Chapter 2: The Privatization of Social Life

CHAPTER 2
The Privatization of Social Life

 

IN HIS BOOK The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler suggests that the information economy has ushered in an era of human cooperation in which the limits of capitalism are transcended by new models of social production, facilitated to a large extent by digital networks.[1] These open, commons-­based peer production models (which challenge the old economic models) position humans not in the traditional role of competitors in the market, but as collaborators in a social environment. According to Benkler, in these networks “a good deal more that human beings value can now be done by individuals who interact with each other socially, as human beings and social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system.”[2] Unfortunately, many of the authors who write about the digital network tend to bypass the issue of who owns and controls it and for what purpose. This is an important matter to consider if we want to formulate a comprehensive critique of the digital network, for it can help us move away from simplistic questions about whether we should use the network or not to more relevant (and more difficult) questions about the kinds of relationships we enter into when we use digital networks. Much like my university’s Information Technology department, we will increasingly find that we cannot avoid using the free and efficient products and services provided by companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and so on. What does this mean for us, the public, and for alternatives inside and outside the network?

On a short blog post made on March 10, 2010, and appropriately titled “Bike Maps: Triumph of Corporate Solutions over Grassroots?,” Charlie DeTar[3] reflects on the significance of Google’s launch of a function for Google Maps that lets the user calculate bicycle routes. Up until that point in 2010, interactive bike maps were available online thanks to various grassroots communities of environmentally minded programmers and enthusiasts with a do-­it-­yourself attitude who gathered together and—­using open source software and crowd-­sourced data—­put together services like Bikely.com and Opencyclemap.org. Many of these websites were real examples of peer-­to-­peer distributed models of collaboration. They were not perfect and their coverage was relatively poor (consisting only of the areas that members of the community were interested in mapping), but they represented the spirit of collaboration and entrepreneurship that characterized the open-­source movement. Then in one swift move, Google decided to apply its engineering expertise, capital resources, and mapping infrastructure to provide bike maps for 150 cities around the world, making the grassroots solutions practically obsolete in the opinion of many. Of the lovingly constructed grassroots sites, Wired magazine dismissively remarked, “No longer do [bikers] have to rely upon paper maps or open-­source DIY map hacking.”[4] To be sure, Google’s service will benefit users who are not currently reached by the grassroots bike route sites (these users will now get a “free” service without having to hassle with learning the skills necessary to participate in an open-­content project). And the grassroots sites, with their devoted communities, will hopefully not disappear overnight. But will new grassroots sites emerge to compete with Google now that it has entered the market? How long will the existing grassroots sites continue to thrive? What will be their motivation to innovate? Does the dominance of the corporate solution matter?

These questions are obviously not relevant only to bikers and their maps. More and more, we see individuals—­even those whose vocation is to remain critical of capitalism—­grant corporations more control over their content and their privacy. The result is a system that compels the public to participate mainly because of the perceived benefits of having their data hosted and distributed by the network with the most number of users. How this benefits the profit margins of corporations is obvious, of course. But what does the public get in return?

 

Communicative Capitalism, Commodification, and Inequality

A useful point of departure for explaining how digital networks generate inequality through participation is the concept of communicative capitalism. Jodi Dean defines communicative capitalism as “the materialization of ideas of inclusion and participation in information, entertainment, and communication technologies in ways that capture resistance and intensify global capitalism.”[5] In communicative capitalism, everyone has the tools and opportunities to express an opinion. “Participation” in society is therefore identified first and foremost as the ability to communicate, to express one’s opinion, in particular about the—­mostly commercial—­choices that give individuals their identity. For instance, if I prefer Google’s Android platform over Apple’s iOS, or Republicans over Democrats, I see it as my duty to express this opinion and to express it frequently. Consequently, the overabundance of communication in a marketplace in which all opinions compete for visibility results in an everything goes kind of democracy where change is impossible (after all, if all options are equally valid, how can one course of action be declared superior?). Challenges to the status quo are thus ineffective, as any resistance to capitalism is diluted as merely another option, another alternative in the marketplace of ideas. The only thing that endures is capitalism itself.

