Facebook’s decision to file for an Initial Public Offering (IPO) with the Securities and Exchange Commission has made headlines and will likely be the most notable tech IPO since Google went public in 2004. Not everyone is rushing to “like” Facebook’s decision to make an IPO, however. The New York Times published an op-ed entitled “Facebook is Using You”, which criticized Facebook’s business plan and argued that the implications of an individual’s online activity extend far beyond the potential for embarrassing photos to surface. In sociological terms, there seems to be an argument surfacing that Facebook is exploiting the labor power of its users. If this is indeed so, Facebook may represent a new frontier for work and labor where even leisure activity can be exploited for the generation of profit.
ZD Net’s Emril Protalinski, who blogs about Facebook for the twenty year old tech site, responded to the Time’s piece and decried the position that Facebook somehow owed its users. Protalinski’s argument rests on the idea that becoming a Facebook member is a voluntary act. Users who enter into this relationship with Facebook receive a service that is free because Facebook can cover its operating costs through advertising revenue.
For those of us who have spent time reading about and studying labor exploitation, the meme of voluntarism is a familiar one. Employees are not ‘forced’ to work in certain settings, and are free to sell their labor power on the open market if they do not like the conditions under which they are employed. For Facebook users, there is always Google+ or (shudder) MySpace if you don’t like the house that Mark built.
But is Facebook really work?
If we conceptualize work as the exchange of labor for wages, then the Facebook does not appear at first blush to be the digital shop floor. Facebook, however, relies on the creative labor power of its members. The more content (in the form of updates, photos, blog posts, videos and pages) is created and shared with the world by Facebook users, the more potential for profit exists. Given the dollar value of Facebook’s advertising revenue (somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.2 billion), it seems clear that the generation of content by users is worth a tremendous amount of money.
This content is so valuable because it allows Facebook to target individuals with advertising. Indeed, Facebook explicitly connects content with advertising. Changes in relationship status (to “engaged”, for example) or in interests are met with corresponding changes in the advertising that appears to your on your Facebook profile.
This direct connection between user content and Facebook’s profits is at the heart of the current debate over whether Facebook is exploitative. No, users do not directly gain in a monetary fashion. They do gain, however, from access to networks of friends and other individuals as well as social organizations and associations that utilize Facebook (as we at OOWBlog do). The more involved on the site an individual user is, the more they stand to benefit from these connections. So Facebook users, in exchange for their labor in the form of content generation do receive, some compensation. Facebook, however, benefits far more in this somewhat symbiotic relationship.
Should Facebook be paying dividends to users? The outcome of that question remains to be seen. What is important for sociology is that a view of Facebook as a “labor like” entity opens up a new space for labor exploitation in the neo-liberal digital mill. It is a space where even unpaid, voluntary leisure activities can be exploited for the commercial gain of the entities within which those activities occur. It is no accident that concerns in the workplace, such as image and identity management and networking, are also important aspects of the Facebook milieu, never mind the direct use of Facebook by employers to screen candidates and monitor employees. Facebook users may not be earning wages, but there is certainly a case for their exploitation, which is only magnified by the growth of the network’s profit margins.