The stockmarket floatation of Facebook brings together a range of issues in how we understand work and the creation of economic value but we should be careful not to overstate the novelty and conflate the newness of the media with the basic economic logic at work here. As Chris Prener suggests in his post, ‘Facebook may represent a new frontier for work and labor where even leisure activity can be exploited for the generation of profit’, but is this really so new?
In their now classic study of traditional media, Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky explain the basic business model of newspapers as being the production of an audience for advertising. Their analysis suggests the counter-intuitive notion that publishers’ main product is not the newspaper, which they sell to their readers, but the production of an audience of readers, which they sell to advertisers. In short, the readership is their product. This explains why newspapers will often offer a significant discount for students, as this enables them to catch future affluent consumers early on as they establish their media consumption habits. In its more extreme variants, this can lead to the thesis that even watching television can be understood as a form of labor, as by watching TV you produce the audience, which is the broadcaster’s main product – an idea that was neatly captured in an Adbusters’ video a few years ago.