In this context, networked participation itself can be narrated as an expression of the spirit of capitalism[6]: it is fair (contributes to the common good), it promotes security (contributes to the well-­being of the economy and therefore our well-­being), and it is exciting (it offers liberation through new opportunities for growth). The more we participate in digital communication networks, the more this ideology is reinforced. To paraphrase Deleuze, communicative capitalism does not stop people from expressing themselves but forces them to express themselves continuously.[7]

Communicative capitalism means that communication and social exchange take place not just in any environment, but in a privatized one. In essence, the neoliberal impulse to subsume all social communication and participation to market forces can only be achieved if the network is made the dominant episteme or model for organizing social realities. This is accomplished by the application of a nodocentric filter to social formations, which renders all human interaction in terms of network dynamics (not just any network but a digital network with a profit-­driven infrastructure). Under this nodocentric view, the goal is to assign to everything its place in the network. Thus to be anything other than a node is to be invisible, nonexistent. The technologies of communicative capitalism are applied toward the creation of a pervasive or ubiquitous computing environment in which every thing and every utterance must be integrated or assimilated as a node in the digital network.

The argument that digital networks have paved the way for this new “participatory culture”[8] requires us to accept the premise that the continued privatization of the public sphere is the best avenue for social exchange, cultural production, and civic engagement. Notwithstanding experiments in open-­source software, peer-­to-­peer (P2P) file sharing, and so on, digital networks are, at some point or another, for-­profit ventures (at best, “open” movements can only sublimate or delay commercialization). And while the performance of public acts in private venues need not imply exploitation or oppression (a privately owned newspaper can still provide an important public function, as can a café in which people gather to converse), the difference is that while digital networks do increase the opportunities to act and participate, they also exploit the gap between network participants and those who profit from their aggregated contributions. For reasons that will become clear in this chapter, the exchange between participants and network owners is not symmetrical or fair. For a digital network to operate successfully and support “free” participation, it must figure out a way to exploit the creative and social labor of participants and turn that participation into a commodity, into something that can be exchanged for capital. Thus while it is true that the technologies of communicative capitalism embody practices of inclusion, they also perpetuate the ideology of capitalism and obstruct any resistance to it, as Dean proposes.[9] Particularly, they increase inequality through commodification, the transformation of social activity into a commodity that can be bought or sold.

Commodification is a concept from Marxist theory that refers to the process of taking something that is outside the market (something without commercial value) and bringing it into the market, turning it into a commercial transaction. What was previously exchanged or supplied freely is now part of an economic exchange, which reduces its worth to a material value and opens up opportunities for exploitation. If, for instance, people used to share recipes with each other at social gatherings, but now they do so through a website operated by a corporation, one could say this action has been commodified. Or if an individual is engaged in a new kind of cultural activity that can only take place on a for-­profit digital network (e.g., sharing digital videos), then this is also an example of a commodified social act.

There are three simple examples of how commodification works as a process within capitalism. The first one is privatization, where services (such as education, health, transportation, etc.) provided by the state are replaced by services citizens have to pay for out of their own pocket while continuing to pay taxes. The second one is commercialization, where things like scientific research increasingly serve private, not public, interests, or where intellectual property laws keep cultural goods in private hands for longer instead of releasing them as public goods. The third example—­which is the one most relevant to our discussion of digital networks—­involves the socialization of labor. The easiest way to understand socialization as an instance of commodification is to think of women’s labor in industrialized nations. In this context, socialization of labor has meant taking certain domestic tasks traditionally performed by women in a patriarchal society (such as cooking, cleaning, child rearing, etc.) and converting them into activities that one can pay someone else to do, or developing products that make those tasks easier. This process of commodification has allowed women in industrialized countries to escape domestic servitude and enter the workforce. The opportunity to be exploited as workers might not seem like much of an improvement, but to some it represented a step forward because it afforded women certain benefits, like the opportunity to become more independent by earning their own money, the opportunity to organize themselves in unions that challenge exploitation, and so on. One could critique this rather simplistic account of capitalist processes by pointing out that if, indeed, the socialization of labor has empowered any women workers in industrialized nations, capitalism has responded by exploiting women of color elsewhere. But the claim is that without this process of commodification, which grants more freedom and independence to some types of exploited workers, there would be no eventual challenge to private property and no eventual breakdown of capitalism.

