digital rhetoric

notes on immaterial/free labor

In my reading, one of the primary critiques of social media lies in its exploitation/monetization of "immaterial/free labor." What is that? Simply put, it is any activity that you do without getting paid (most likely for fun) that makes money for someone else. Many activities related to social networking fit into this category. In my last post I wrote about Trebor Scholz’s article in First Monday that discusses these matters.

There are some really interesting issues here, though I have to say that I am generally turned off by Marxists for one particular reason. They tend to state that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is either an ideological dupe or a willing servant of capitalist masters. I’m sorry, but just because I’m not a True Believer or because I don’t think that Marxism or someone’s interpretation/application of Marxism is a Revelation of Truth does not mean that I am a dupe or an "enemy of the people" or whatever.

Anyway, now that I got that off my chest, let me get back to the issue at hand. There are several larger forces at work here, and technological change is one of them.

  1. The expansion of capitalist logic a la Fredric Jameson. The old base/superstructure model has become a kind of oroboros where superstructural activities immediately become modes of production. In some sense this has always been the case, consumption is also production. However now consumption has become a kind of labor that produces value.
  2. Information is money. As the saying goes these days, information either wants to be free or it wants to be very expensive (as in the difference between an MP3 file and an MRI that you need). Now that we can record, store, communicate and analyze information easily, more information becomes valuable. Our purchasing habits, media preferences, opinions on everything, web search interests, and so on: all this information now becomes valuable.
  3. Knowledge workers/Creative professionals. Undeniably the vast majority of American workers punch a clock or are at least expected to be at work 9-5 or whatever. Some of us have more flexible work arrangements though that flexibility comes with a weakening (if not complete erasure) of the boundary between work and not-work.
  4. Changes in how we work/view our work. Related to #3. The nature of the workplace has changed for many of us. For one thing, we move around a lot more than our parents or grandparents. Workplace cultures are different. And while some Marxists might complain this is just ideological trappings, I don’t think we can simply pretend that changes don’t happen or that they ought not to be investigated. Put more pointedly, I think there has been some breakdown between the boundaries of work and play.
  5. Ludo-capitalism, as discussed by Julian Dibbell and others, where people play games and create value (e.g., World of Warcraft and so on). Of course what is one person’s game is another person’s job (like gold farmers in China or blackjack dealers in Vegas).

In any case, we live in a world where it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between work and play. Am I working now or playing? It’s not part of my job description to blog. I don’t expect to get direct academic kudos as I would for an academic publication. Still I am writing about my work. I am perhaps contributing (or at least affecting) my professional reputation in some small way. On the other hand I’m enjoying this. Or at least I think I am. Hold on, let me check in. Hmmmm. Yep. I’m enjoying this (maybe I need therapy). Or perhaps I need a Marxist intervention to tell me this is WORK and not to be enjoyed, that I should demand pay or go on strike.

As a writer this blurry boundary between work and play is familiar to me. As a professional (writer, teacher, researcher) the requirements of ethics have always informed my actions. That is, the definition of a professional may be that s/he is paid to do a certain kind of work but it is also that s/he abides by a particular code of ethics, that we don’t just do our jobs as we are paid to them but as we are ethically guided to do them. So work, play, and ethics have an interesting interplay in relation to free/immaterial labor.

Part of the labor-capital exchange is the idea that the worker gets nothing of value from the expense of hir labor except for a wage. I.e., if you work all day in a factory, all you get is tired, unless you also get paid. But do you get something, some value, as a participant in a social network? More to the point, who gets to say whether you get something of value? If you think you’ve gotten value, have you? Or do you only get to receive value if a Marxist tells you that you have (perhaps you "misremembered" receiving value)? For instance, I use g-mail. I do Google searches. I use a number of other online services that do not cost me any money. In my view, I receive value from them. However, I know that Google is a company in business to make money. But I don’t view them as my employer and that I am giving them free labor. I view myself as a customer and that I am paying for their services in the form of information and/or attention.

In terms of attention (like the ads along the side of my g-mail messages that I hardly notice), it’s not very different from commercials on tv. In terms of information that is something new and certainly something to be aware of as a consumer. However I view information more as a form of currency than a form of labor (though clearly currency and labor are exchangeable on some level).

All of this, however, is not meant as a defense or apology for Web 2.0. Mark Zuckerburg (founder of Facebook) is apparently worth $1.5B at the tender age of 23. He doesn’t need any help from me! We should certainly see that ultimately the design of Web 2.0 remains largely shaped by the ability to monetize the experience. Perhaps we can raise the value of the information we share and get more for our currency. Or perhaps we can create more of an information commons where the value we create is reinvested in our community rather than going into someone’s pocket.

But none of that is a critique of web 2.0. We could say the same thing about any industry.

2 replies on “notes on immaterial/free labor”

“But none of that is a critique of web 2.0. We could say the same thing about any industry.”
Yes. But I don’t see that all of Web 2.0 is caught up in this drive to “monetize.” A million specialized fan sites are simply uninterested in cash; they’re driven by their communities. Heck, even Wikipedia is staunchly non-commercial.


I see where you’re coming from, both here and in your other comment on the Scholz article. I suppose one could say that a Harry Potter fan site, for example, is monetized in that it helps to market this product, even though the participants aren’t in it for that reason.
To the Marxist, of course, everything is about money in the end. It all comes down to the modes of production and profit. It’s one of the great ironies, I think– how repulsion creates attraction.
The whole thing seems more complex though. I do think the web is largely driven by commercial-market-capitalist interests, but I’m not sure that it is determined by them. In some ways capitalism has to follow as well. At the same time there are often opportunities to do “other” things, as you point out.


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