Friday, March 25, 2011

Facebook and credit worthiness; What is post-Fordism

CHRISTIAN FUCHS" by Adam Arvidsson and Elanor Colleoni. (pdf)

This compelling paper starts by trying to discredit using the labor theory of value to critique "prosumerism" and "digital sharecropping"-- the harvesting of the value created by consumers through acts of consumption, collaboration, identity display network forming and general sociality. Seems like a bit of a side issue to me -- but it is a stepping stone to a much more interesting point about how social media produce value. The labor/value that Facebook harvests isn't a matter of time invested on the site but more a matter of how many connections are traced. These build it's brand, and brand equity isn't measured in time. The same is true for the emerging personal brand that Facebook facilitates in its image.

But I found this interesting: "If Facebook made a profit of $ 355 million in 2010 (according to its own figures), this would mean that each Facebook user was a ‘victim of exploitation of surplus value’ to the extent of $ 0.7 a year, and if we use the consulting company McKinsey’s most recent figure on the overall value created by audience participation on the internet globally, $ 100 billion, this becomes $ 59 per internet user per year, hardly an ‘a rate of exploitation that converges towards infinity’ as Fuchs claims." That's a good point, but I suppose the way to interpret that is that users are putting a lot of time in to create very little economic value; their work time can be inefficiently wasted since it is not a disutility to workers (they regard the labor as creating personal identity and living social life, not working) and because the social-media firms harvesting the "value" aren't paying much for it and have scaled up to the level of billions of unpaid "employees."

The authors appear very concerned about putting an accurate price tag on the value created through social media practices and volunteer brand building and so on, as they see such a calculation as the key to their argument that the financial valuation of social media companies and the like is the new means of capital accumulation and expropriation (not exploiting labor):
appropriation and realization of value in informational capitalism needs to be understood as part 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. This, we argue is particularly true for social media platforms, the values of which are very difficult to justify in terms of their non-financial revenues.
The finance system, they argue, and not commodities, is where the "value" appears in hard dollar terms that is generated by the social factory, or the general intellect, or informational capital, or immaterial labor, or whatever you want to call it. And there, I suppose, it accrues to the people who have the means, access, and know-how to manipulate value at that level -- bankers, large-scale investors, tech entrepreneurs, etc. Otherwise, they suggest, the value of the brand equity co-creation and the marketing data created by our social practices and mediated online can't be extracted. In other words, value in this realm isn't generated by a commodity's circulation; it comes through financial manipulation of the underlying platform for sociality, through instruments tied to those platforms conceived as assets, which then circulate in the commodities' stead. The value of these media platforms is tied inexactly to the amount of communication and "value creation" we do on and through them.
In other words, the setting of values on financial markets is a deliberative decision that mobilizes and builds to a large extent on the public reputation of companies, brands and related assets. This leads us to suggest that informational capitalism ever more deploys a reputational ‘law’ of value, where the value of companies and their intangible assets are set not in relation to an objective measurement, like labor time, but in relation to their ability to attract and aggregate intersubjective judgments of their overall value or utility in terms of mediated forms of reputation.

The authors add that "the value of brands depend less on the (directly measurable) quanta of labor time that go into their production, and more on their reputation and brand strength [and] in the case of knowledge workers, and in particular freelances, the value of skills is increasingly determined by their ability to create a ‘personal brand.’" That obviously rings my bell; my whole spiel lately revolves around social media as a vector for transforming subjectivity into personal branding, to make that feel like common sense and natural instead of alienating, self-centered and rude.

