Tag Archives: mediated public

YouTube Red: Google and the double exploitation


It was recently announced that YouTube, owned and operated by Google, is planning on releasing a paid subscription service. This would entail a prioritizing of services to those who are able to afford it and creating exclusive content for those who are willing to pay. This is all kinds of messed up—but the most nefarious aspect of this is that they are already making money off of you.  Google uses you much like an employee (though unpaid). All of the content you generate, use, or provide “free” to Google, they organize and trade through complicated surveillance systems to swing a profit off of surplus value. This is why services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are free. They are funded (and make ludicrous profits off of) your personal information.

Reading about Youtube Red prompted me to explore some of Google’s Privacy Policy to understand how Google uses our information to generate a profit. I’d like to note that Google owns a whole lot of Internet applications we tend to use in our everyday life. YouTube is only one of these applications, though a really important one.  These policies are attached to a good many things we do on the Internet.  Though the policies are provided to the user in a way that paints Google as a benevolent partner in your access to good services and relevant advertisements—the truth is that the website profits greatly off the information you provide them. This may seem very obvious—but I think we need to recognize that this definitely changes the face of Google’s intentions. They effectively disguise any exploitative functions of their information use through flowery language. An illustrative example of this is how they cleverly change ‘trading’ information to ‘sharing’ information.  The use of the word ‘sharing’ implies that information is given as a ‘gift’, but it also evokes good feels about Google’s intentions.

An interesting power we grant Google through the Terms of Use is that they have agency over the use of the content we upload, despite saying that we retain ownership of such content. The policy reads:

“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

They use complicated and automated means of surveillance in order to collect, organize, and monetize your data. They also are free to make use of your user-generated content—things you created with your time and effort, though you are not paid for this.  Regardless of how you understand your relationship with Google, you should understand that the relationship is framed in a Capitalistic system. You are a Google piggy bank.

The concept of the cyber prosumer is discussed by many political economists and surveillance theorists. Cohen (2008) introduces the concept of prosumer into her work on surveillance and Facebook. This concept can be used for any Web 2.0 social media application (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). It is most certainly a part of Google’s political economic structure. Cohen observes, “Business models based on a notion of the consumer as producer have allowed Web 2.0 applications to capitalize on the time spent participating in communicative activity and information sharing” (7). To call a social media user a prosumer is to say that they both produce and consume simultaneously while using Google services. They produce the user-generated content that is then sold to advertisers and used to target advertisements back at the prosumer.

In the process of Google capitalizing off this user-genreated content the prosumer is involved in ‘immaterial labour’. This is a concept devised by Lazzorato (1996) to talk about the informational and cultural aspects of labour exploitation. Though the Internet looked far different in the 90s, his concept has become even more valuable with the advent of social media. Lazzorato (1996) elaborates that immaterial labour is “the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (1). He breaks this concept down to two components: informational content and cultural content (ibid 1). Informational content refers to the shift from physical labour to labour organized by computer and digital technology (ibid 1). Cultural content refers to the production of creative and artistic artifacts that were never (and still aren’t) considered in the realm of labour (ibid 1).

This concept is incredibly useful for understanding the role of social media in capitalism—as immaterial labour, often expressed as the realm of fun and social, becomes the unrecognized exploitation of users as corporations utilize their creative potential for capital gain. Bauman and Lyon (2013) express, “The arousing of desires—is thereby written out of the marketing budget and transferred on to the shoulders of prospective consumers” (125). Though it is to be noted that this use of immaterial labour can be said to be a fair trade-off for free use of Google’s services.

The troublesome part of all of this is that if they begin to charge for subscription fees for better services (preferred services) it will take on a doubling effect of exploitation. First, the prosumer engages in immaterial labour through the creation of user-generated content that Google consolidates to produce surplus value from thus generating profit. And then, the prosumer is charged a subscription fee for use. In terms of labour, you will essentially have to pay to provide Google with the fruits of your labour.

What may be even more troubling is if Google is allowed to succeed with the implementation of YouTube Red than it will likely provide incentive for other social media sites, such as Facebook, to do similar things.  This is a conversation we should not take lightly.  Surveillance might have its benefits to society, but when used by social media sites through the capitalist framework, two issues come to mind: exploitation and control.  We need to take a critical stance on this or we might slip down the slippery slope of subscription social media.

Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. 2013. Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity.

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

Lazzarato, M. 1996.  ‘Immaterial Labour.’ Generation Online. Retrieved November 5, 2015 (http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm).

