Mama’s Gotta Work: The Feminist Origins of Wages for Facebook

Why do we do all of this work for free?

At the moment, Facebook currently has over 1 billion active users. If we were to tally the total number of posts (which would include photos, videos, and text status updates (including checkins) on the site, I imagine it would be in the trillions. Each post is linked to tons of metadata, points of information about the user including name, age, gender, locations both geographic and commercial. This information is then repurposed for targeted advertising, as you can purchase ads based on the users who fit a desired demographic, location, device, interest, or behavior. Targeted advertising is how Facebook generates the bulk of its profits. Start posting about baby showers or liking the local day care and your ads will be full of baby clothes, diapers, strollers, and other commercial objects for the soon-to-be parents. Pregnant? They might even know before you do. In short, this is how Facebook makes money.

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The content Facebook users generate is the product which is then sold to advertisers in exchange for access to our eyeballs and clicks. By assembling our personalities, desires, habits, preferences, and relationships, we provide businesses with the raw material through which they extract value. Put another way, Facebook users are part of the labor force which makes Facebook run. Some have made this connection and have decided that this form of labor deserves wages.

The Wages for Facebook campaign made just this connection. Created by artist and curator Laurel Ptak in 2014, the campaign demands to know: Why do we provide untold hours of unpaid effort into Facebook so that they might generate billions in profit from that labor?

“They say it’s friendship. We say it’s unwaged work. With every like, chat, tag or poke, our subjectivity turns them a profit. They call it sharing. We call it stealing. We’ve been bound by their terms of service far too long — it’s time for our terms.”

How much money does Facebook make from us? In 2015, the average Facebook user generated $12.76 in revenue for the company. This is projected to increase to $17.50 in 2017. However, analyzed by country and region, a Facebook user in the United States generates about $48 in revenue, even though 85% of Facebook users are outside the US or Canada.

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You can trace the origins of Wages for Facebook back to Wages for Housework campaign, a 1970’s Italian Marxist campaign which demanded that women be compensated for housework. The vast amount of time spent cooking, cleaning, tending house, raising children, and other duties were seen, and continue to be seen, as being done for the good of the family. Italian Marxist-Feminists sought to demystify the work in housework so that women might ultimately struggle against it. The wage was actually a step towards the abolition of housework.

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The Wages for Housework campaign is the precedent for Wages for Facebook, whose goal is also to demystify:  in this case, the labor that takes place interacting with our screens. But, the skeptic might ask, how is this actually work? If Facebook users voluntarily decide to use Facebook and share revenue-generating information, then isn’t that their choice? Further, if all of this is for leisure and the joy of sharing, then is it actually labor? Ptak might say that this is the logic of capital at work – a logic that has convinced us to accept unpaid labor in many forms. We are seen not as laborers who might have solidarity in a common struggle, but as users or potential friends.

In order for the idea of Wages for Facebook to make sense, one has to make the leap and imagine oneself not as a free internet user, surfing the web and participating at will in various forms of social media, but as a laborer in the digital economy. Ptak has observed that this is a difficult leap for some to make. Indeed, the very idea of Wages for Facebook feels alien as it rolls of the tongue. But, the supposed implausibility of the campaign is not a critique. For one, since when is something we choose to do not work? What does choice have to do with whether or not something is considered work? In addition, what about the number of people whose “actual” job it is to interact with Facebook? The company employs almost 14,000 with offices around the world. Outside of Facebook itself, there are thousands of people employed in fields like advertising and PR, people who receive their own wages (or salary) to interact with Facebook and other social media sites. It is so well known that celebrities and politicians have staff managing their social media that they sometimes resort to initials to indicate when a post is actually by them rather than simply on their behalf.

Further, wages for Facebook already exist in some sense: Facebook employs many people to do “content moderation” – the constant removing of offensive and questionable material from our feeds. Facebook came under fire recently when it was revealed that humans, not algorithms, influenced what was displayed in the trending news ticker. Putting aside the question of whether algorithms are neutral (they aren’t), this situation brings to the fore issues of who does all the hidden labor that makes our online lives seem so seamless. Similar to the women who scan books for Google, much of this work is done by low-wage laborers. Clearly, there is much labor that goes into making our social media seemingly free and fun. Why not admit that our contributions are also a form of valuable labor?

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While the argument for wages has gained some steam, it doesn’t yet have a strong movement behind it. There are, however, groups of people who have taken up this argument in a different form: artists and freelancers. From unpaid internships to artists and writers producing work for free, the current iteration of neoliberal capital attempts to hide unpaid labor under the guise of leisure, passion, and creativity. For the promise of future, potential earnings, employment, or skills, many people are asked to provide their work in exchange for exposure.  But, as anyone who has produced any sort of creative work online can tell you, exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Artists such as Will Wheaton have declined to write for multi-million dollar enterprises like the Huffington Post because they refuse to pay their writers. Other writers, such as Yasmin Nair have also commented on the absurd notion that writers should be expected to write for free since writing is a “labor of love” (an expression that still has the word labor in it). Sites like Patreon have come into being precisely as a response to artists who struggle to find people to support their work, transforming the centuries old practice of patronage for the digital age. If we can accept that artists and other creative workers should be compensated for their work, then perhaps we can begin to extend the argument to our unpaid labor on social media sites like Facebook.

