Digital Age, Economy / Finance, Information & Communication, Neo-liberalism

A New Social Class: The Voluntary Workers of Social Networks

Jul 29 2020

By Glauco Benigni*

The hierarchical and exploitative structure of the feudal era seems to have reappeared today on the Internet of the digital era. Regardless of any constitution and workers’ statute, neither politics nor trade unions are intervening. It is accepted that globalisation rhymes with ‘glebalisation’.

The scene can be described as follows.

One day, from a fixed or mobile location, Mrs. X or Mr. Y open an account on YouTube, Facebook or some other digital community and begin ‘uploading content’ for free. (There are over 2 billion accounts worldwide, of which more than 30 percent are ‘truly active’). The cold remote server of the social network welcomes the new contents in the infinite silence of its terabytes and stores them in its memories, just as the feudal lord piled up the products of the anonymous work of serfs in his warehouses, after reaching him through the mediation of vassals. In the same way that the ‘dominus’ (master) of the past considered the inhabitants of his territory to be ‘subjects-possessed’, today the new ‘dominus’ considers the new digital worker a ‘prosumer’, that is: ‘producer-user’.

As such, the worker is imprisoned in its ‘terms and conditions of use’ and is led to sign a series of ‘I accept/I agree’ in progress, under penalty of exclusion; his/her copyright is expropriated in the name of an ambiguous ‘fair use’, which excludes commercial use among the members of the Community, but which instead authorises the ‘dominus’ to insert advertising spaces; it begins to monitor the prosumer’s activities and (above all) collect his/her data. Socio-personal data and those relating to choices, tastes and privileged relationships are supplied to the research centres of the International Advertising Association (multinational advertising cartel operating since 1938); those related to political consensus or dissent are passed to the US secret services, in compliance with the Patriot Act desired by Bush Jr. Meanwhile, the ‘dominus’ keeps for itself the information (of quantity) provided by the counter.

The counter (this unknown) is one of the most powerful tools available to the ‘dominus’ of the modern era. Thanks to it, the ‘dominus’ operates a continuous ‘census’ on its territory: it remotely ‘counts’, at very high speed, every person present in the different roles: number of accounts, readers or spectators, subscribed to channels or to different pages, likes, number of comments and shares, time spent and attention of viewers, frequency of publications, etc. The tool, inaccessible from the outside, allows it to exalt the success of its prosumers, or minimise it through the subtle practice of ‘shadow banning’, thanks to which the active contacts of prosumers are limited without their being aware of it. The counter is obviously credited as the ‘highest authoritative source’, nobody would ever think of contesting it and it therefore also allows measurement of the profits due to prosumers and administratively manage the digital feudatory season.

The counter updates the owners of the social network: “There is a prosumer on the rise! He/she has hundreds of thousands of subscribers, millions of likes. He/she is an excellent promotional medium. Start inserting advertising”. The prosumer sees that advertisements on their Facebook page and/or in their video clips or blog start appearing. He/she dreams of the miracle of recognising their own ‘digital garden’ which he/she naively believes to ‘own’. But it’s not a miracle: it’s the Net! It is the net that has ‘caught’ them.

In reality, the prosumer does not have what he/she considers their ‘digital garden’; he/she is only allowed to work on it for free, possibly ask for ‘donations’ from peers and host commercial promotions, as long as its contents do not disturb the advertisers or the ‘dominus’ itself, which at that point suspends or closes the account unilaterally and sometimes without notice. 

Maybe you have never thought about it but … every time we access the Internet from a PC, tablet or smart phone, we are also WORKING for some more or less occult entity: manufacturers of digital devices, producers of software and applications, telephone companies, advertising companies and companies promoted by them, secret services, press offices and political research units, and so on.

Very cleverly, with effective and invisible tools, no longer with ‘constricting’ actions but rather thanks to seduction, a number of human beings have taken over the creativity, talent reduced to a commodity, of a couple of billion people on Planet Earth. Perhaps blue-blooded extra-terrestrials, but in any case ‘sociopaths’ or simply liberal capitalists without any empathy towards the exploited, they group themselves into company boards of directors with catchy and well-promoted acronyms; and after attracting their ‘users’ with false promises of freedom, they have expropriated our ability to produce content and our ‘digital bodies’ made up of ‘big data’ that concern us in the most intimate details.

