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Wages For Facebook? Maybe It’s Not So Crazy

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Swarm Economy – Zacqary Adam Xeper

Swarm Economy – Zacqary Adam Xeper

On the one hand, the “Wages for Facebook” manifesto currently sweeping the web was never meant to be taken literally. The idea that a free social networking service should pay its users for their “labor” is, at face value, ridiculous. But underneath the sensational language, there’s something to this notion of Facebook as an exploiter.

The premise of the boisterous, all-caps manifesto is laid out in its first paragraph:

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.

Well then. Stealing. Where have we heard that before, right? But further on in the text:

THE DIFFICULTIES AND AMBIGUITIES IN DISCUSSING WAGES FOR FACEBOOK STEM FROM THE REDUCTION OF WAGES FOR FACEBOOK TO A THING, A LUMP OF MONEY, INSTEAD OF VIEWING IT AS A POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE.

This is where it gets interesting.

The point of contention is that Facebook is collecting the data of its users, selling this to advertisers, and not sharing a cent of their massive profits with the users who generate that data. This is, arguably, unfair.

It’s not a situation that can be solved simply by “voting with your feet.” If you don’t like the deal you’re getting from Facebook, it’s not so easy to leave, because it’s become the de facto way that over a billion people interact online. For many people, quitting Facebook means cutting themselves off from their entire social circle. Or, as the text puts it:

TO DEMAND WAGES FOR FACEBOOK IS TO MAKE IT VISIBLE THAT OUR OPINIONS AND EMOTIONS HAVE ALL BEEN DISTORTED FOR A SPECIFIC FUNCTION ONLINE, AND THEN HAVE BEEN THROWN BACK AT US AS A MODEL TO WHICH WE SHOULD ALL CONFORM IF WE WANT TO BE ACCEPTED IN THIS SOCIETY.

Like a job, for example. Jobs are the model to which society asks us to conform, because if we don’t get a job, we can’t make money, and we can’t eat. Therefore, because Facebook is something we’re being forced into, the manifesto says we should be paid for it.

I never said its logic was perfect.

But let’s talk a little more about what Facebook is doing. Because through its illogic, what this “political perspective” points out is something our economy doesn’t really have the tools to deal with.

To use swarm terminology, Facebook is leeching. They’re taking something valuable from their swarm of users, benefiting from it, and then not giving anything back. This is definitely unfair. Individual users might not be unhappy with it or “feel” exploited, but exploitation isn’t always about your feelings — it’s a macroeconomic problem. When too many people go around leeching value instead of sharing and giving back, the balance of value gets tipped to favor a few leechers over everyone else. With the amount of wealth inequality in the world today, the last thing we can afford is more leeching.

Think about it. It’s frowned upon to profit from an open source project without sharing your improvements. It’s frowned upon to download a torrent without uploading anything back. And — believe it or not — it’s even frowned upon to get some digital media for free, truly enjoy it, while having money to spare and an easy way to donate to the creator and not a middleman, but then not to do so. (On a completely unrelated note, did you know there is a Flattr button at the bottom of every post on Falkvinge on Infopolicy?)

Unfortunately, our legal and monetary systems are incredibly bad at dealing with social mores.

Even though it’s unfair for Facebook to extract the theoretical concept of “value” from its users without giving back, even though it’s unfair for filesharers to receive theoretical “value” from creators without contributing anything to them, there is no reasonable way to solve these problems with the political and economic systems we have. It’s insane to grant monopolies on an idea and to lock away knowledge and culture, let alone to lock away people who violate the monopoly. It’s also insane to pay people for using Facebook.

Let’s also point out that to ask Facebook to share its profits with its users, when its profits come from advertisers, is to ask advertisers to pay the people to whom their advertising. Actually, I’d kind of enjoy that. But it’s ridiculous.

Politically, the most effective solution to the “unpaid Facebook labor” problem is the same as the “uncompensated artist” problem from filesharing: a universal basic income. Unfortunately, that’s it. There’s nothing more from a policy perspective that we can do to alleviate the inherent unfairness. It’s too problematic to force people to pay each other. What’s necessary is a cultural shift.

Back to the manifesto:

TO SAY THAT WE WANT MONEY FOR FACEBOOK IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS REFUSING TO DO IT, BECAUSE THE DEMAND FOR A WAGE MAKES OUR WORK VISIBLE, WHICH IS THE MOST INDISPENSABLE CONDITION TO BEGIN TO STRUGGLE AGAINST IT.…WE WANT TO CALL WORK WHAT IS WORK SO THAT EVENTUALLY WE MIGHT REDISCOVER WHAT FRIENDSHIP IS.

“Refusing to do it” isn’t just another tired “everyone stop using Facebook” plea that never seems to work because, well, all our friends are on Facebook. We do need to rediscover what friendship is, and that means moving into a culture where it’s considered unthinkable to leech. The relationship between Facebook and user is one of faceless corporation to faceless person. Neither one cares about the other. Neither one has any noticeable incentive to treat the other with any dignity, to share value, or to regard each other as anything more than a party to a transaction.

