from immaterial labor to immaterial profits

Slate reports on the continuing troubles with monetizing even the most successful social media apps like YouTube and Facebook. Basically, these sites have banked their profitability on the possibility of ad revenue. But even though many people visit YouTube, for instance, advertisers are reluctant to associate their brands with random. low-budget, often poor taste content. Or so Slate reports. Meanwhile the costs associated with maintaining all that user-generated content continue to rise. The article reports a Credit Suisse estimate that YouTube lost $470M last year. At the same time, new sites like Hulu.com are matching YouTube ad revenues with far less traffic because the television and old movie content is more acceptable to advertisers.

I am somewhat skeptical of this explanation. Have you seen some of the crappy reality programming on cable TV? Advertisers seem to line up for drunken, half-naked, mud-wrestling cat fights that wind their way from VH-1 to Oxygen and back. I don't think it's poor taste or low budget that's at issue here. However, it might be predictablity. If your buying an ad during Rock of Love, you know what you're getting. You never know where YouTube eyeballs are going to go. You can be fairly sure it's the lowest common denominator, but maybe you need more control than that. Or think that you do anyway.

Maybe advertisers will lighten up. Or maybe they have a legitimate concern.

As much as people seem to enjoy YouTube, would they pay for it the way they pay for some other content online? Then you get into a very different model. Either I pay as a user to access content or I pay as a creator to upload and store content. Or potentially both. I pay for Typepad. I could be using a different free service, but I'm here b/c I've been here for years, I've never had any complaints, and I can do everything I need to do. So I don't think paying to upload is so unreasonable, provided that you maintain complete control over your content and how it is presented (including the option of sharing it openly through CC). I'm sure having to pay would alter the content being uploaded to YouTube.

So what does this do to the argument about immaterial labor? If, in the end, no one makes any money from user-generated content, can we really say that UGC is labor? In some ways it's moot. Some people have already made tons of money from others willing to speculate on the potential value of social media. Similarly, GM loses money like crazy but no one would suggest that the activities of auto workers are not a form of labor. And yet maybe "labor" is not entirely the right category for this activity. Am I laboring now? If I am, the profits are as immaterial as the labor, maybe more so.

Perhaps what is going on here is a new kind of crisis/tragedy of the commons. Unlike the old commons that gets fished-out or over-grazed, the digital commons appears to be this endless supply of storage and bandwidth. However obviously those things do cost money to someone, and while both have gotten cheaper, in the volume being used by YouTube or Facebook, it adds up quickly. That said, there isn't just cost there. There's also value, or at least potential value. Almost all UGC has some value to someone. Some % of UGC has value to both a broad audience and advertisers. Maybe that % is large enough to pay the freight for the rest of the media. The problem is finding the valuable media among the resit, which is ostensibly media litter or noise. It would appear that the "wisdom of the crowds" model doesn't work here. The crowds don't lead us to the valuable media; they're seemingly rubber-neckers leading us to the car crashes.

As such perhaps we need some changing ethos that helps us to identify valuable media, not just for the advertisers. In fact, not "for them" at all, but for the rest of us. I'm certainly not on a crusade to "save" YouTube or Facebook or any other entrepeneurial enterprise. However I do think that it would be valuable for us, culturally, to have a digital commons but we won't if we just use it for a digital media dumping ground.

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