Does the Labor Theory of Value Function in Social Media

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Felix Fritsch:

"The literature review provides an overview of the main lines of contention among critical scholarship over the persistence of Marx’ Labour Theory of Value (LTV) and the increasing relevance of rentseeking strategies in contemporary capitalism. In a prelude to empirical analysis, I assess the potential of different blockchain-based governance features for social media. Following this, three emerging CSNs are scrutinized in terms of their token economics, incentive systems and governance structures as instances of a phenomenon drastically changing relations among digital users and between them and the underlying platforms. In the discussion, the findings are summarized and interpreted in terms of their relevance for the theoretical approaches sketched out in the literature review. The conclusion highlights the twist CSNs add to contemporary debates on prosumption as they seemingly overcome exploitation at the price of total commodification. It closes with an introduction of a theoretical endeavor to conceptualize the conflation of social factory and digital commons in what I term ‘common factory’.

The Free Labour Debate

The emergence of interactive, or social, online media in the early 2000s came with celebratory accounts of the ‘electronic agora’ (Barbrook and Andy 2015) that activates citizens to participate in a horizontal, egalitarian digital public space free of censorship (critically reflected by Srnicek 2016; Fisher 2012; Fuchs and Sevignani 2013; Bengtsson 2013). Soon, however, materialist critique of the economic role of users started to form around Tiziana Terranova’s notion of ‘free labour’ (2000) to shed light on the exploitative relationship between users providing unpaid labour online and platforms accumulating surplus value. In an early contribution, Cote and Pybus analyze these new forms of immaterial labour as revolving around the biopolitical production of users’ subjectivity and highlight the role of affect “as the binding, dynamic force which both animates those subjectivities and provides coherence to the networked relations” (2007:90). They configure their work as a coeval supplantation of Dallas Smythe’s concept of ‘audience commodity’ that more explicitly takes an Autonomist stance and better accounts for the “qualitative shift in which culture, subjectivity, and capital come together in new networks of ICT” (Cote and Pybus 2007:98). This text is particularly crucial as it becomes a point of reference both for the emerging ‘free labour orthodoxy’, seeking to revive Smythe and combine the production of ‘audience commodity’ with ‘prosumer labour’ producing content and user data, and for scholars highlighting the role of affect as replacing labour-power as measure of value. The ‘free labour orthodoxy’ starts consolidating in the early 2010s with a comprehensive conceptualization of paid and unpaid digital labour as base for augmenting Marx’ theory of value to the digital realm. Scholars such as Fisher (2012, 2015), Fuchs (2010, 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2014), Manzerolle (2010), Olsson (2013) and Ritzer and Jurgenson (2010) appropriate Alvin Toffler’s notion of ‘prosumption’ (1980) as combination of production and consumption, but use it in critical terms as “outsourcing work to users and consumers, who work without payment” (Fuchs 2011:297).

Constituting an essential refinement to the product of audience labour, prosumer labour draws on creativity and social relations of users that provide use value for other users and, in combination with “constant, total and algorithmic” (Fuchs 2015:54) surveillance, produce a rich data source for personalized advertising. In effect, prosumer labour, combined with audience labour, produces a targeted audience commodity, which is algorithmically auctioned to advertisers every time a user views or clicks on an advertisement. Considerable disagreement over the drivers and particularities of contemporary capitalism, the economic sphere advertising activities are located in, or the extent to which exploitation and coercion are applicable has been by and large resolved through continuous debate and refinement of conceptualization over the last years (e.g. Beverungen et al. 2015). The essence of the free labour orthodoxy is that Marx’ labour theory of value (LTV) also holds in the digital age, with the addendum that social media platforms appropriate significant amounts of surplus value from their users providing digital labour for free. Contentions based on Affect and Rents There are two main contentions with this convention. The first one builds on Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s (1999) considerations regarding the transformation of the LTV in postmodernity. Facing the increasingly ineffectual measure of labour-value in either use-value or money, they suggested to replace it with affect as ‘power to act’. Following their lead, Christina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli (2010) seek to adapt the LTV to new modes of accumulation under ‘bio-capitalism’. Going beyond notions of the knowledge-based economy, bio-capitalism incorporates “the entirety of human faculties, from relational-linguistic to affective-sensorial” (2010:235). Likewise, they identify multiple forms of ‘bio-labour’, named after their most significant, effective and difficult task: relational, cognitive, symbolic and affective labour. Analyzing the centrality of difference, subjectivity and contextualized knowledge, the two authors establish an inextricable link between cognitive capabilities and relational activities as “basic elements of the general intellect” (2010:238). Bio-capitalism outgrows Marx’ LTV as it dissolves the separations between work- and life-time, work- and life-space, and between production, reproduction, circulation and consumption – in other words, the walls of the factory: If all of life is labour, there is no outside to measure it against. Instead, Morini and Fumagalli propose a ‘life theory of value’ that acknowledges the multiplicity of new labour-forms as well as their differential, substantial exploitation in immaterial production. With regards to measurement of value, they hold that “the quota of added value (…) is dependent on supply, circulation and diffusion of immaterial commodities (by definition impossible to be numerically measured)” (2010:247f).

