Trebor Scholz – What the MySpace generation should know about working for free
Driven by hormones and a sea of desires, millions are sucked into networked screens for hours on end. For the media and news industries these are the heydays of participatory cultures. Cultural anthropologists study “interactivity,” and the networked sociality of teens, fans, and bloggers of all ages who are trying to impress their friends or seek a platform for their ideas. Rather than balancing affordances and pitfalls (democratizing effects such as the massification of voice and harmful aspects such as addiction and continuous partial attention), this essay focuses on creative labor from the perspective of the MySpace generation.
The topic is not the free labor of the networked lifestyle variety (i.e. 24/7 laptop workers) I rather concentrate on the immaterial creative/affective labor performed in the sociable web. In the North American context the suggestion of work within the framework of social networking sites immediately calls up accusations of blindly leftist, world-removed academism. These complaints only demonstrate the critics’ socialization into naturalized corporate interests, which become closer to their heart than their very own. Rather than getting lost in wishful thinking, however, this essay aims to highlight new kind of “immaterial labor.”
The expressive work on MySpace, FaceBook, or blogs is indeed ambiguous; the affect, authenticity, knowledge, and cultural expression of people creates surplus value through advertising schemes that transform attention into money. As usual, capitalism eats the fruits of labor but it does so in a new way.
My parents spend hours reading the newspaper and their stupid magazines, so what’s the big deal if I spend hours reading messages from my friends? The hypocrisy really gets to me.
– Jassa, 17 (p. 1)
MySpace has a “time monopoly”- in the US people spend more time there than on any other single website thus substantially “capturing” sociality and knowledge. Instead of watching TV, kids formulate comments, tag, rank, forward, read, subscribe, re-post media, link, moderate, remix, share, collaborate, favorite, and write. They flirt, work, play, chat, gossip, discuss, and learn. People value each others’ contributions because they have urgency and flavor and now mobile content contribution on cell phones, anywhere, is easier than ever. Again, what kind of labor is this?
Is it really labor if teens share their life and thoughts with each other (e.g. about the Internet celebrity Tila Tequila)? Even without the web they’d do it anyway. People take their life to the web and this activity; this labor is driven by affect, which Michael Hardt thinks of as central form of “immaterial labor” today. He writes that “this labor is immaterial, [and] its products are intangible: a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion—even a sense of connectedness or community.” It is exactly this satisfaction that people get out of laboring in the sociable web.
Some of my friends have MySpace parties. Basically, a bunch of kids get together with their laptops and all sign on to MySpace and start surfing it together. The party takes off when they start surfing kids’ profiles who aren’t present. You can imagine what a gossip scene it is.
–Tara, 16 (p. 78)
Surely Tara, whom I quoted here, would not think of these MySpace parties as labor. If you consider labor in this new light of affect, however, the picture changes. Paolo Virno would agree with Hardt: For him, labor has become performance, the act of being a speaker within communication systems. To paraphrase the old saying: The greatest trick that capital ever pulled was convincing the world that labor didn’t exist. Labor today, is a “casualized” and often distributed immaterial activity.
The mere presence of Tara and her friends on MySpace creates value. Surely, the generated monetary value varies; highly popular clips like the treadmill video on YouTube generated over ten million views, while others receive little attention. The quantity of small acts of labor makes YouTube profitable for Google.
User-generated content, on the other hand, also occurs costs for Google. It takes software architectures, storage space and a good design to receive, order, and show submitted content. But, what is the cost/benefit relationship?
“I definitely was addicted to MySpace. I would spend hours sprucing my page, commenting to people I see every day, and filling out worthless surveys.”
–Wanda, 16 (p. 25)
From the perspective of Wanda, the filling out of surveys on MySpace may well count as labor. On the other hand, she’ll get something out of spending time on MySpace as well. No doubt! People feel the pleasure of creation, they gain friendships, share their life experience, archive their memories, they are getting jobs, find dates and contribute to the greater good. Take the Chinese BackStreetBoys, for example. After very many Chinese teenagers watched their YouTube videos, both boys were hired by Sony Erikson to advertise them allover China. Also Jessica Rose (a.k.a lonelygirl15) was hit by offline stardom based on her online fame. But, just like the dishwasher-to-millionaire illusions of class mobility, these dreams of massive popularity come only true for the very very few. These daydreams of fame make free labor in the “social factory” of MySpace all the more promising and glamorous.
Teens benefit in these multiple ways but do they really generate value? Nicholas Carr points out that in 2006, user-generated content was the main reason that the top ten sites on the World Wide Web accounted for 40% of total Internet page views. Such centrality is mind-boggling as it creates a broad reliance on monocultures. The wealth of content on sites like YouTube drives more and more people to this very small number of sites.
Why are corporations willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to buy out successful startups? After the gruesome dotcom experiences, such massive investments would not be placed without predictable return. Certainly, the two examples of MySpace and YouTube are extremes but they are also the platforms where most people currently contribute online content. Networked sociality is the product.