The question is whether the commodification of the social that is inherent in digital networks can indeed eventually lead to a means of resisting the inequalities that capitalism produces, or whether it merely contributes to their entrenchment. The answer to that question is, of course, something that needs to be continuously readdressed at every site and at every moment in history. But while it is not easy to establish exact parallels between the commodification of women’s labor and the commodification of sociality in digital networks, some analogies can be drawn in regard to how both forms of commodification can be experienced as alienating and dehumanizing in certain respects, while at the same time empowering and liberating in others. In other words, the commodification of the social in digital networks, the process whereby our social lives are subordinated to the logic of nodocentrism, can both open and close productive forms of sociality that challenge capitalism.

One way to talk about these contradictory effects is to talk about the dual processuality, or double affordances, of networks. As Jan van Dijk[10] observes, networks make two sets of outcomes possible at one and the same time: a scale expansion accompanied by a scale reduction, more freedom of a certain kind but more control of another, more openness at one level but more constraints at another, and so on. Alexander Galloway describes a similar tension between two opposite but complementary dynamics that play out in the protocol or code of digital networks: one that “radically distributes” control and another that “focuses control into rigidly defined hierarchies.”[11] The double affordances in digital networks make possible dual processes to be present at once, which is why the commodification of the social might look very differently depending on which angle one is looking at it from.

For instance, participants in the digital network may experience a high degree of freedom when it comes to deciding what groups to form, what content to create, and so on; on the other hand, corporate power seems to curtail that freedom, as corporations retain control over which new features to implement in the network, which members to expel, or even whether the network will continue to exist in the future or not. Likewise, increased opportunities for content production are countered by the transfer of property rights to the corporation, as happens when corporations acquire the intellectual rights of whatever content users create and upload to the network. In another example, the diversity of voices found in multifaceted communities of interest is countered by the homogenization of software platforms, which means that all communities must use one set of tools and abide by one set of rules: the corporation’s. This dual processuality helps explain why it is difficult to make quick pronouncements about the positive or negative effects of the commodification of the social in digital networks. Alternative practices are always possible, even if they are quickly assimilated into the larger organizing logic. But dual processuality does not help us explain why, even when the effects of commodification are perceived to be largely negative, people keep participating in the network.

 

Participatory Culture and the Society of Control

Participation in digital networks is rewarding. It is both a form of labor and a form of play—­or playbor.[12] It is an activity that appeals to our superego, an imposition by an authority that “enjoins one to enjoy”[13] rather than forbidding enjoyment. But while it is play, it is not an unconstrained, free-­form type of play, the kind that is chaotic and unplanned, full of possibilities. Rather, it is a rationalized game, standardized and institutionalized, that contributes in very specific ways to a capitalist social order.[14]

This rationalized game is very much dependent on the mechanics of exclusion and inclusion of the network. In order to play, what is outside the network must be assimilated and brought into the network. This form of playbor is freely and enthusiastically performed by those already inside (which is why invitations to join the latest social media craze are more effective when they come from a friend, not a company). Once inside, players encounter a hierarchy between those new nodes with few links and those super-­rich nodes or hubs, which everyone keeps linking to. The game then becomes trying to acquire as many links as possible, in an attempt to approximate the status of a super-­rich node.

Participation is thus both a form of violence and a form of pleasure. More than a desire, participation is an urge, a form of coercion imposed by the system. This logic is internalized, rationalized, and naturalized. Participation in the network is a template for being social, for belonging. It is perceived as socially rewarding. It gives the illusion of making us more social. In the disciplinary societies of the nineteenth century, the self was actively molded into conformity by institutions external to the body, like the factory or the school.[15]The participatory culture of the digital network has more in common with the society of control, where the desire to conform emerges from within the body.[16] By setting the parameters for inclusion, the network episteme perfectly expresses this new architecture of power. No external institutions are required to enforce this episteme because it is affirmed through our personal use of technology, establishing the network as the main template for organizing and understanding the real.

Because digital networks have many participants, it would appear as if ownership of the network is distributed. But in reality, what is distributed are the opportunities for generating value for the companies that own the various parts of the network. This work can be done by anyone, anywhere. Labor is no longer conducted at the workplace in exchange for a wage. Rather, it is produced mostly outside the workplace, during our “free” time. It is rewarded not with a paycheck but with social capital such as attention, rank, and visibility. Surrendering privacy and property, lured by promises of fleeting viral fame and motivated by fear that we will be the only ones left out, the urge to participate impels us to upload the fruits of our creative labor and hand over the social capital of our electronic address book.

This is a form of participation that transcends labor. It is the privatization of social production, of the creative cooperation that happens when people interact to give shape to new cultural forms. Companies have recognized this as a business opportunity: the appropriation of the free labor of socializing and its reinsertion into the market as a commodity. Under the pretense of creating communal gift economies in cyberspace, social beings are put to work for corporations. And while there are attempts to protect creative social labor under new collective forms of ownership or “peer property” (licenses such as GNU, Creative Commons, etc.), the fact is that these models cannot escape commodification at some level or another (one might be able to release content under an “open” license, but it still needs to be distributed over the wires and technology of a “closed” infrastructure, as further discussed in chapter 6).

Some might ask, is the expropriation of our playbor a small price to pay for the emerging forms of sociality that digital networks make possible? New modes of production and avenues for organizing action do in fact emerge, but they become arranged under a structure where every aspect of the public is owned, hosted, or powered by private interests. A quick look at the terms of use of any Web 2.0 company will reveal as much. Thus playbor continues a trend where—­to paraphrase Frédéric Vandenberghe[17]—­the social is increasingly subordinated to the economy. As reasons to opt out become harder to rationalize (nobody wants to be an outcast; these days, even antiestablishment dissenters have Facebook profiles), the public sphere devolves into a privatized peepshow, where every contribution to the commons cannot escape commodification, and where user-­generated content is valued not in terms of its quality, but in terms of its potential to be mined for information that contributes to the maximization of profit.

Some authors have begun to wonder about the limits of a participatory culture in the context of capitalism and consumerism. Peter Levine,[18] for example, discusses the challenges that students face and will continue to face in finding appropriate audiences for their civic-­oriented participatory media work in an environment dominated by commercial products. As Kathryn Montgomery[19] also points out, despite the numerous examples of youth empowerment with digital media, important questions remain about whether these new models of participation can be adopted by larger segments of the population and applied to a range of issues outside of high-­profile events such as national elections. She observes that “the capacity for collective action, community building, and mobilization are unprecedented. But the move toward increasingly personalized media and one-­to-­one marketing may encourage self-­obsession, instant gratification, and impulsive behaviors.”[20] Likewise, Stephen Coleman[21] questions the capacity of government-­driven digital media curriculums to address questions that might potentially challenge the power and legitimacy of corporations or the state. His work serves to remind us that the models of participation that technology affords are shaped to a large extent by the politics of the institutions that make the technology available.

A common thread in most critiques is that authority in the participatory culture operates not by threatening to expel us from the network, but by making it difficult to resist participating in the network in the first place. The more one participates in digital networks, the more totalizing this form of authority becomes. We are impelled to use certain services (“you must join this site; all your friends are doing it!”), submit to their terms of use, and accept the barrage of advertisement while pretending we can ignore it. This is a form of “friendly violence that doesn’t appear violent at all.”[22] In fact, it looks and feels positively prosocial. Perhaps that is why there is such an emphasis on amicability in social media (friending, liking, etc.), to conceal the “friendly violence” of a form of participation that undermines the public interest and obliterates alternatives.

The network episteme reinforces a narrative where participation is productive, while nonparticipation is destructive. Within the network, everything. Outside the network, nothing. All forms of participation are allowed, as long as they submit to the organizing logic of the network. Participation itself then becomes the only means of expressing difference. By adopting this logic, however, we reject the forms of difference and disidentification that are achieved through nonparticipation. Thus the belief that participation in networks creates equality and diversity is, in fact, a rejection of difference, because ways of belonging that do not conform to nodocentrism become an impossibility within the network.