Adam Arvidsson and Eleanor Colleoni (2012), in a critical assessment and rebuttal of Fuchs’ (2010) argument on the relevance of Marx’ LTV for prosumption, likewise argue that value creation in informational capitalism is poorly related to time, especially in the newly commodified spheres of social life that are subject to prosumption. Instead, they hold that “value is ever more related to the ability to create and reaffirm affective bonds” (Arvidsson and Colleoni 2012:136). This also implicates to go beyond assessment of Facebook’s business model in terms of production and circulation of advertisement space and understand it first and foremost as financial venture that appropriates rent in the stock market. This is taken as instance of “an extended, society-wide process of finance-centered accumulation, where the link between reputational (or affective) value and access to financial rent becomes fundamental” (2012:136). Facebook is both subject to this general process and takes a special role as it serves the expression, objectivization and quantification of affect in the form of ‘likes’ as a new convention on the financial evaluation of stocks. Daniel Cockayne (2016) likewise locates the value of social media-generated big data in indicating user affinity for a platform itself. Especially early-stage platforms use these data vis-a-vis potential investors to demonstrate “the affective attachment prosumers show toward” (2016:8) them as base for future revenue generation. In more abstract terms, they present themselves “as an affective apparatus of capture” (2016:2) upon which future coercion into provision of free audience labour may build.

The second main contention disputes the qualification of prosumption as labour – both in a colloquial sense, as it belittles experiences of ‘real’ exploitation, and in terms of scientific Marxism (e.g. Arvidsson 2011). Its adherents uphold that users give their data deliberately and receive free services as a remuneration in kind and that raw data require skilled work to become valuable (Comor 2015; Srnicek 2016). The vast profits leading social media platforms generate in relation to their total expenditure for wages disqualify explanations that solely rely on direct exploitation of paid labour. Alternatively, some point to the market power of the largest advertising platforms as enabling the extraction of monopoly rent from customers who compete over market share through online marketing (Huws 2014). As the increased competitive pressure is at least partly forwarded to employees, some scholars also argue that their exploitation increases to allow for redirection of surplus value to advertising platforms (Rigi and Prey 2015). This argument tends to consider the advertisement sector part of the sphere of circulation and therefore per se not productive, but rather parasitically nourishing on the surplus produced in other spheres (Foley 2013; Huws 2014; Pasquinelli 2010). Other scholars have put more emphasis on big data flows gathered by platforms that they see as constituting a new, quasi-natural resource, which in Marxist terms generate rent when exploited. Platforms create the infrastructure to extract the data being created on them and refine them to build valuable data stock over time (Comor 2015). This stock is not sold itself but becomes the source of information that is sold as analysis to advertising customers (Srnicek 2016:31). Industry leaders have a monopoly insofar as their surveillance architecture is extremely detailed and, due to plug-ins on third-party homepages, almost omnipresent." (


  • Arvidsson, Adam, and Elanor Colleoni. 2012. ‘Value in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet’.

The Information Society 28 (3): 135–50.

  • Fisher, Eran. 2015. ‘Class Struggles in the Digital Frontier: Audience Labour Theory and Social

Media Users’. Information, Communication & Society 18 (9): 1108–22.

  • Fuchs, Christian. 2010. ‘Labor in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet’. The Information

Society 26 (3): 179–96.