With over three quarters of a billion users worldwide, Facebook may be the most popular website in the world. This Labor Day, some commentators are bristling that Facebook is making boatloads of money off its users and not sharing it with those who do not have ownership of the company.
In a guest post on Sociological Images, Nathan Jurgenson suggests that Facebook might be running an exploitative business: “Karl Marx said that we are “exploited” when we are not paid in wages the full value of our labor (our bosses, instead, skim some off the top). Since our sharing makes Facebook valuable, it is our work that makes it the digital goldmine that it is (valued at around $84 billion). We, in turn, are paid no wages at all.”
According to standard pro-labor arguments, workers should get paid the value of the work that they produce. If Facebook users’ work — like clicking on posts or watching ads — makes someone else wealthy, then there is definitely something missing. Facebook has already started to pay users to watch ads, but has not yet shown any indication that it views its users as laborers or that it is seeking to compensate users based on how much profit they bring in.
Jurgenson pushes back against the traditional definition of labor, arguing that sites like Facebook provide benefits that are not monetary. It is probable that services like the ability to reach out to old and new friends improve the welfare of its users. At the same time though, internet rumors that Facebook may begin charging for use have been met with strong resistance, suggesting that these services are not exceptionally valuable to users.
This view raises a lot of interesting questions about how we should view labor in the internet era. Should the amount of time we spend on sites like Facebook be viewed as labor? Should internet companies be required to compensate users who enrich them? Or, if a user is truly offended by not being paid should they just vote with their feet and use another social media site ?
Photo credit: jay cameron's Flickr stream.