The #poliecon of Social Media and Surveillance: They are watching you watch others.

 

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Layered surveillance through mass media. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

I suppose I should begin with a (very) brief introduction to the study of political economy (from the novice perspective) and then draw out its many connections to how we exchange and produce (big)data through our use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). As far as the development of poliecon in the social sciences is concerned—we begin with Hegel and Marx/Engels. So prepare your head for a quick review of the history of humanity. Ready? Go!

Hegel developed the philosophical concept of dialectics in history. He idealized history as the production of knowledge (thesis) that was then challenged by another form of knowledge (antithesis) and through conflict and debate formed a new body of knowledge (thesis). Dialectics would continue to cycle like this in a back and forth tension between bodies of knowledge until we reached the pinnacle of all knowledge—the perfect society. The notion of a “perfect society” is very well challenged in our era of academic thought. However, this inspired Karl Marx to (dialectically) approach the development of historical materialist methodology which featured dialectic thought in a more empirical fashion (the development of these thoughts led to a fissure in academic thought between the idealists (Hegelian) and the materialists (Marxist).

Karl Marx grounded his research into the development and history of capital (and capitalism). Through his empirical studies he theorized that the mode of production was the foundation of (just about) everything in society. This was the material base from which the superstructure arises. The superstructure is the heterogeneous masses of ideological thought (politics, law, social relations, etc.). It is from the superstructure, which is coordinated by the mode of production (and some argue, mode of exchange), that we get the (unstable and constantly changing) understanding of value. Furthermore, if the mode of production were to change (as it is certainly done in this case), the superstructure would change, along with the meaning of social relations and formations.  It is from this conception of value, as understood by political economy, that I want to spring from to understand how we exchange (big)data through the use of social media. I will use Facebook as the overarching example, because at this point, we all have an intimate knowledge of Facebook. Also, Facebook owns other social media platforms (such as Instagram). It is certainly the current largest social network site.

In order for the entire architecture (both physically and digitally) of Facebook (and other forms of social media) to exist there needs to be value generated for information (big data). Facebook is a capitalistic enterprise that seeks to generate profit from such information. Because of this, Facebook works to proliferate and expand its user base.  The more Facebook’s user base proliferates, the more data they have to draw from.  I am going to highlight that Facebook achieves all of this through two fundamental forms of surveillance: participatory surveillance and capital surveillance.

First value must be generated. Value is generated for big data through its production and consumption. Before we can understand how value is created we need to talk about the prosumer. In the context of Facebook, the user produces and consumes the user-generated content and metadata that is then used as big data in aggregate. So essentially, producer and consumer are collapsed into the user prosumer (Cohen 2008:7). Value is generated because the fruits of the prosumer—data through biography, interaction, and Internet usage—are sold to advertisers who then feed it back into the system as targeted advertisements. According to Fuchs (2012), the prosumer is packaged, commodified and sold (146).

Fuchs observes,

“Facebook prosumers are double objects of commodification. They are first commodified by corporate platform operators, who sell them to advertising clients, and this results, second, in an intensified exposure to commodity logic. They are permanently exposed to commodity propaganda presented by advertisements while they are online. Most online time is advertisement time” (146).

This is obviously problematic. I think it is also pretty important that we acknowledge that the role of prosumer positions the Facebook user as a free labour commodity. Cohen (2008) asserts, “Web 2.0 models depend on the audience producing the content, thus requiring an approach that can account for the labour involved in the production of 2.0 content, which can be understood as information, social networks, relationships, and affect” (8). In this process of production, Facebook repackages user-generated content and sells the data to generate intense profits (in the billions range). The user prosumer remains unpaid in this exchange. Interestingly enough, through my own work in qualitative research, those who participated in my research believed that use of Facebook’s services qualified as a fair exchange for their data. I think an apt thread of thinking that could resolve these problems, van Djick (2012) observes, “Connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144). With this noted, I would like to focus on the production, consumption and monetization of user-generated content.

The content produced and consumed by the user prosumer is organized through two layers of surveillance. The first layer of surveillance, is participatory surveillance. Albrechtslund (2008), in trying to address the overwhelming dystopic metaphors implicit in the discourse and study of surveillance, he explains that use of hierarchical models of surveillance (like the big brother and panopticon) obscures important sociological processes that occur through the mediation of social media (8).  Furthermore, it treats users as passive agents, unable to resist the oppressive and repressive forces of the Big Brother.  He attempts to frame surveillance as a mutual, horizontal process that empowers users through the sharing of information and creation of elaborate autobiographies. Albrechtslund elaborates that social media offer, “new ways of constructing identity, meeting friends and colleagues, as well as socializing with strangers” (8). In this understanding of social media, the subject is not a passive agent under the oppressive gaze of big brother, but an active subject pursuing empowerment. Furthermore, Albrechtslund frames user-generated content specifically as sharing, not trading. However, in doing this, he ignores that these social media platforms are constructed, shaped and owned by capitalist corporations seeking profit. This is where the second layer of surveillance becomes important—capital surveillance.

During the process of the user prosumer engaging in participatory surveillance, or in other words producing and consuming user-generated content that they share with others, the capitalist captures that data and repackages it to be sold to advertisers. They do this through complicated algorithmic computer software which than stores the data in a large architecture of computer hardware, optic wires, and servers. The fruits that become available through participatory surveillance are commodified (along with the prosumers) and then traded to produce capital. This layer, the hierarchical and oppressive model of surveillance, organizes and shapes how user prosumers generate content. Thus van Djick’s concept of the double logic of connectivity is realized. What is problematic here is that much of capital surveillance is rendered opaque or invisible to the user—who only sees the participatory aspects and the advertisements (repackaged user-generated content).  Also problematic, is that this entire process is automated–though this note will not be taken up in this article.

It is important to note that participatory surveillance is not typically a capitalist endeavour. Cohen writes, “The labour performed on sites like Facebook is not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause and effect fashion… (it is) simply an answer to the economic needs of capital” (17). So where the user prosumer “shares” their production of user-generated content, the capitalist “trades” it. These are two interconnected, though fundamentally different, processes. We, the user prosumers, don’t often recognized the capital forms of surveillance occurring, because we are so intimately involved in the participatory forms of surveillance. This, I believe, is the root to our apathy about the surveillance issues surrounding social media like Facebook. What needs to be devised next is how we can package these theories in a popular form and export them to those who are shaped by these forms of exploitative commodification. It is the work of social scientists to understand, and then to shape, the world around them.

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Big brother is watching you watch others. GIF created by Kotutohum. Find their tumblr blog here: http://kotutohum.com/

Post-script:

Another lesson we should take from this is that not all surveillance is evil.  We do not live in an inescapable dystopian society.  To say this, we obscure a lot of actual practices of surveillance that are beneficial.  We also render the notion of resistance as a practice in futility.  Surveillance is a neutral phenomenon that is used for better or worse by a plethora of different corporations, governments, non-governmental organizations, activists, and regular everyday people.  But in saying this, we can’t ignore the potential abuse and exploitation that may come from the use of surveillance practices to increase the flow of Capital.


REFERENCES:

Albrechtslund, Anders. 2008. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13(3). Retrieved Oct 9, 2015 (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949).

Cohen, Nicole S. 2008. “The Valorization of Surveillance: Towards a Political Economy of Facebook.” Democratic Communique 22(1):5-22.

van Dijck, José. 2012. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19(2):141-155.

Fuchs, Christian. 2012. “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook”. Television & New Media 13(2):139-159.