This is what I mean when I argue that artists are all street performers, and that creative industries are already donor-supported. Under the surface, the seed of a culture of sharing instead of truck, barter, and leeching lingers, but it’s kept from blossoming by a concrete layer of economic pretense poured and hardened on top, and only a cultural earthquake can break it down.

The irony of talking about pretense while using a metaphor like that is not lost on me.

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About The Author: Zacqary Adam Xeper

Zacqary is an activist in the New York Pirate Party, where his official title is "Cat Herder." He is an open source game developer, and the Chief Executive Plankhead of Plankhead, a free culture arts collective. Despite believing that money is a superfluous social construct, he has a Gittip profile.

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12

  1. 1

    I’m gonna be honest here. I didn’t quite get the point of the article (maybe a linguistic issue?) so feel free to correct me if I say some nonsense. That said…

    Facebook is offering value. Much like when we use Google services we are using their storage and their infra-structure along with their services. So they are offering us value in exchange of turning our data into value for themselves. In fact I find it very reasonable if it weren’t for the abuses we know that are happening everywhere.

    You can’t really say you are locked into Facebook since you can download your data and leave although it can be argued that there’s a lot of time invested there uploading and maybe even producing that content that won’t come back once you change platforms (and this is both a strength and a weakness as the younger generation seems to be using other networks).

    One can also argue that what keeps these guys (FB, Google, etc) alive is the content produced by the small creators that all this structure has enabled but again they can monetize on that in a myriad of different ways but then again these same creators are also reliant on the services provided by those platforms…

    I do like the social ideas that the author tried to explore but I this manifesto is kind of rubbish in its main objective (and as the article rightly points out it reeks of copyright dinosaur rhetoric). If anything, the “social gems” the author managed to extract from it should be explored and expanded in this era of mindless “Capitalism” (and I use that word very loosely with provocative intent).

  2. 2
    Caleb Lanik

    While to a certain extent I agree with you, saying that Facebook leeches off of consumers while giving nothing back is really not correct. What Facebook gives back is a system with which to interact with the other members of the service, you even acknowledge this yourself when you talk about how hard it can be to stop using the service. Whether or not that compensation is enough is an important question, feeling that it wasn’t, I voted with my digital feet and closed my account several years ago Unfortunately, getting a better deal for consumers (probably not a “Facebook Wage,” but rather, less data exploitation) would almost certainly require government regulation, the proposal of which is political suicide in most countries these days.

    • 2.1
      Patrik

      Why would it be political suicide to regulate facebook? I think it would be quite popular, considering that nobody really likes the data mining except the leeches that benefit from it. They are in a minority, I’m sure.

      Unless, of course, by “political suicide” you mean “mess with big business and they’ll bury you”? Then I guess it’s a sad comment on the state of affairs of the political system you/we live in…

  3. 3
    Anonymous

    I don’t want to give my privacy away when I use Facebook, neither for free nor for money. I would actually pay for using Facebook if they would only leave my privacy intact.

  4. 4
    Per "wertigon" Ekström

    You know, the solution to this problem would be if we, instead of using the centralised approach of Facebook, instead started to use the decentralised approach of the web for social networking. That way, the only one controlling the content is you.

    You want to monetize that content? Your choice. You want to use a different business model? Again, your choice. Everything is your choice, your rules, your distribution deals… :)

    • 4.1
      buglord

      I do believe some have already tried that, problem is that either it just splits up social networks, which is the same problem with just not using any of them. or it just turns it all into private websites and blogs, which isn’t an ideal situation in any way.

  5. 5
    Maciej Olpinski

    I’ve written about this issue in my latest blog post.

    Essentially, we now have tools to bootstrap a new ‘micro-ownership’ models based on the Bitcoin blockchain that allow for a fair redistribution of value and move us from ‘user-as-a-product’ social media models to ‘user-as-a-shareholder’ models.

    http://www.maciejolpinski.com/blog/why-the-next-facebook-will-be-owned-by-you-hint-its-because-of-bitcoin/

  6. 6
    PeterD

    Being paid for using Social Media is not such a ridiculous idea. What Social Media users are doing is generating social cohesion. Face-to-face meetings would be even better but are not always practical in today’s world. Social cohesion is the basis for all other forms of social capital and, as such, valuable in itself; it is also somewhat lacking in the world today, so It makes sense to pay people to engage in activities that maintain and enhance it.

  7. 7
    Jeph

    All I need to add is that once there was Alta Vista as a top search engine, or even Yahoo, but times change, and MySpace is no longer where it’s at either. Let’s dream bigger, better than FB! We all remember how FB was so so so much better a few versions ago – let’s create THAT!

  8. […] Wages For Facebook? Maybe It’s Not So Crazy […]

  9. […] you get paid for the contributions you make to Facebook? If we’re all about to lose our jobs, it’s something to think […]

  10. 8
    Erick borling

    If you’d like my opinion, or for me to write some “content” here. You’ll have to pay me, pure and simple.

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Zacqary is an activist in the New York Pirate Party, where his official title is "Cat Herder." He is an open source game developer, and the Chief Executive Plankhead of Plankhead, a free culture arts collective. Despite believing that money is a superfluous social construct, he has a Gittip profile.

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