 

Capitalizing the Social

In a popular article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nicholas Carr[23] argued that the Internet is diminishing our powers of concentration, taxing our attention with advertisements, and promoting a broad but superficial kind of knowledge that erases the possibility of a shared cultural meaning. Of course, he targets Google because of the company’s dominant, although by no means exclusive, role in turning information into a commodity and wanting to supplement—­perhaps eventually even replace—­our brains with a kind of artificial intelligence that can process information more efficiently. Although far from being a radical anticapitalist, Carr’s point in critiquing Google is that much is at stake over who gets to define what the models of information processing look like. This is a point that can also be made about some corporations’ influence in defining emergent models of social organization. If Google is changing our cognitive makeup, Facebook is rewriting our social one. The rise of the digital network as a template for organizing sociality means that corporations are playing and will continue to play a major role in shaping the modes of participation and citizenship in our societies. To better understand the implications of this process, we can look at the technologizing of society through the economics and market structure of the social networking industry.

Social network services such as Facebook and MySpace are web-­based platforms that allow users to create a personal profile by filling out a form that collects personal information. Once a profile has been created, the user can “friend” other users by linking to their profiles. Users can also become members of various groups that share similar interests.[24] Social network services can map already existing networks (for instance, a group of students taking a college class) or they can map new networks of people who were previously unconnected but who are brought together by a common cause (e.g., a local, national, or global group supporting a social cause).

Encouraging the compulsive and continuous expression that communicative capitalism thrives on has turned out to be a profitable business model, as evidenced by the growth of the social media industry. Facebook, launched only in 2004, was adding on average 250,000 new members a day by 2007. Currently, it has more than one billion members, who perform more than 60 million status updates everyday and share 30 billion pieces of content every month, as cited in data posted on the statistics page of their website. According to industry reports, the online social networking market as a whole grew 87 percent from February 2006 to February 2007, accounting for 6.5 percent of all Internet visits.[25] During roughly that same window of time, MySpace grew from 66.4 to 114.1 million users, Facebook went from 14.1 to 52.2 million members, and Orkut (owned by Google) from 13.6 to 24.1 million members.[26] Social media are driven by advertisements targeted to users based on the demographic data they provide, and the amount spent on advertising in social network services was $1.4 billion in 2008, with companies spending $305 and $850 million to advertise their products on Facebook and MySpace, respectively.[27]

It is a booming, if volatile, business. But while the issue of who owns the social media determines, to a large extent, the experience of the user and the opportunities for participation available to her, the question of corporate ownership often gets overlooked because there is a widespread perception that these new technologies are increasing civic participation, regardless of who owns them. For instance, “The Internet and the 2008 Election,” a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, reported that 46 percent of the population used the Internet, e-­mail, or text messaging to “get political news and share their thoughts about the [U.S. presidential] campaign.”[28] Although, as expected, the larger portion of that figure is composed of people who simply use new media to receive or retrieve information, the study reports that around 11 percent of the population of the United States actively used those tools to contribute to the political conversation by forwarding or posting someone else’s commentary about the race. Specifically, 5 percent of the population posted their original commentary or analysis to an online news group, website, or blog.[29] It should come as no surprise that young people are leading this trend, and one of the tools they are most likely to use for this purpose is a social network service. About two-­thirds of Internet users under the age of thirty have a user profile in a social networking website like Facebook or MySpace, and according to the Pew report, about 40 percent of them have used these sites to engage in political activity of some kind.[30]

It is undeniable that social network services provide some opportunities for social and civic participation. Since their use is increasing (as of 2010, the world spends over 110 billion minutes a month on social networks and blog sites, which equates to 22 percent of all time spent online[31]), we would expect to see a more socially and civically engaged population. Even if such a population is emerging, and we dismiss criticisms that digital networks only promote the kind of “slacktivism” that supports feel-­good causes with little impact, there are still not a lot of questions being asked about the kinds of privatized environments in which civic and social participation unfolds.

