Audience Commodity

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Christian Fuchs:

"Internet 2.0 is characterized by this antagonism between information commodities and information gifts.

The Internet gift commodity economy can be read as a specific form of what Dallas Smythe has termed the audience commodity (Smythe, 2006). He suggests that in the case of media advertisement models the audience is sold as a commodity. ‘Because audience power is produced, sold, purchased and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity. . . . You audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you receive the program material and the explicit advertisements’ (Smythe, 2006: 233, 238). Audiences would work, although unpaid; the consumption of the mass media would be work because it would result in a commodity, hence it would produce that commodity. Also the audience’s work would include ‘learning to buy goods and to spend their income accordingly’, the demand for the consumption of goods and the reproduction of their own labour power (Smythe, 2006: 243ff.).

With the rise of user-generated content and free access social networking platforms like MySpace or Facebook and other free access platforms that yield profit by online advertisement, the Web seems to come close to the accumulation strategies employed by capital on traditional mass media like television or radio. The users who ‘google’ data, upload or watch videos on YouTube, upload or browse personal images on Flickr, or accumulate friends with whom they exchange content or communicate online on social networking platforms like MySpace or Facebook, constitute an audience commodity that is sold to advertisers. The difference between the audience commodity on traditional mass media and on the Internet is that in the latter the users are also content producers: there is user-generated content, the users engage in permanent creative activity, communication, community building and content production. That the users are more active on the Internet than in the reception of television or radio content is due to the decentralized structure of the Internet that allows many-to-many communication."



Essay by Christian Fuchs: A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of the Internet


The Audience Commodity Debate

David Hesmondhalgh:

"A debate on ‘the audience commodity’ that received significant attention in the early years of the political economy of communication, and which has been revived in recent years. I want to revisit this territory briefly here, in order to show the dangers of an approach to questions of labour that is insufficiently informed by ethical thinking and by attention to the specifics of particular forms of work and leisure experience – dangers that may afflict the attempt to build a critical perspective on creative labour based on the free labour concept.

Dallas Smythe, followed by other writers (such as Jhally and Livant, 1986), argued that, in paying for the advertising which sustains a great deal of modern cultural production, advertisers were buying ‘the services of audiences with predictable specifications who will pay attention in predictable numbers and at particular times to particular means of communication…. As collectivities these audiences are commodities’ (Smythe, 1977: 5). Goran Bolin (2010), drawing on Meehan (2000), has helpfully clarified some of the confusions surrounding this debate.[8] Rather than seeing audiences as working for media industries, Bolin suggests, it is more fruitful to see statistical representations of audiences as raw material that is shaped into a commodity by market research agencies and departments and sold as a commodity: ‘It is not the viewers who work, but the rather the statisticians’ (Bolin, 2010: 357).[9] But I think there is an even greater problem with the view that would see individual audience members as undertaking unpaid work when they watch television programmes. In Smythe’s formulation, the objection to this rests on the idea that ‘all non-sleeping time under capitalism is work time’ (1977: 6). The time that workers spend off the job, says Smythe, involves ‘coping while constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed’ by the pressures created by their immersion in consumer desires created by monopoly capitalism (1977: 14). Now I would not deny that the freedoms of ‘free time’ are constrained by social forces in problematic ways (see Hesmondhalgh, 2008 for my take on these questions with regard to music consumption). But Smythe’s account is crude, reductionist and functionalist, totally underestimating contradiction and struggle in capitalism. The underlying but underdeveloped normative position is that all the time we spend under capitalism contributes to a vast negative machine called capitalism; nothing escapes this system. No work or leisure seems, by this account, to be any more meaningful than any other. It is unclear whether Smythe is demanding payment for the unpaid labour of audiences; and in fact it is unclear to me why he does not include payment for sleep in his demands, given that this too seems to involve the reproduction of labour power.

Smythe’s contribution, favourably cited by some contributors to recent debates (e.g. Andrejevic, 2004: 97, 114), shows the danger of a Marxian analysis that has totally lost its connection to pragmatic political struggle. The recent and often autonomist-inspired interest in free labour cannot be accused of the defeatism underlying Smythe’s almost Orwellian picture of workers giving their free labour to the reproduction of television. As we have seen, though, the danger is that they go rather too much in the opposite direction, seeing unpaid labour as a sign of an immanent revolutionary potential among workers. What may connect them is a lack of a coherent and pragmatic analysis of political struggle, and of lived experience."


More Information

  1. Smythe, Dallas W. (2006) ‘On the Audience Commodity and its Work’, pp. 230– 56 in M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner (eds) Media and Cultural Studies Key Works. Malden, MA: Blackwell. (Orig. pub. 1981.)
  2. Prosumer Commodity
  3. Produser Commodity