So today they ‘keep us at to the millstone’: they use us, they amass us from an early age in front of the screens of PCs and smart phones, they organise us in communities of all kinds and nature, they sell us and buy us as ‘audience’ in a market deliberately devoid of rules, they pit us against each other or against their antagonists during their private wars, and they attribute the responsibility of fake news when certain truths become too uncomfortable for the realisation of their hegemonic and mass control projects.

One example: because of the pandemic, it is fashionable to censor all information and opinions that are contrary to the guidelines provided by the ‘pharmacocracy’.

This apocalyptic aspect, destined to be tragically exalted with the advent of 5G, is a relevant piece of the great scene in which we move, which is defined in various ways: Digital Revolution, IV Revolution, Transhumanism, Cyber Era, Control Democracy and Democratorship to name a few. 

All this has happened, in large part, thanks to the intensive exploitation of a practice, defined at origin (first with the birth of search engines and then of social networks) User Generated Content or WEB 2.0, that is interactive and participatory.

Notes:

Content = The big ‘families’ of content are: alphanumeric text, audio-voice-music, photo-still frames, audio-visual or moving images, graphics – 2D and 3D cartoons.

UGC = User Generated Content, is a particular type of content that is produced by the active users of a medium present on the net – instead of by the ownership (editor) of the medium itself – and is made accessible to other users thanks to practices of dissemination, mainly free, which use advertising as the dominant resource.

Defined as UGM (User Generated Media) are: blogs, social networks, communities and, therefore, the sale and exchange markets in which goods and services, and often their descriptions, are provided by the users themselves (e.g.: eBay, Porta Portese, Airbnb, etc.) 

Now, be careful! To produce UGC and make it visible, it is necessary to harmonise some activities; that is, voluntary work is required in exchange for visibility, promotion and freedom of expression.

This never-considered voluntary work consists of a series of actions that foresee time and money pre-supplied by prosumers:

1) Choice, purchase/rental and ability to use and maintain production tools (digital devices ) and access to the internet (modem and/or antennas).

2) Manifestation of creativity, whether Jurassic or talented, and organised management of human capital (individuals or groups);

3) Acquisition of information and practices that allow production.

The generalised but short-sighted respect for the dynamic concept of fair exchange between ‘dominus’ and prosumer, in which the former favours visibility and ‘freedom of speech, expression and manifestation’ is often mentioned as a ‘mutual benefit’. However, this claim is justifiable only in those cases (indicatively 1 in 1000) in which the prosumer obtains success and remuneration in progress.

In cases where success/consent and remuneration for basic activities (work) occur, it is also necessary to add:

a) obsessive measurement of the number of contacts obtained, effects and approval, or study of the data supplied (analytics) by platform operators;

b) achievement of economic sustainability and achievement of any profits;

c) compliance with the dominant norms on the territory and with the ‘dictatorial’ norms of the ‘dominus’.

Contrary to what one might think, the two acronyms UGC and UGM were not invented for the web or by the web, but by the mass press.

Just think of Letters to the Editor, which are undoubtedly ‘user generated content’ and can be dated back to the 1930s.  Many commercial media, including important and mass media, have built their success thanks to free and voluntary content sent to the editorial staff of their readers-users and thanks to the fact that in this way a more or less conscious ‘community’ was created, the members of which showed similar lifestyles, values, expectations and interests.

On the content-audio scene, thanks to the landline telephone, the UGC phenomenon in Italy had a certain resonance in the 1970s with the RAI radio programme ‘Chiamate Roma 3131’. Then, thanks to commercial or politicised FM radios, the speculation of interactivity between medium operator and user of content began to be seriously evaluated, giving rise to the debate on the birth of the first prosumers.

The first ‘telematic’ experiments (on the telephone network) are recorded, thanks to Videotel (1985), especially in France (Minitel); while in the early 1990s some TV broadcasts welcome comments from users sent by fax to their editorial offices and the ‘Pantera’ student movement became the first fax community in Italy. With the advent of the mobile phone, UGC on the move finally made its debut, consisting only of by voice at the beginning then also by SMS at the end of the 1990s.

