The commoditization of “Likes”

Since writing about the realities of Facebook’s (FB) role in the 21st century agora I’ve started paying quasi-attention to related news stories. The prevailing conventional wisdom seems to be that pressure on FB to exhibit earnings potential post-IPO will become dominant for the short-term. This NYTimes piece on the commoditization of ‘Likes’ seems right up that alley:

Facebook recently began to show sponsored stories in the site’s main news feed and in its mobile apps, where they appear a lot less like traditional ads, though they do bear a “Sponsored” label. It has told investors that consumers were 50 percent more likely to recall an ad if it came with a plug from a Facebook friend. […]

Users do not always realize that the links and “likes” they post on Facebook can be deployed for marketing purposes. […]

The Times piece notes that “our” agreement to being utilized as non-wage labor in this particular way fashion lies somewhere in the middle of a 4,000 word Terms of Service agreement, and this is something admitted by most (including myself) as a problem of unrealistic expectations that anyone would actually read and agree. I would argue nonetheless that the basic understanding that FB is an ad-supported model is still recognizable, even it generally comes after the fact. The question of specific usages of our activity is a matter of proper disclosure, something that FB is rightly criticized for, but my sense is that people still generically “get” that there’s no free lunch in using the service.

For an examination of the commoditization of social activity on FB in general I’ll point to some tangential Rob Horning posts over at the New Inquiry. Much of what he writes is from a decidedly neo-Marxist perspective, which has it’s own limitations (still viewing social structures as strictly class-confined in the way it was when Thorstein Veblen coined “conspicuous consumption” in the late 19th century), but like the forefather of his perspective the analysis is nevertheless quite piercing (my emphasis in bold):

Facebook’s “information infrastructure” serves as fixed capital, an economic resource necessary for initiating projects. Its data pool helps companies craft more compelling commodities: “As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use,” Zuckerberg writes, which leads to better goods. Products, he says, will eventually become “social by design” — that is, they won’t only be more seductive, but sociality itself will be the product. The work product is users’ social relations, and Facebook ends up with a proprietary interest in its users’ identities. Since it seems to monopolize “activity,” now a key economic resource for the personal brand, Facebook can force structural adjustments in users’ personalities with respect to privacy and authenticity.

In return, Facebook dispenses with the need for managers, offering a system where voluntary production creates economic value. Social media model not top-down but lateral surveillance; we induce one another to produce with no need for bosses. This is part and parcel with Zuckerberg’s highly publicized corporate ideal of “the Hacker Way.”

The Hacker Way appropriates coders’ values to justify a connexionist emphasis on activity, flexibility, tolerance. Employees are prompted to continually experiment, with the company harvesting value after the fact. This is how so-called immaterial laboring works among Facebook’s users as well. Our social activity is captured, its value sorted out later: This amounts to time-shifted exploitation, which goes down a lot easier. The Hacker Way of embracing the provisional over the finished is also a model for the self. On Facebook, we are perpetually in beta. We don’t reveal a pre-existing self but build ourselves out in code — not just computer code but Baudrillard’s consumerist code, the signs we take for identity’s building blocks. Thus we become streamlined people in Facebook’s projective city, performing “free labor” in exchange for counting stats on our social life and far more customized commodities — if we can afford them.

Of course many would read Horning and dismiss the value-laden judgement inherent in his critique as so much leftist gobbledygook. People can disagree about about such things but I’m using the commentary for my own purposes. Much of what he writes supports the concept of FB users as a largely non-wage compensated workforce, yet if you read my previous thoughts then you know I’d disagree with Horning about the exploitative nature of our social activity on FB, that it rather represents a more unique type of 21st century in-kind exchange. Which is to say that my own perspective is a contention that the real problem lies not in the nature of the beast but in the size.

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