Self Portrait, Self – Mutilation, Günter Brus, 1965

From The New Inquiry:

The cluster of ideas, meanings, and implications associated with Web 2.0 has been amalgamating for the better part of a decade, steadily consolidating to the point where few would deny its cultural significance. The development of more sophisticated search engines and the promulgation of social media have combined to turn casual computer users into simultaneous producer-consumers with an ever-intensifying incentive to weave digital interfaces into all facets of their everyday life. The ubiquity of broadband access and the onslaught of gadgetry has allowed the internet to take on the characteristics of what autonomist Marxists like Paolo Virno and Toni Negri call the social factory, in which the effort we put into our social lives becomes a kind of covert work that can be co-opted by the tech companies that help us “share” and “connect.”

Those nice-sounding words mask the potentially exploitative aspects of the process. In “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Tiziana Terranova argues that “the internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor-intensive.” Nicholas Carr has described Web 2.0 as “digital sharecropping,” a way of putting “the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work.” The internet thereby becomes “an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.”

But if it is so exploitative, why do we bother with all the “sharing”? It may be because we don’t experience this effort as work but instead as simply being ourselves, which Web 2.0 seeks to make synonymous with digital participation. Services like Facebook succeed by making the process of ordering our social lives much more convenient — an apparently irresistible lure, as the site has recently passed the 500-million mark in users. Its ubiquity makes it hard to refuse to use it, as such a refusal becomes tantamount to rejecting sociality itself. But the service also has the effect of getting us to restructure our social life and our identity in its image, making us acutely self-conscious of identity as a strategic construct even as it grants us the opportunity to actively manage it more efficiently.

By supplying a forum in which we can curate our profiles and archive the ephemera that we think best represents us, social media essentially allows us to interact with one another as brands. Thus our social life as carried out online begins to more closely resemble our experience of the contemporary public sphere, itself entirely colonized by commercial messages and decodable contiguites of brands.

“The Trouble with Digital Conservatism”, Rob Horning, The New Inquiry