is the paradox that Berardi identifies:
the utter individualization and inescapable collectivization of personal lives …Individualism and singularity have little in common. Contrary to individualism, singularity is not competitive, exchangeable or standardized.
The contradictory effect of the compulsion to manage one’s profile, to present a successful online self to the world, is an individualism that excludes the possibility of being different from the herd – from being, as Berardi puts it, ‘singular’ – in any meaningful way.
Another effect of the use of social media is a mental state that is both engaged and disengaged. Subjectively, we feel like we are participating in something with our friends and acquaintances. Objectively, we are listlessly scrolling and clicking. The obvious example is so-called ‘clicktivism’: the illusion that by pressing ‘like’ or sharing a status update about political corruption, climate change, or even (the irony!) the iniquities of giant internet corporations, we are helping in some small way to resolve these problems. Supposedly, these activities help to ‘raise consciousness’, and occasionally they do indeed lead to organising in the real world (for example, the recent ‘March in March’). But more often they have a deadening effect. They provide only a surrogate for agency that dissipates the potential for real political engagement in the ineffectual gestures of a simulacrum self.
It would be a mistake, however, to view such activities as meaningless. They certainly do have meaning, but not the meaning their participants intend. Everything on Facebook has a meaning, in aggregate: it generates profiling data that facilitates targeted advertising. This is, perhaps, the reason that Facebook does not offer a feature whose absence puzzles so many new users: a ‘dislike’ button. At its core, Facebook is not a social platform. It is a solution to a very specific engineering problem: how to convert millions of human relationships, affinities, interests and dispositions into giant silos of minutely detailed marketing data. How to turn raw affect into structured taxa, elusive qualities into measurable quantities, analogue into digital. The ‘like’ button is a binary: either you like something or you don’t. When users post something to show their disapproval (of fracking for shale gas, for example), their friends sometimes click ‘like’ and then add a comment to explain that their ‘like’ is for the disapproval, not the fracking. This explanation is irrelevant to Facebook, which is why there is no need for a ‘dislike’ button. In the conversion of emotion into numbers, all that matters is that the person has a strong feeling about something, as opposed to not caring about it at all. It does not matter what that feeling is. Not to the algorithms that calculate the data for Facebook’s customers. And its customers are its advertisers, not its users.
It is sometimes said that Facebook users, rather than being customers, are commodities, for sale to advertisers. There is some truth in this. But it does not tell the whole story. From where does Facebook get its value – currently estimated at well in excess of a hundred billion dollars? According to Karl Marx’s labour theory of value, the value of a commodity derives from the labour that went into its manufacture. His classic example, which he uses to introduce the concept in Capital, is the difference in price between a coat and the cloth that was used to create it. The reason that the coat is worth more than its weight in cloth is that someone cut, sewed and hemmed that cloth into a coat. With the digital industry, however, there are no raw materials to take into account, just data. So on the face of it, it looks like an even more pure example of Marx’s theory.
But whose labour is generating the value? Facebook has a small workforce for a corporation of its value: fewer than 7000 employees. Can its enormous value derive from the brilliance of its programmers, data architects, network engineers, and so on? Or does the fact that the system is largely automated mean that Facebook runs more like a factory, in which robots have largely replaced workers? Is it the software that generates the value?
We need only think of the many failed social networks – some of which, no doubt, ran on software as well-designed as, or better than, Facebook’s – to realise that this is not the case. What makes Facebook valuable is the size of its user-base. This is the reason for the hand-wringing among shareholders and executives over reports that teenagers are deserting it in their millions for other social media – ones that their parents haven’t discovered yet. No matter how sophisticated the data-mining algorithm, it is of no use without data to be mined. It is the fact that so many of us log in every day, update our statuses and ‘like’ things that makes Facebook valuable. It might feel nothing like labour in the traditional sense – it is a leisure activity, something we do because we want to stay in touch with our friends, and we certainly don’t get paid for it. But it is this activity, in aggregate, that generates Facebook’s value. The portmanteau neologism ‘playbour’ – meaning an activity motivated by pleasure, but economically generative – invented by Julian Kücklich to describe ‘modding’ in the video games industry, seems an aptly awkward name for this hybrid phenomenon.
So Facebook makes a lot of money from our messages and idle clicks. Does it matter? Our end of the bargain is that we get to use its services for free. The same is true of Google’s search and email offerings, Instagram’s photo-sharing facilities, Youtube’s video hosting, and many other online platforms. Isn’t a little snooping by marketers (anonymised, they assure us) a small price to pay for all this free stuff? It is not as if the NSA isn’t reading our emails anyway.