Ala Buzreba and the Sociology of Mediated Publics

Today, Liberal Party Candidate Ala Buzreba stepped down from the electoral race because of the grief publicly received by excessively offensive posts she made on Twitter.  Normally, this may be an appropriate course of action.  However, there are a few important points of context that must be made about this entire circus of an event. Notably, that the tweets were made when she was seventeen.  But first let me offer a recap for those who have not sifted through the mainstream media.

Ala Buzreba, a university student in Calgary, is one of the youngest candidates in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election.  After conservative supporters and candidates began circulating tweets that were posted in 2011 (when she was the ripe age of 17)—the posts caught national and international media attention.  It has now become an irresponsible election issue to which even the party leader Trudeau had to make a public statement.  As well as every large media corporation has to cover it.

Here are the tweets:

This post by conservative supporter Sheila Gunn Reid brought the tweets to light,

After the tweets became “public”, Ala Buzreba posted,

However, the media hayday that erupted over the digital sphere became far to heavy to continue running in the election—either Ala Buzreba decided to step down or she was forced to step down so the Liberal Party could heal its wounds.

(NOTE: It seems that Ala Buzreba has taken down her Facebook page)

If you would like further detail I would direct you to google for an abundance of articles of every political color which paint the situation in many shades of black and white.

It becomes abundantly clear that this situation is a sort of popular smear campaign.  One which we will all forget about by sometime this weekend.  It seems absurd that with so many important political issues at hand (social welfare, economic well-being, and environmental stability, among a few), that the media would focus its attention on some tweets sent in heated debate from a seventeen-year-old girl.  I am sure we’ve all been there.  We’ve all posted things out of anger, some worse than others, in an Internet debate.  We were all also young—a period in the human life span when we do things that we later regret.  Often times in these forms of debates (the really hot and heavy kind) we tend to say things on a basis of reaction.  We do this in a short time span—not thinking about repercussions.  Certainly not thinking about repercussions that would appear several years later.

Let’s explore this incredibly social story with our sociological imaginations.  According to Danah Boyd (2007), a sociologist exploring digital communication, social media sites (SNS) are in a strange and precarious position between public and private spheres.  She uses the term ‘mediated public’ to describe this relatively new social sphere.  Boyd defines a mediate public as “environments where people can gather publically through mediating technology” (2).  In the case of Twitter and Facebook, ‘environment’ acts as a spatial metaphor to describe that particular means of communication.

There are four major characteristics that encompass a mediated public.  These characteristics are incredibly important to understand when we try to digest the events surrounding Ala Buzreba.  The four characteristics outlined by Boyd are as follow: persistability, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences.

I will explain these characteristics in terms of the case of Ala Buzreba.  Persistability indicates that things posted to the internet persist over time.  Buzreba posted her remarks in a heated debate (on a contentious and sometimes very racist topic) in 2011 (four years ago—which is a long time for a young adult).  Those remarks were used against her politically four years later.  The reason that they could be used against her was because of the characteristic of searchability.  Political supporters, volunteers and candidates could potentially dig up old posts from the past in attempts to discredit politicians.  Let’s face the cold reality—we all have old embarrassing Myspace accounts that can be found by a simple Google search.  Replicability simply means that things posted online can be copied, cut and pasted.  In this case, Buzreba’s comments were copied and pasted outside of its original context.  Not only does a post outside of its context look much worse than it is.  It can be ascribed a whole new meaning.  In this case a meaning that spoiled a young students career in politics.

The Internet is a world of strangers.  As Boyd observes, an invisible audience.  When we post things to social media networks we broadcast them through a mediated public.  Once it’s posted, we will likely have no idea who might see it or how many people see it.  Most importantly, we have no idea who might be interested in searching it up in the unforeseeable future.

Once a post becomes viral, for whatever reason, or gains traction in the mass media—that invisible audience becomes quite large.  This amplifies the consequences.

Sadly, this is event is only a repeat of many before and will continue to repeat in the future.  Our means of communicating has become so transparent that it transcends time and space only to end up in the hands of future employers or political opponents.  People are only now beginning to realize that what they post (or have posted) to the Internet may have real time consequences for their careers and future choices.  The sad thing about this story is that Ala Buzreba—a young and passionate politician—has now been removed from politics.  Her future career has been tarnished before it even became a reality.

Smear tactics are the lowest form of politics.  And the very lowest form of journalism.

Source: Boyd, Danah (2007). “Social Network Sites: Public, Private or What?”. http://www.danah.org/papers/KnowledgeTree.pdf