One must be careful to not get caught up in the practicality (or lack thereof) of the campaign. As the Wages for Facebook website states, the purpose of demanding wages for Facebook is to undermine the logic of wage labor in general. Wages for Facebook is deliberately utopian; it is a form of consciousness-raising. The goal is not to be paid for our labor for Facebook, but to question labor and wages as we currently understand them. The demand for wages for Facebook is a demand to make that labor visible. And, once this labor is visible and demystified, they gamble, we can better critique and refuse it.

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Additionally, demanding wages for Facebook can put us on a path towards rejecting the commodification of our relationships and the exploitation of social relations. Facebook and other sites have an active interest in not only the obfuscation of labor but in the disguising of this labor as a form of pleasure, as seen in Facebook’s potential plan to weigh posts in the News Feed based on how we React.

While most utopian dreams involve grand and sweeping changes (the eradication of sexism or racism, for example) Wages for Facebook seems deceptively mundane in scope. But, it is in this mundanity that we find its power and reach. 1 billion people use Facebook daily and it has managed to integrate itself into everyday social life on a global scale. While Wages for Facebook asks a simple question (Why do we do all of this work for free?), its reach is extraordinary in the sense that it calls into question some of our most basic socioeconomic relations (What qualifies as work?). Social relations emerge and are constituted in the everyday and it is in the everyday where our most familiar habits and beliefs are formed. Like the demand for wages for housework, wages for Facebook demands a reformulation of everyday relations.

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The Internet of Despairing Things

“Hi, thanks for checking in. I’m still a piece of garbage.”

Is melancholy a dominant emotional state of many internet users? Why does everyone seem so sad and depressed? Are websites like Upworthy a response to this negativity? A feeble attempt to inject the positive into an all-consumingly depressing world? We all see those Facebook memes about positive thinking. Or people declaring that they’re going to start posting pictures of baby animals to interrupt the stream of negative images and stories. But whatever happy place we flee to, there still seems to come that periodic “knock knock.”

Who’s there? It’s depression.

While melancholia is a classical malady, something I have noticed over the past few years is the proliferation of posts online that feature extremely negative content. Posts related to depression & anxiety (in both their clinical and everyday senses), death, despair, and hopelessness gets tens of thousands of shares and likes.

These posts paint pictures of young people barely able to get by, suffering feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and an intense desire for death. These feelings may stem, in part, from the proliferation of micro-experiences online. As Dominic Pettman argues in his book, Infinite Distraction, new media increasingly modulates everyday social experience. Specifically tailored and modular feeds disperse people into micro experiences, where no one is seeing or feeling the same thing at the same time as others. This may lead people to develop an agonizing sense of isolation.

While social media seems to engender a sense of immediacy to social contact, in reality, it may, at the same time, widen the gaps. As some of the posts show, others often respond with encouraging messages and GIFs, but often that may not be enough.  We despair that our favorite followers are in different states, countries, and time zones. For those who might face harassment online for their opinions or identity, being online sharpens the double-edged sword, where threats encourage victims to log off and eschew contact of any kind altogether.

Some come to feel that they no longer live, they just exist. There is no joie de vivre, just an existence that will hopefully come to an end sometime soon. In this existence, life seems to happen only to survive.

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These micro-experiences create a feeling of distance between people that can become unbearable. But, the problems of social distance alone cannot account for these intense feelings of despair. In a political economy where the social safety net has been eroded, precarity is the name of the game. The fear of failure is enhanced not only because we witness the Hollywood highlight reel of other’s success, but also because failure can have dramatic consequences. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Further, student loans cannot be easily forgiven in bankruptcy, demonstrating that even when young people hit rock bottom they now have to start digging. Most Americans don’t have enough in savings to survive any sort of emergency, while stagnating wages prevent most from saving hardly anything at all.

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It’s not surprising that being able to simply manage is considered a daily achievement. Video games such as Animal Crossing allow players to tap into the everyday successes and pleasures that usually come with a secure life: home ownership, planting a garden, civic engagement, and leisure activity.  Games like these are designed to be played in the spare everyday moments of leisure that have become increasingly sparse and give players a feeling of discrete and visible success in a world that seems so uncertain.

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Where do we go from here? I am far from a technological determinist who believes that social media can only dictate these kinds of feelings and situations. Yet, I have also felt these feelings of despair and isolation acutely as I refresh Twitter feeds and my Tumblr dashboard.  While cutting ourselves off from social media and taking a digital detox may help some, others find that their only meaningful experiences are found online, however fleeting and distant. In a world that is increasingly connected through such forms, unplugging may be just as isolating as being plugged in. As Pettman notes: “Social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

In light of this, I’ve become interested in the idea of ambivalence. In Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda turns to the idea of ambivalence as a “mode of extreme presence”: a way of negotiating and thinking through an unclear present. Resisting the urge to opt out of networks (if that is even possible), Jagoda argues that approaching network totality through ambivalence requires learning to inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that come with it. By taking up ambivalence, we open ourselves to possibilities that are not yet clear, ready, or available.