Jaron Lanier, dreadlocked tech pioneer and inventor of the concept of ‘virtual reality’, argues in his book Who Owns the Future? that it does matter. According to Lanier, the exchange of privacy for free stuff is a devil’s bargain. Social media is the tip of the iceberg: automation and networked data are encroaching on a vast range of jobs that currently require skills and specialised knowledge. This means that the economy is poised to concentrate an enormous amount of power and wealth in the hands of whoever owns the biggest and most sophisticated servers. The information sharing capabilities of the internet allow vast banks of data to be built up, often ‘crowd-sourced’ for free, and then uploaded to the ‘cloud’, where it is hoarded and monetised by the owners of giant servers. (It may be worth pointing out that ‘the cloud’, this mysterious, omnipresent entity about which we hear so much, is a physical reality, though geographically dispersed, and quite prosaic. It is an enormous, networked set of servers around the world, all of which need to be kept in very specific conditions: temperature, humidity and so on. Praise for the green virtues of the paperless office should be tempered by the fact that the carbon footprint of the world’s servers has now exceeded that of the airline industry.)
Lanier takes a dim view of the slogan ‘information wants to be free’. His sceptical response is to ask: who benefits from this freedom? Some benefits flow to the general public, but the owners of the biggest servers are by far the biggest beneficiaries. He approaches the problem as a technical one, an engineering flaw: the lack of connection between a piece of information and its creator. When a file is copied over the network, its link to its author is severed. The fact that the original is retained gives the illusion that no one is harmed by this copying. The greedy behaviour of large film studios and major record labels may make them seem like deserving targets for the supposedly subversive practise of file sharing via BitTorrent. But in reality, it is the big players who have the money and resources to crack down on piracy via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, while small independent outfits lack the resources and clout to protect their artists’ revenue. The value of the original recording is rapidly diminished by the proliferation of copies. Lanier applies this same logic to the finance industry. By allowing the risk associated with a mortgage to be copied multiple times and used to generate enormous sums of money, the value of the original mortgage is ultimately diminished. The illusion of ‘free stuff’ conceals an exploitative relationship, the cost of which will ultimately be borne by the mortgagor when dodgy mortgages in the surrounding area result in defaults and a crash in house prices, or it will be borne by the general public, in the form of taxation to bail out a failing bank. It is socialised risk and private profit.
This sounds, on the surface, like a socialist critique of capitalism. And indeed, Lanier’s description of the exploitative nature of giant servers owes more than he is willing to admit to Marx’s critique of capitalist ownership of the means of production. But he explicitly disavows any such radical critique. Lanier is suspicious of any ‘purely political’ solution that cuts out the market. According to Lanier, that road leads inevitably to the oppression of Soviet-style top-down control. What he wants, he insists, is to save capitalism from its own excesses: to make it work for everyone. His solution – as might be expected from a programmer – is a technical one. The role for government is the provision of an identity service, by which every chunk of information – photos, recipes, blog posts, videos, snippets of programming code, even the kind of behavioural data currently harvested for free by the big social media companies – would be linked to the identity of its owner, who would then be able to set a price for its use. Even complex media combinations would retain links to the creators of each of its component parts. Exactly how these licensing mechanisms would work in practice is not clear, but the concept is, basically, to replace a ‘free’ internet with a system of micro-payments similar to, but infinitely more complex and ubiquitous than, royalties on copyrighted works, in which everyone pays a little, but also stands to earn an income from their own input to the network.
In two speculative and rather whimsical interludes, Lanier contrasts a dystopian future, putatively based on the direction in which we currently seem to be heading, with the future he suggests as a more economically healthy alternative. In the dystopian future, a man is sitting on the beach, sick and thirsty. A swarm of insect-sized ‘nano-bots’ cure the illness for free, in return for advertising a nearby casino. But the man does not have a job, because so much is automated, and he cannot afford to buy a drink of water. The robots present the man with a choice between dying of thirst and spending his last credits at the nearby casino. In Lanier’s utopia, the man decides to build a sandcastle, purely for the fun of it. He records a video of his sandcastle and uploads it to the internet; it rapidly accumulates many views around the world. When the man leaves the beach, he has earned enough money from the popularity of his sandcastle to enjoy a large meal.
The naivety here is quite shocking. A world in which people derive an income from videos of sandcastles would not be full of creative innocence that just happens to be remunerated. The race would be on to build the biggest, most sensational sandcastle, preferably with a soundtrack by Skrillex and half-naked, surgically-enhanced female bodies gyrating in the background. Only the showiest and most vulgar would profit. The whole activity of making sandcastles would be polluted and debased. Profitable play does not make profit-seeking into fun; it turns erstwhile innocent fun into a scramble for money. This is already the case, to some degree, in the egoistic pursuit of internet fame: just look at YouTube. How much worse would it be if our media were directly monetised?
