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.