On the one hand, then, we see an increase in the use of social networking services. Most of the research cited previously seems to suggest that a growing portion of the population (especially the youth) will continue to use social network services to engage in some form of social participation. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge the fact that the most popular of these social networking sites are privately owned. There are, indeed, examples of noncommercial social networking services; but when compared to the millions of users of for-­profit social network services, it is obvious that they cannot compete with them in terms of popularity and reach. It is the commercial nature of social network services and its impact on new forms of social organization and participation that concerns us here. There is no denying that corporations are responsible for most of the innovation we are seeing in social networking services. The question is about which designs become dominant, and what forms of social participation they normalize.

When looking at traditional forms of media like television or radio, we usually distinguish between corporate and public providers because we believe the issue of ownership makes a difference in terms of mission, objectives, social obligations, use of advertising, view of audiences as consumers or citizens, diversity of voices, transparency, attitudes toward regulation, and so on. But curiously, even those researchers who see social networking technologies as advancing more active forms of citizenship have mostly neglected the question of how these forms will be actualized under the corporate models that most users will be exposed to. Missing, then, is a discussion of how the commodification of the social gives way to a particular market structure where digital networks are controlled by fewer and fewer corporations, and how these corporations acquire and redistribute user-­generated content in a way that undermines a democratic constitution of the public sphere.

 

The Dominant Market Structure of Participatory Media

The mass adoption of corporate-­owned digital networks has somehow been heralded as the end of cultural monopolies. Power has shifted, we are told, and no longer is an elite minority in control of the production and dissemination of messages. That capacity has now been distributed among a new army of content producers who digitize, analyze, aggregate, and share content without a need for permissions or licenses, and who face no steep barriers of entry. This new state of affairs is summarized in Jay Rosen’s manifesto, “The People Formerly Known as the Audience,” in which New Media says to Old Media, “You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-­way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.”[32] No longer are we dependent on a handful of broadcasters, publishers, or studios, apparently. Now we are the media, and our ranks are made of citizen journalists, blogger mommies, Wikipedia editors, garage bands, eyewitness videographers, mobile activists, consumer reviewers, self-­published pundits, and so on. In this democratic agora, experts, and gatekeepers have been supposedly replaced by a smart mob of amateurs, a crowd supposedly wiser than any single expert. Instead of information flowing one-­to-­many, now it is generated and distributed in peer-­to-­peer fashion, many-­to-­many. This revolution in cultural production has, in theory, ushered in a new era of equality and creativity, a utopia where all participants have the same opportunities and where they voluntarily and freely cooperate with each other in the production of common goods that can be shared by anyone, replacing top-­down hierarchies with open modes of production where cooperation and reciprocity are more important than the generation of profit. Subscribers to this idealistic discourse of digitalism[33] believe that the Internet can be a space free of exploitation, and that the new models of cooperation are leading to the only realistic alternative for reimagining the failed social institutions of our times (the state, the corporation, the school, the church, etc.).

Unfortunately, the immense promise of these new models of interactivity has somewhat obscured the fact that more and more aspects of this public sphere are controlled by private interests. The Internet has become almost completely subordinated to the forces of the market, and while users gain access to services and tools cheaply or even “for free,” they do so at the cost of being exposed to a barrage of advertisements and having their every movement within these networks tracked and logged. From a neoliberal standpoint, this might not seem like a problem. The privatization of social space is in fact something to be encouraged because markets are seen as engines for democracy. Thus corporations—­not governments or civil society—­are believed to be best equipped to meet the communication infrastructure needs of democracies; they are optimally positioned to supply low-­cost and innovative technologies, providing citizens with more opportunities to generate opinions (not just receive them) and increasing their ability to respond immediately and effectively in the public sphere.

But the conflation of markets and democracy is not, as we know, without its (rather serious) problems. For one thing, production in a market tends to be oriented toward what sells, not necessarily what is best for society. Second, markets tend to display undemocratic power differentials because one dollar, not one person, equals one vote.[34] In other words, not all actors in a market have the same power or access to the same resources. The so-­called open or flat markets of the information age replicate these failings to a large extent because these markets where supposedly all participants are equal are not free of exploitation; they are built with devices, products, services, and knowledge structures that—­to various degrees—­replicate exploitative dynamics.