I am intrigued by the possibility of applying this whole line of thinking to individuals rather than firms and by the implicit idea that credit may be the way a "basic income" is extended to workers in "informational capitalism" (call them the creative class or the cognitariat, if you like) in lieu of stable wages. The level of credit access becomes an index to an individual's perceived contribution to the "general intellect" or alternatively, the value of their personal brand to the information economy. Credit scores may become vaguely tied to how hipsterish one is, how credible one's lifestyle and habitus and social network are and thus how valuable one is likely to be to the generation and circulation of valuable meanings/uses/brands/innovations to be attached to goods and services. Perhaps in the future Facebook status will be factored into one's credit worthiness (perhaps this is already happening, as it is with employment, and hirers using Facebook as a tool to evaluate candidates.) It seems that the authors welcome this possibility in their conclusion, with social media "democratically" determining personal worth. That sounds like the very definition of dystopia to me, as I see these sorts of technological systems as likely means to leverage preexisting social inequities.

Anyway, along the way, the authors offer a lucid account of the somewhat elaborate arguments that Negri/autonomist-derived terms"post-Fordism" and "multitude" and :immaterial labor" are supposed to serve as shorthand for. Under Fordist conditions (factories, big firms, Taylorist division of labor, rigid hierarchies) "concrete productive practices must be organized in such ways that they can be measured as expressions of a general equivalent: abstract labor time [and] the labor process must be organized in such ways that value creation can be easily attributed to individual actors or units. Both of these conditions become increasingly problematic as capitalist development proceeds ‘beyond Fordism’." That is to say, production in the sphere of informational capitalism is more collaborative and inspiration-driven; it isn't a matter of x number of employees putting x amount of hours in. Basically, "labor creates value in ways that are poorly related to quanta of time."

Thus the nature of the workplace must change from being a factory to the "social factory" -- meaning production can occur through sociality at any time, and requires that people get along with one another (thus building friendships becomes a work process too). The premier productive force and source of wealth is what Marx called "general intellect" rather than labor time -- updating that for contemporary times, that general intellect becomes the value of social being being captured and harvested all the time by various media.

As the authors note, Negri argued that this sort of labor is "outside capital" but it seems more that it broadens capital's nature to include platforms and networks and identity itself as resources to marshal and exploit. What is "valorized" is these media is not, as the authors notes, pageviews or clicks or audience eyeballs but social relations themselves -- that is what is being brokered and sold by Facebook. We create "webs of affective attachments around informational objects" -- I tend to call this "immaterial labor" or "meaning making" or "affective labor" or "communicative capitalism" depending on the context.

But the idea is that social media can capture the value in our efforts to make ourselves seem cool by sharing well-curated stuff and ideas with others (or in the authors' jargon, social media "trigger forms of ‘self valorization’ whereby the multitude itself confers the kinds of affective investments on an informational object that is able to render it interesting and worthy of attention"). These media encourage us to orient more and more of our self-fashioning efforts to that model -- to build our personal brand, our influencer status, which is measurable in terms of retweets and likes and so on. This engenders a new kind of alienation, a kind of perpetual reflexivity and calculating approach to our social behavior that ruins it as a respite. Identity and friendship become more and more explicitly competitive, and capital (social media companies and marketers, mainly) reaps the benefit.

The authors are anxious to stress that the economic value in these attached affects stems not from the time it takes to notice and like things but from "affective webs" among the "networked multitude" -- a kind of commons of social affinity that Facebook encloses.
From a business point of view this means that the strategic key to value is not the sheer
number of hits or hours of attention paid to a site but, on the one hand, the ‘virtuosity’ that is able to attract such affective investments by inserting an informational product at the right time and place in such communicative and affective flows and, on the other hand, the ability to control the platforms, like Facebook, on which such affective self-valorization takes place. Indeed the value of Facebook is not primarily built on its ability to attract attention time, but on its ability to control and objectify the affective flows that organize the attention and prosumer input on the part of the multitude, and, to tax these flows in some way.
They control the platform, and then they securitize it (via IPO, etc.) to transform it to financial value (leveraging implicit brand equity derived from all that immaterial labor the platform has attracted), to collect their tax. But who has paid the tax? That's what gets lost in the web of financial engineering chicanery.

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