The potential vulgarisation of sandcastle-building aside, Lanier insists that his model of micro-payments would be good for everyone: for the individual and for the owners of big corporations and their giant servers, who after all depend on a prosperous general public in order to make profits. It is a classic liberal fudge: to present conflicts of interest as misunderstandings of where one’s true interests lie: people are too narrowly focused on the short term, so they miss the win-win solution that benefits everyone … and so on. It sounds patronising because it is. It is technocratic liberalism at its most paternalistic. Progress is to be achieved by ‘tweaking’ systems; capitalism is to be saved from itself by a benevolent systems analyst. The unanswered question is who will challenge the power of the giant servers, the existing structures of ownership and their inbuilt bias towards benefitting those already in possession of great wealth. There is no consideration of the international nature of the internet, and the advantage that gives to multinational corporations over even the most powerful governments. Given the capture of the state by the interests of capital, from where can the political will be mustered for the kinds of changes Lanier is proposing?
The political gap in Lanier’s programme derives from an unwillingness to countenance any critique of capitalism as such. This is a common enough blind spot in mainstream American discourse. Beyond the leftmost border of liberalism, there is only a blank space on the map, designated ‘here be dragons’: totalitarianism, the gulag, the central committee. It is as if social democracy never existed, or that the only critique of capitalism comes from Marx – and that Marx leads inevitably to a Stalin or Mao. Yet many of the more interesting critiques of the online world come from a spectrum of radical thought that draws on a variety of thinkers and theories that contradict Lanier’s depiction of a generalised leftist bogeyman.
A variety of such viewpoints is presented in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, a collection of essays edited by Trebor Sholz. Its contributors draw on a range of theoretical approaches, but a central theme is the ambivalent nature of the internet. It is a decentralised space that makes possible, as never before, a commons of information. Wikipedia is a prime example; another is the gift economy of open source software, in which programmers build systems collaboratively for no tangible benefit but the respect of their peers. The internet is also a vast new terrain for profit-making, including, crucially, the ‘crowd-sourcing’ of profitable information and unpaid work. OS X, the operating system that runs on Apple’s laptops, is a hybrid, built on both Apple’s own proprietary code and a large portion of open source code, for which the programmers receive no compensation.
Anyone who has ever passed a human verification test on the internet that requires them to type out the spelling of two words – one clearly legible, the other distorted – has contributed a little unpaid work to the conversion of printed text to digital media (only the legible word is part of the test; the other one is part of a database of words scanned from the pages of books that have proven difficult to ‘read’ automatically). Just a few moments of one’s time. But performed by millions of users, the test provides – in aggregate – countless hours of transcription, all for free. The capacity of the internet for both emancipation and casual exploitation is summed up nicely by Sean Cubitt, one of the contributors to Digital Labor, when he names ‘the Crowd’ as both a potential political subject and the object of capitalist colonisation.
The notion of ‘playbour’ is central to this duality, though several contributors emphasise the contrast between the harsh conditions under which smartphones, laptops, and network hardware are made – by the low-paid, overworked employees of factories, mostly in Asia – and the more subtle forms of exploitation by which Westerners’ leisure activities are converted into corporate profit. There are, however, some interesting crossovers. Lisa Nakamura’s essay describes the overlap, in the online game ‘World of Warcraft’, of the virtual economy with the real economy. While most players inhabit the virtual world for their own pleasure, a minority spend their time searching for gold and valuable virtual items that they then sell – for real money – to other players. This activity is generally frowned upon. Despite the fact that most Asian players are leisure players, not player-workers, the ‘Chinese gold-farmer’ is a common racist stereotype among many Western players, some of whom actively hunt down and (virtually) attack those they suspect of being ‘Chinese gold-farmers’, using such crude shibboleths as the ability to converse in English.
The analyses of ‘playbour’ by the various contributors to Digital Labour occasionally overlap with Lanier’s analysis, but the critiques are more stringent, and the proposals more radical. Tiziana Terranova calls for the liberation of free labour, returning the ownership of data to the users who created that data, but rather than a world of micro-entrepreneurialism centred on the individual, she calls for a deprivatisation of social media: ‘giving free labor access to the wealth it generates cannot mean … paying users individually. As the wealth generated by free labor is social, so should be the mode of its return.’
It is unclear, though, what this would mean in practice. Terranova suggests the reversal of austerity in favour of an expanded system of welfare, but would that be via the mechanism of taxation, or by full nationalisation of social media? Problems immediately arise with each alternative. Is the nation-state a suitable or even a viable platform on which to build or regulate social media on top of an internet that is by its nature international? We are back to the familiar problem of globalisation’s democratic deficit: a much larger problem than any consideration of social media can illuminate. Also, would we not be exchanging commercial corruption for an intrusive apparatus of the state, which has already demonstrated its contempt for privacy and civil liberties?