To cite but a few examples, consider the conditions of near or actual slavery under which Coltan (columbite–­tantalite), a mineral contained in most of the electronic devices that power the “free” Internet, is mined in the Republic of the Congo. Profits from the mining of this mineral have financed war, rape, and murder in Africa.[35] Or consider the suicides at the Foxconn factory in China (a manufacturer of components for Apple products), which are said to be the result of working conditions and pressure from managers (workers there are “reduced to repeating exactly the same hand movement for months on end”[36]). Or consider also the devastating effect that our twenty to thirty million tons of yearly electronic waste (discarded laptops, phones, printers, and so on) is having on countries like China, where ill-­equipped recycling centers contaminate the environment and increase the rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.[37] Should our digitally augmented democracy at home be built on the promotion of oppression, exploitation, and pollution somewhere else?

But let us continue to explore this claim that the one-­to-­many monopolistic model of communication has been replaced with something more democratic. At a superficial level, of course, it has: instead of a handful of voices, there are many. But what has the monopoly been replaced with? In this era in which users—­not monopolies—­generate content, users must still make decisions about which tools to use to distribute their content. If, for instance, someone has captured the antics of an adorable cat on video, and that person wants the video to be seen by the largest possible audience, she or he will think immediately of one place to upload the video: YouTube. Similar decisions will drive users to satisfy their social networking, microblogging, or photosharing needs by going to Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, respectively. To be sure, Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) has some competition from Picasa (owned by Google). But the market is still dominated by only a handful of choices.

Thus at a time when user-­generated content supposedly rules, the single-­seller monopoly has merely been replaced by the single-­buyer monopsony. A monopsony, in economic terms, represents a type of market structure where many sellers encounter a single buyer (as opposed to a monopoly, where one seller has many buyers). The monopsony, I argue (or oligopsony, if there is not just one but a few competing buyers), is emerging as the dominant market structure of the digital network. If users want their content to be easily accessible (or have a chance to go viral), there is only one place to go sell or, in most instances, surrender their content: large companies like YouTube, Twitter, and so on. Thus one-­to-­many is not giving way to many-­to-­many without first going through many-­to-­one.

That monopsony has become the dominant market structure of the web is not accidental. The architectures of participation of social media are based on a model where profit margins are maximized the more users join the network (which is why access is free or extremely low cost), and the more demographic data those users provide so that advertising can be targeted at them. In other words, if we are not paying for a product, we are the product. Access to free social media services exist only because companies have figured out a way to monetize our participation.

 

The Economics of Media Conglomeration

In certain segments like social media, the launch of new companies (there seems to be a handful of start-­ups emerging every week) gives the impression of a competitive market. But merger and acquisition trends suggest a move toward conglomeration that mirrors that of (and intersects with) traditional broadcast media. In a notable example, MySpace (which currently has over 185 million members) was acquired for $580 million in 2005 by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, one of the eight companies that dominate the global media market[38] (the fact that six years later MySpace was sold by News Corporation for only $35 million has more to do with changes in the market and does not signal a diminishing trend in corporate conglomeration).

Historically, media that depend heavily on advertising to generate revenue tend to become larger and larger conglomerates. Bigger audiences mean more eyes to sell to advertisers, so a surge in participation represents an increased opportunity for generating profit. This is the reason media corporations seek to eliminate competition and acquire ever-­larger audiences. It is the same logic that dictates why a small city cannot have two major newspapers: too many newspapers in one city would mean that the advertising revenue pie is sliced too many times and profit margins for each media outfit become smaller, making it impossible for the media firm to operate. Alternatively, with only one single newspaper dominating the market, profit margins are bigger and the newspaper is better able to fulfill its social mission by paying reporters and staff competitive salaries. This has been the reasoning behind the special regulatory dispensations made in favor of the media industry.

While websites are not newspapers, it is interesting that the same argument is used to excuse anticompetitive behavior when it comes to monopsonies. The question of the government’s role in allowing these “natural monopolies” to thrive in the United States deserves some consideration, especially because it is necessary to correct the misconception that only one political party is interested in helping media corporations become bigger and more profitable monopolies (in turn giving them unprecedented political power). The truth is that for decades—­and under both Republican and Democrat leadership—­the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has pursued an agenda of active deregulation that has allowed a handful of media companies to acquire more and more market power.[39] Media formats might change, but the practice of protecting corporate interests has continued, even if it is under a populist doublespeak. Under the current Obama administration, for instance, calls by the FCC in favor of net neutrality (hinting at possible regulations that would ensure transparency and corporate accountability) already advance the notion that Internet users are to be conceptualized not as active citizens who are entitled to commercial-­free public space, but as passive consumers who are merely spectators in the theater of deregulation, a process supposedly carried out for their benefit. In other words, net neutrality, as envisioned by corporate and government interests, is a euphemism for some degree of transparency while deregulation and conglomeration continues as planned (more in chapter 6).

