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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War Games – Gender and Violence After Gamergate

Why are political criticisms of video games so often treated as declarations of war?

Gamers may understandably find the question of politics to be rather tiring. To debate whether or not video games are political is, in itself, an exercise in politics, insofar as debate is the process by which the limits of acceptable speech and criticism are negotiated by the community of of discourse. But if the debate about video games is intrinsically political, what kind of politics are we talking about? And if war, as Clausewitz said, is politics by other means, then what is the connection between video games and war?

Some gamers not only object to considering video games political, they object to reading video games politically. They reject both feminist and queer readings of video games and the presence of explicitly feminist or queer things in them. One player got so upset by the inclusion of a transgender NPC (non player character) in the recent expansion of the game Baldur’s Gate that he uploaded a video of him killing the character. After conversing with the NPC, the player directs his party to attack her. Graphically, she is torn to pieces. The video is titled “Tranny Abuse” and has over 30,000 views. This gamer rejected politics by turning to war.

Those who question why women in video games are scantily clad in the heat of battle, or bent into literally back-breaking poses, are frequently dismissed as reading too closely. The anti-political appeal to what John Huizinga called “the separateness of play” (“why do you have to analyze it? It’s just a game”) not only becomes part of a struggle to negotiate the boundaries of acceptable speech about video games but it also frames the boundaries of acceptable experience of the game itself.
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The most notable example of the gamer war against politics is the criticism and harassment critic Anita Sarkeesian faced when she began a web series on Youtube called Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. In these videos, Sarkeesian analyzes various tropes that designers of video games often appeal to in the creation of female characters. They present an analysis similar to what one might find in an undergraduate gender or media studies class. Despite this, she received such a flood of vitriol that she was forced to temporarily flee her home. War games shut down politics.

Critics of video games are not only deemed killjoys who are not only unable to enjoy games; they are viewed as existential threats to video games, justifying symbolic and actual violence. The act of criticism is treated as a declaration of war. And, this language of warfare is important. War talk legitimizes the mobilization of hordes of trolls in order to fight back in the war on video games and the enemy in this culture war are the Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative based on a caricature of socially progressive and feminist views. The warriors are organized into a feminist army, who collaborate to create false allegations of sexism or create a protectionist racket.

Harassers even speak of false flag operations, where victims of harassment are accused of faking the harassment for attention and money. When a group of people coordinate attacks on a particular person or forum, it’s called brigading.

The conflation between war and social justice allows gamers to perceive criticisms as clarion calls. Forums and subreddits become the battlegrounds where the culture war is waged while doxing (the publication of personal and identifying information) becomes espionage and military intelligence.

When your critics are warriors, violence becomes acceptable and normalized. Soldiers are expected to be casualties and character assassination borders on the real.

The pejorative use of SJW points to a rather disturbing characteristic of these purist gamers: creating a link between war and cultural critique, with a heavy dose of misogyny. Originally coined as a compliment, only in the past few years has the term Social Justice Warrior become an insult. It gained mainstream popularity during Gamergate. In short, the SJW is any individual or group (usually women) who holds, and is vocal about, socially progressive or liberal views. In practice, the insult is levied at any sort of feminist criticism of game design, development, gameplay, and/or the social practices of gamers and communities which someone disagrees with. These SJWs make up the feminist armyan army that takes only offense, not prisoners.

Conflicts like GamerGate were organized by relatively small groups of gamers who search for and manipulate information in order to attack perceived enemies. These enemies are almost always women and minorities and the attacks overwhelmingly feature gendered threats of violence and rape. While Gamergate as a named movement seems to have subsided, its supporters are still heavily invested in harassing women in the video game and tech industries and it seems to have morphed into a neo-reactionary movement poised to quickly jump on any new perceived threats.

What are the results of such movements? Death threatsRape threats. One person threatened to massacre the attendees of a talk Sarkeesian gave (she canceled it). Doxing. Bomb threats. Others have lost their jobs. In a note explaining why she dropped a lawsuit against her harasser, game developer Zoe Quinn said that she received an “almost one foot stack of threats and photos of me that people had printed out, jizzed on, and sent to my family.”

Do these voices speak for all gamers? Ian Bogost writes that the proliferation of video games into the wider public sphere is leading to a breakdown of the gamer as an identity category. The boundaries of the identity change not only as more people begin to play games but we realize that people traditionally excluded from being gamers have been playing all along. As gamers seek to navigate their  unraveling identity in the face of new players and critics, tension increases and violence ensues. And, as many have observed, the policing of group boundaries seems to be fiercest around the periphery.

But, I’m not sure if this policing of identity is enough to account for the level of vitriol and hate that is directed at critics. It’s one thing to let people know you are dissatisfied. It’s quite another to send mountains of death threats. China Miéville (s/o to Jennifer Doyle for this reference) might describe this as social sadism – the proliferation and excess of public cruelty.”Anyone who doubts that everyday surplus sadism is everyday need only read the comments below the articles, follow threads, brave twitterstorms.” What makes this form of sadism so pernicious is the speed at which it excuses itself: shifting the grounds (“its about ethics in gaming journalism), downplaying the abuse (“it’s only words on the Internet”). It’s not only the boundaries of the gamer identity that are shifting, but the “boundaries of permissible punitivity are constantly stretched.”

The excuses act as a veil of plausible deniability, which the gaming purists drape over their acts of violence. As Miéville notes, the veil is extremely thin and meant to be uncovered, which is what makes dog-whistle politics successful. Just a trace of deniability is enough for the tactic to work. The war against SJWs is waged not only through violence but through the manipulation of the language surrounding it. And it’s in these excuses, the shifting grounds, where we find Michel Foucault’s reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum: politics is war by other means.