Consumer Activism in the Social Factory

Published on Thursday November 17th, 2011

Note: This was cross-posted at Cyborgology.

PJ Rey has a very interesting post up at Cyborgology about issues of production and labor on social networking sites that has some connections with things that I have been thinking about.

The point seems to be a partial critique of the social factory thesis – that social networks exploit the social interactions of their users, turning it into a kind of labor. This critique turns on the idea of “incidental productivity.” Rey claims that some activity on a social network does not fall into the category of labor as defined by Marx; or to put it another way, the Marx-influenced theory of labor is not conceptually broad enough to cover every type of activity that occurs. Rey proposes the concept of incidental productivity, which seems to mean value that is silently produced as a side effect of some other activity that the user is engaged in. The important point is that users are not aware of the value that they are creating, so this is not labor.

So far, I agree with this. There is only one very small point of disagreement, which is where Rey says in the final paragraph, “A quintessentially Marxian question remains: Who should control the means of incidental production?” I claim that this concept of incidental production is ultimately the liberal-capitalist problem of consumer rights and protections.

This is obvious from Rey’s main example: Google tracks what users search for and what results they click on, and this data is used in various ways to improve the service. The data is a side-effect of our consumption of the service. This is productive activity, but not so different from filling out a customer feedback card after staying at a hotel. Of course, you have to opt-in to feedback cards and Google collects data automatically and invisibly. A better example might be a grocery store that secretly tracks the movement of customers around the store to see what sort of displays are most effective; or customer loyalty cards that track the effectiveness of marketing. But in all cases, the fundamental consumer relationship remains the same.

How would we think about our labor relationship to Google? We might talk about the early days of the web when individuals would create personal home pages containing list of useful links. This was eventually turned into a labor when companies like Yahoo hired people to do this same work to create a centralized directory of web links. Google replaced these web directories by returning to the distributed production of links and using an algorithm to interpret that activity as keyword tagging.

Returning to the hotel analogy, AirBnb has a similar relationship to the people who rent out their apartments. AirBnb is essentially a global distributed, decentralized hotel, where individual apartment owners are contracted to do all the work that occurs in a hotel, but just for their apartment. PJ Rey is drawing attention to the problem of customer feedback cards: who can use that data, who is it shared with, are customers informed and educated about privacy issues, and so on. But as I wrote in You Can’t Check Out of the Peer-to-Peer Motel, the social factory perspective is more concerned with questions analogous to “Is AirBnb generating profit by pushing risk on to its labor force?”

Obviously companies on the internet have an unprecedented access to customer data and this is only growing with the rise of social media, so the scale of the problem is well beyond customer feedback cards. But even so it is, for the most part, well within the ideological horizon of liberal democratic capitalism, and far from raising Marxist questions, actually risks further entrenching the belief that our fundamental economic rights derives from our social role as customers rather than workers. It’s no accident that the rise of consumer rights activism since the 1960s corresponds with the decline and defeat of the labor movement and the undermining of labor rights in the same period.


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