THEY SAY IT’S FRIENDSHIP. WE SAY IT’S UNWAGED WORK. WITH EVERY LIKE, CHAT, TAG OR POKE OUR SUBJECTIVITY TURNS THEM A PROFIT. THEY CALL IT SHARING. WE CALL IT STEALING. WE’VE BEEN BOUND BY THEIR TERMS OF SERVICE FAR TOO LONG—IT’S TIME FOR OUR TERMS.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Wages for Facebook by E. Alex Jung
capital’s grip (will) only grow tighter as it sought to involve even the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value... The last frontier is actually interiorityWhat are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms doing if not commodifying our relationships?
Laurel Ptak has been mulling over the manifesto Wages for Facebook for over a year now. She first publicly presented a version of it last April at the Photographic Universe II, a two-day conference organized by the Aperture Foundation and the New School. She prefaced the reading by telling the assembled academics, artists, and students that she was attempting an experiment of sorts, and she ended the presentation on a speculative note. “What might be possible if we tried to mobilize the idea or the conversation around wages for Facebook?”
During the Q&A that followed, a young woman sputtered a question into the microphone: if we accepted money for Facebook, did that mean Facebook could then dictate what photographs we took? She was incredulous. “It just . . . I’m having trouble with your argument, because I feel like people aren’t donating to Facebook. People are donating to their social presence, you know what I mean?” she said. “And it’s all about social presence on the Internet. It’s not really about exchange with the corporation. It’s about . . . Internet is the only free media we have left. So, there’s no reason . . .” She stopped speaking and handed the microphone over to her friend who talked about how Instagram allows a person to take a picture of the Mona Lisa and put it up on her wall.
Ptak, who is a curator by trade, had floated her ideas in a class she taught at Parsons The New School for Design called “Social and Documentary Practices in Visual Media.” Her undergraduate students seemed to sense that something was amiss when Facebook placed their photos in advertisements, but it was still difficult for them to make the leap she wanted them to make: recasting themselves as laborers in the digital economy. “When students asked questions, it was like they malfunctioned,” Ptak told me over coffee at a diner near Eyebeam, an art and technology institute where she was recently a fellow. “It was almost like I had said, your mother’s really ugly. That’s how angry some young people seemed about this idea.”
Many on the left had been similarly infuriated by the campaign Wages for Housework, which demanded state remuneration for the housewife. The campaign began when a coalition of radical feminists from Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France gathered in Padua, a university town just west of Venice, and formed the International Feminist Collective in 1972. After opening a Brooklyn branch, Silvia Federici, one of the organization’s cofounders, wrote the manifesto Wages Against Housework, which became Ptak’s inspiration.
This limpid rage coursing through Federici’s writing takes on new meaning almost forty years later. “I realized that if you swapped out the word housework for Facebook that 80 percent of this text was still totally crystal clear, and it really freaked me out,” said Ptak. Ptak’s own elegant, angry manifesto has bewildered as much as it has enlivened. Some people on Twitter wondered if this wasn’t all a joke, while others took to sampling the text. Others were enraged by the way the auto-scroll refused to give the user any control—a sly metaphor for the invisible hand of social media. One article for the International Business Timeshad the headline: “‘Wages for Facebook’ Campaign Demands Pay for Social Media Activity.” While Ptak had not sent the URL out herself, it still wound its way through the porous walls of the Internet. Ironically, 80 percent of links to the site come from Facebook itself, and the city with the fourth most visitors was Menlo Park, California, home to Facebook headquarters. “Those three words”—Wages for Facebook—“get you to the heart of something that you might not otherwise recognize as a social condition,” said Ptak.Within Marxist circles in the early 1970s, the home was not considered a site for political struggle. In the classic formulation, workers created surplus value through participation in waged work—something women did not do. The ideal Italian woman would fulfill housewifely duties like cooking, cleaning, and having sex with her husband, for the good of the family and, by extension, the state. Writing in response to Wages Against Housework in the American monthly Liberation, Carol Lopate defended housework as a “kind of utopia” because the work came “out of love rather than . . . financial reward.” It was this very “unwaged condition of housework” that Federici and her cohort believed was “the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it.” Mystifying domestic labor was crucial for the smooth functioning of capital.
“I think they understood it as an impossible demand,” said Ptak. “They thought it would raise people’s consciousness, and I think that for me is where it’s been the most interesting and instructive. . . . [T]o say that we’ll get wages for housework doesn’t mean that we’ll continue to do it.” Ptak stresses the same point in her text: that demanding wages for Facebook is not simply asking for “a thing, a lump of money,” but rather advocating a “political perspective.” “How do you politicize people about a condition of exploitation that society doesn’t really want you or allow you to see very easily?”
In the introduction to her most recent book, Revolution at Point Zero, Federici describes Mario Tronti’s theory of the “social factory,” wherein “every social relation is subsumed under capital and the distinction between society and factory collapses, so that society becomes a factory and social relations directly become relations of production.” The theory applies uncannily well to Web 2.0. What are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms doing if not commodifying our relationships? A collection of essays edited by Trebor Scholz called Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory focuses on this question. Scholz and other academics like NYU professor Andrew Ross have dubbed this phenomenon “playbor,” where the distinction between the professional and private spheres is blurred. Writing about immaterial labor in the mid-1990s, Maurizio Lazzarato warned that capital’s grip would only grow tighter as it sought “to involve even the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value.”
Digital labor theorists have come to borrow the idea of a “general intellect” from Marx’sGrundrisse: a creative hive of interconnectivity that produces endless value for a select few... read more: