Facebook and Me and You and Society and Value

I’m conflicted about Facebook. I would have been an eager supporter of a social network like Facebook ten years ago. I dreamed of a computer program that would show you everyone’s interests, what books they liked to read, the television they enjoyed. Knowledge management was all the rage in business journals and management magazines. KM gurus talked about interest browsers and knowledge networks, being able to immediately find out all the people who were interested in X within organization Y. Merrill Corporation, where I worked for half a decade, built a knowledge directory system that was mothballed almost as soon as it was released. People just weren’t ready for the future.

There was a time in the middle 2000s when social networks sprang up like internet weeds, enough of them to generate an acronym - YASNS - yet another social network system. Web 2.0 became a buzzword for silicon valley

businesses trying to ride the next wave of internet innvoation. Facebook was one of those companies, after Friendster, delicious, Flickr, and many more.

I just finished an abstract for an upcoming issue of Information Society on the labor that goes into posting all of the updates on Facebook. Christian Fuchs wrote an article analyzing user-generated content from a Marxist perspective in 2010. The upcoming issue is responding to his article and an argument against his article that was published in 2012. Arvidsson and Colleoni argued that measuring labor online using a time theory of value from Marx misses the difference of modern labor in the networked world. Affect, or feeling, is the way we create value from social networks.

I’m interested in the argument because I’m currently studying a type of user-generated content: citizen science. The biggest difference is that citizen science is not commercial in any direct way. A deep Marxist might note some forms of exploitation and power differentials between the scientists who run the projects and the volunteers. But that’s not my argument. In fact I didn’t mention citizen science explicitly in my abstract.

I do think there is a form of alienation that may be going on when people do social work for free on the internet. But it’s not a direct equality between the amount of time spent and the value created. It is a combination of affect, time, and alienation that I’m still struggling to understand and express. Something hinky is happening and I’m trying to figure out what it is.

A recent opinion piece on Google Glass reminds me of the problem, although it frames the worry in terms of privacy and surveillance. Mark Hurst writes:

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

Facebook began to change how we are citizens in the world and technology is moving forward to continue making change. But the course is not pre-determined. We have choices about how we deploy technology. Thinking carefully about how people value their online social work is one step toward this dialog.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.