Some pointers towards an answer are contained in the contribution to Digital Labor by Christian Fuchs, who begins unpromisingly with a bone-dry description of the economics of ‘playbour’, replete with Marxian equations and a forbiddingly complex technical diagram. This is a pity, because once one struggles through (or glides past) that section, Fuchs has some sharp observations to make. One is that the notion of ‘playbour’ is not entirely sui generis. He contrasts orthodox Marxism’s focus on wage labour with other analyses, such as the study of unpaid domestic labour by Marxist feminist Maria Mies, or Antonio Negri’s expansion of the traditional proletariat into a multitude that includes the unemployed and the precariat. Fuchs argues that we can and should put our efforts into building an intellectual non-commercial commons on the internet that bypasses the giant corporations. The projects he mentions include Wikipedia and Wikileaks, and – most pertinently to any consideration of social media – the Diaspora project.
Fuchs does not go into details, but the Diaspora project is essentially a decentralised version of Facebook. The software that powers it is open source. Furthermore, there is not a single, authoritative centre to the network. When you sign up, you can choose from a wide range of interconnected hubs, each of which can be hosted by anyone with a basic web server. It is, on the face of it, the perfect alternative to the corporate giants: a social network entirely powered and owned by its user-base.
There are, however, significant problems with the Diaspora project. (I will try not to fog the issues in techno-babble here.) Diaspora goes some way towards decentralisation, but not far enough. You still need a web server and sufficient technical expertise to host a hub. This sets up two classes of users: those with the technical savvy to configure and run such a hub, not to mention the money to pay for the necessary bandwidth of a server, which is much more expensive than a normal internet connection; and those who just log on. This is not conducive to a full democratisation of the social network. Moreover, Diaspora users’ data is stored on each hub. This provides a weak link and an easy target for antagonistic actors on the network, making it susceptible to government surveillance or lockdown, commercial espionage, and attacks of all kinds.
A better model for a truly decentralised social network is peer-to-peer. The most well-known peer-to-peer system is BitTorrent: users download files not from a central server but from each other. In Deleuzian terms, the relationships resemble a network of rhizomes rather than the arboreal model of the branches of a tree (and the hierarchy of knowledge and power that implies). Why not put this technology to the purpose of building a non-commercial social network in which every user is an equal player? Software like this could run on any connected computer or smartphone. Anyone could choose how much or how little to share, and with whom. The costs of running servers is eliminated, as there would be no servers involved. It is a system that is well within the scope of today’s technology, at least in theory: a proposal for just such a system was made in 2009 by a group of academics from the Netherlands.
Such a system should be developed collaboratively, as open source, to ensure that its ownership remains in the commons. But one problem that has often beset open source software is its relative lack of success in ensuring a pleasant and intuitive user experience. Open source software is written by programmers, who are much more used to working with technology, and more willing to put up with obtuse user interfaces than other people. Developed by geeks tends also to mean developed for geeks. This is why, for instance, the open source operating system Linux is ubiquitous on servers and has acquired only a tiny market share on consumer PCs. Although the popular operating systems OS X and Android are based on open source software, Apple and Google (respectively) have invested a lot of time and money in ensuring a pleasant user experience. Perhaps this is where public investment could come in. If a sufficiently forward-thinking government could be convinced to invest in hiring a team of user experience specialists, then – so long as the resulting work was kept in the public domain – this could give a sufficient boost to a putative decentralised social network to get it off the ground. It is not as if public subsidies do not flow generously into enterprises that result only in private profit. Such a system could be a small but significant step in the process of wresting back control of the commons from the cloud to the crowd.
S.M.A. Abbas, J.A. Pouwelse, D.H.J. Epema, and H.J. Sips, ‘A Gossip-Based Distributed Social Networking System’ in 18th IEEE International Workshops on Enabling Technologies: Infrastructures for Collaborative Enterprises (Ieee, 2009. <doi:10.1109/WETICE.2009.30>).
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Neuro-Totalitarianism In Technomaya: Goog-Colonization of the Experience and Neuro-Plastic Alternative (Semiotexte, 2014).
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alientation to Autonomy, translated by Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia (Semiotexte, 2009).
Nathan Jurgenson, ‘The Disconnectionists’, The New Inquiry (November 2013).
Alexis C. Madrigal, ‘“Camp Grounded”, “Digital Detox”, and the Age of Techno-Anxiety,’ The Atlantic (March 2014).