A free market in which competition really drives innovation exhibits advantages not found in a system of centralized control and regulation, which is precisely why the Internet works well when it does not get too bogged down by restrictions. But the enabling of powerful monopolies/monopsonies through deregulation creates less, not more, competition. This ultimately is a disservice to the public. Digital networks have become important public spaces, and it is crucial to ensure that the system remains competitive.

A careful analysis of the ways in which capital and sociality are entangled in digital networks is important for another reason. As trends toward the privatization of social spaces continue, the expression of what is considered outside the norm will become possible only in unnetworked spaces, away from the participation templates of the monopsony. Disidentification—­imagining and claiming difference in opposition to the digital network monopsony—­will become a necessary step in the actualization of alternative ways of knowing and acting in the world. But before discussing how this might be possible, a better understanding of digital networks as models for organizing the social is necessary.


  1. It should be noted that Benkler’s argument is more nuanced than others that present the collaborative and peer-­to-­peer models of production and sharing that the Internet makes possible as the most important challenges to capitalism in modern times. See for instance Kelly, “The New Socialism.”
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. DeTar, “Bike Maps.”
  4. O’Connor, “Google Maps Finally Adds Bike Routes.”
  5. Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, 2.
  6. Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism.
  7. Deleuze, Negotiations 1972–­1990, 129.
  8. Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. In a participatory culture, digital networks are believed to empower people to become producers and not merely consumers of culture and to become more actively engaged in civic processes.
  9. Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies.
  10. Dijk, The Network Society.
  11. Galloway, Protocol, 50. The author argues that “at the same time that it is distributed and omnidirectional, the digital network is hegemonic by nature; that is, digital networks are structured on a negotiated dominance of certain flows over other flows” (75).
  12. Kücklich, “Michael Jackson and the Death of Macrofame.” Kücklich’s defines playbor as the “Taylorization of leisure.” According to him, this “affective or immaterial” form of labor “is not productive in the sense of resulting in a product.” Rather, the process of participation itself generates value. “The means of production are the players themselves, but insofar as they only exist within play environments by virtue of their representations, and their representations are usually owned by the providers of these environments, the players cannot be said to be fully in control of these means.”
  13. Diken and Laustsen, “Enjoy Your Fight!,” 9.
  14. Grimes and Feenberg, “Rationalizing Play.”
  15. Foucault, Discipline and Punish.
  16. Deleuze, Negotiations 1972–­1990.
  17. Vandenberghe, “Reconstructing Humants.”
  18. Levine, “A Public Voice for Youth.”
  19. Montgomery, “Youth and Digital Democracy.”
  20. Ibid., 42.
  21. Coleman, “Doing IT for Themselves.”
  22. Cox and Knahl, “Critique of Software Security.”
  23. Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
  24. For a more extensive discussion of the characteristics and dynamics of social networking websites, see Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites.”
  25. Britton and McGonegal, The Digital Economy Fact Book, 80.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Eskelsen, Marcus, and Ferree, The Digital Economy Fact Book, 102–­3.
  28. Smith and Rainie, The Internet and the 2008 Election, 8.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 10.
  31. “Social Networks/Blogs Now Account for One in Every Four and a Half Minutes Online.”
  32. Rosen, “The People Formerly Known as the Audience.”
  33. Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits.
  34. Kuttner, Everything for Sale.
  35. Nest, Coltan.
  36. Moore, “Inside Foxconn’s Suicide Factory.”
  37. Yang et al., 2011.
  38. Gunther, “News Corp. (hearts) MySpace.”
  39. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly; Croteau and Hoynes, The Business of Media; Wu, The Master Switch.

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