In the case of all web operators whose objectives also include building communities, the degree of complexity and trust of the prosumer-publisher-user relationship is obviously much greater, but ultimately the basic architecture has remained that of the original: exploitation of the ability to produce content from a remote location and its use in the absence of mutual contractual satisfaction.

In a nutshell: a publisher makes a portion of its medium available (be it newspaper or radio or TV or web platform) to its users, consumers, advertisers, customers, listeners, viewers, bloggers or vloggers and – solicited by it – they send content in some way: by mail, fax, telephone, internet, SMS or email. The publisher lays it out, eventually edits, records or in any case hosts it in its medium which, through industrial and commercial procedures, makes it accessible, visible or circulating and calmly waits for its prosumers to buy it, read it, listen to it, look at it or share it. In this way, it supports its risk and earnings as a publisher and the achievement of its objectives of maximum distribution and dissemination of its medium.

Thanks to Internet and ‘Internet-based’ technologies, the archaic, sometimes slow process of the accumulation and exploitation of UGC has been accelerated beyond belief – To the point of making the content produced by users available for use in a time that tends increasingly towards zero (see web live streaming). The great ‘innovation’ is, among others, the fact that, in almost all cases, the content produced and ‘uploaded’ on the net by a prosumer remains and appears intact, not re-edited or cut, except for prohibitions on insertions and removals motivated by conflicts with the ethics of the masters of search engines, various sites and/or the founders of communities themselves (for example, the exclusion of material that incites revolt, or is paedo-pornographic, violent, blasphemous or obscene) or by current regulations in different territories.

This lengthy but inevitable premise has been useful for reaching some conclusions:

– Thanks to their voluntary work, hundreds of millions of humans around the world produce information and cultural content, inventions and services online.

– The masters of UGM-social networks take possession of these goods and services, pack (edit) them in the form of usable digital goods and convey their circulation and exchange, drawing large profits thanks to advertising. This practice also acts as a ‘strategic lever’ on the organisation of lifestyles and consumption.

– The masters of social media do not agree to be called ‘publishers’ because this would entail responsibility for the content published, with all its legal and administrative implications. Above all, they do not accept being considered ‘employers of employees’ regarding their prosumers because this would entail the payment of ‘contributions’ to various tax authorities. If solicited by the various governments, they accept instead to behave like ‘guard dogs’ and censors disguised as guardians of community rules.

– Very often, especially in those territories where stock exchanges operate at their best, these masters list their companies – which would not exist if there were no voluntary work by users – and urge the same users to buy shares with enormous advantages which increase their financial capitalisation. Google-YouTube, Facebook, eBay, Amazon have been the main standard bearers of this practice.

– What has been called UGC is the product of what should instead be known as UGVW – User Generated Voluntary WORK.

– This vast mass of users constitutes a pole/area of the triad which should ‘dialogue’ with governments and companies, in order to come to the formulation of ‘global Internet governance’. In this case, according to the now dominant vision of the multi-stakeholder system, it assumes the definition of ‘civil society’, one of the three major stakeholders. What is happenings, however, is that ‘civil society’ does not even know that it is a stakeholder, therefore it has no representation that is able to express a negotiating defence of its voluntary work and – even more terrible – has been confused with and represented by a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – which have often been covertly financed to usurp that role.

– Here the scene becomes tangled and endless. However, it should be added that the so-called users-prosumers, so highly exalted by the social networks, are also electors, consumers, producers of content and online services, advertising users who are inserted in their own content … all together, they constitute 90 percent of ‘digital civil society’ but, as noted, have no representation and therefore are not able to negotiate their online work, which remains absurdly ‘voluntary’ and almost always lacking adequate if any remuneration.

This is a situation (dystopian?) that no one could have imagined 30 years ago, a digital feudalism that constitutes intensive and continuous exploitation of a large portion of e-workers and self-perpetuates itself in the silence of politicians and economists, even the most shrewd and in various ways antagonists of capitalist liberalism.

How come we have reached this point?

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*Italian professional journalist and writer, Bachelor of Mass Communication Sociology. For 20 years he has been a correspondent and media editor for the newspaper La Repubblica, then 15 years in the Italian Radio Television (Rai) where he was responsible for relations with the foreign press and for the promotion and technological development of Rai International.

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