Our efforts in friending one another and creating a social map whose byways can later be retraced by marketing concerns is perhaps the chief form of free labor today, for which we are not compensated with wages but with a stronger, highly particularized sense of self.
With the advent of Web 2.0, the Internet has begun to take on the characteristics of what the Italian autonomists like Paolo Virno called the social factory.
The idea is that since many of us no longer have all that much to offer society, in terms of operating machinery or that sort of thing, the new way of extracting surplus value from our “labor” is to turn our social lives into a kind of covert work that we complete throughout the day, but in forms that can be co-opted by capitalist firms.
Work processes, as Virno explains in A Grammar of the Multitude [Semiotext(e); 2004], become diverse, but social life begins to homogenize itself in the sense that our identity becomes something we all must prove in the public sphere—we all become concerned with the self as brand.
This results in the “valorization”—Marxist jargon for value enhancement—“of all that which renders the life of an individual unique”—which is to say our concern for our uniqueness, our identity in social contexts, becomes a kind of value-generating capital, or rather a circulating commodity.
This plays out in seemingly innocuous ways. It can be a matter of hyping a product free of charge but using it or talking about it.
Or it can be a matter of going to parties with co-workers, learning to get along better and therefore increasing the efficiency of processes on the job.
Or it is a matter of behaving politely among strangers, extending a system of politeness and trust that can be harvested economically as a reduction in transaction costs.
To put it in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, our habitus—our manifest and class-bound way of being in the social world—has been transformed into an explicit productive force without our conscious consent by the way various social media have infiltrated everyday life.
The most obvious place in which this now occurs is online, as Tiziana Terranova details in Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy (Social Text - 63, Volume 18, Number 2, Summer 2000, pp. 33-58):
“The Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor intensive.”
In a separate passage, she notes that “the productive capacities of immaterial labor on the Internet encompass the work of writing/reading/managing and participating in mailing lists/Web sites/chatlines.”
Where Terranova writes of mailing lists and chatlines, we can substitute in their heir, social networks.
Our efforts in friending one another online and creating a social map whose byways can later be retraced by marketing concerns is perhaps the chief form of free labor today, for which we are not compensated with wages but with a stronger, though highly particularized, sense of self, measurable in hard, quantifiable terms.
This identity seems much more fragile and vulnerable than previous conceptions of the self, contingent as it is on associations and meanings that are always rapidly shifting.
For while we are building identity in social networks, our online behavior generates a plenitude of information, meanings and content that constitutes a “cognitive surplus” generated by the “hive mind”, to use terms from technopunditry, or is a concrete manifestation of the “general intellect”, to stick to Marxist jargon.
The surfeit of suddenly accessible information threatens to overwhelm us, with the flood destroying what value there might be in any single piece of data.
As the flood rushes past it sweeps away what we thought we knew about what the stuff and relationships in our lives meant and what we thought we knew about ourselves.
How worried should we be about this? Are we still people? Would we even know? Are we reading, or are we just processing for the benefit of the “lords of the cloud” as some calls them, the ultimate beneficiaries of all the immaterial labor we conduct online.
The fear is that social media are the newest and possibly most exploitative forms of capitalism since the use of slave labor. We work [twitter] for nothing to create surplus profit for socmed owners.