To go a step further, let’s discuss the relationship between actual value (to the corporation through advertising) and money paid out to contributors of original content (i.e. YouTube, Digg). Are workers ideologically deluded into thinking that they are not exploited? In an irritating manner, Yochai Benkler suggests in fact that
The key is managing the marriage of money and nonmoney without making nonmoney feel like a sucker.
What Benkler seems to suggest is that workers need to be primed in order not to feel so bad about the fact that they are used. On the contrary I’d argue for the need of an awareness of servitude. This awareness has not been socialized among the most fervent participants of the sociable web: American teens. Despite misleading statistics, most “MySpacesters” are young and live in the United States. Their upbringing did not instill an awareness of their embrace of market-based behavior. The fact that one person lives of another’s labor is natural to them. Just consider the social context that allows a company to emerge that is build on the idea of advertisements created by the people who watch them. You create and give away for free (or for a sum that is not equivalent to the value that you generate), the advertisement that is aimed at yourself. Such companies do in fact exist and they are thriving.
The dialectics of exploitation allows for, on the one hand, the gained ability of people with computer and net access to become speakers, which neither favors left nor right wing opinions but supports participatory politics in general. On the other hand, and in no way different to all of capitalism, the labor of the very very many creates massive wealth for the very few.
Many media theorists have argued that the days of the dominance of American English (and the US influence of content online) are counted. I agree. Countries like China, Brazil, India, Congo, Kenya, Uganda, and Russia will become the dominating forces of the web very soon. The phenomenon of labor in the context of user-generated content, however, is global. It will remain beyond the demise of any particular sociable platform (i.e. YouSpace or MyTube). Especially – because—this phenomenon is global, it is crucial to understand that pleasurable cultural production and sociality is turned into capital. Property (copyleft) is only one issue. A sociable media platform does not even need to own the created content. The created sociality is the value! The wealth of content (even if owned by the creators) merely hooks the net publics to the web of attention that is needed to generate (advertisement) capital.
Almost all voices in this field of media study write in support of the market instead of siding with the net publics. Today we witness a centrality of proprietary platforms online, which substantiates that the Internet embodies a complex continuation of capital. But yet, there is very little conflict, hardly any tension surrounding labor and the sociable web partly because the line between production and consumption, work, sociality, and cultural expression is extremely blurry. Part of the web is explicitly market-driven and the rest is, according to theorists like Richard Barbrook, best compared to a communist high-tech gift-economy. Or, is it? Today, these sharing practices have hardly anything to do with communism, the exchange of the “gift” takes place on corporate turf and even the act of “free” sharing creates capital for those who own the platform on which net publics share their material or love.
What are pragmatic, feasible critical practices in relation to the sociable web? Sociable, not-for profit zones are rarified; at the sign of success, corporate giants buy them out. It’s not so easy to exempt yourself from being taken advantage of online. But there are a few alternatives such as Craigslist (Craig Newmark rejected several large offers) and Archive.org (Brewster Kahle’s philosophy does not leave room for a corporate takeover). These examples, however, are hardly representative of the World Wide Web. A hybrid model acknowledging critical alternatives living on corporate grounds may include MySpace hacks or activist groups organizing and socializing in that context.
Kevin Killian, the known poet who writes autobiographical fiction (pretend-reviews from sweet potato baby food to Doctor Zhivago) on Amazon.com is one such example. Killian pursues his cultural practice on proprietary ground with a build-in audience.
In addition to such hybrid practices, I argue for the need for a participatory skill set, resistance to the monocultures of the web and self-awareness in order to navigate sociable web media consistent with our own values. Sociable Web Media make people easier to use but we can’t let them (and them in us) get the best of us.
 In fact, out of all time spent online by U.S. Internet users, 11.9% were spent logged on to MySpace.com.
 The term “social factory” goes back to the Italian autonomists.
 The danger of such plural monocultures is illustrated by casual messages like Del.icio.us’ “Internal Error: There is something horribly wrong with our code.” or Google Calender’s: “Server error. Google Calendar is currently unavailable. Cross your fingers and try again in a few minutes.” or Flickr’s “Flickr is having a massage.” If we put all our eggs in one basket, we navigate ourselves into a scary reliance on corporate decisions. We trust them to offer stable solutions to host our data.
 MySpace has more than 100 million profiles but not all people who created accounts there are running active sites. Out of all time spent online by U.S. Internet users, 11.9% was spent logged on to MySpace.com. This makes it THE website where U.S. Americans spend the most of their time online in terms of a single website.
 Recent statistics saying that the average age on MySpace is 35 are faulty, as they do not take into account that underage kids are lying on their profiles. Some, for example, state that they are 100 years old, distorts the numbers.
 The estimated market value of sociable spaces is illustrated by the very large profits of net giants like Google.
 Lawrence Lessig, in October 2006, wrote about The Ethics of Web 2.0. More concerned with sharing practices rather than ethics, Lessig, groups the sociable web into fake sharing sites (YouTube) and true sharing sites (Flickr, blink.tv). YouTube does not have a true sharing mechanism as part of its system. It makes it very easy to reference a video on YouTube but the file itself is not shared. Blip.tv is designed for actual sharing of content.
 The San Francisco based poet Kevin Killian, for example wrote 1525 reviews on Amazon.com (as of January 7th, 2006).
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