I’m a big fan of Facebook. I can’t go 24 hours without logging in and I know many of my friends feels the same way (primarily through their numerous status updates) – but is this a healthy habit? And furthermore, is there a catch? Facebook, like all other social networks, is a kind of application that is referred to as “web 2.0” – its content is purely user-generated. This means that users participate in something called “audience-work”, in order to simultaneously browse and create content. What’s interesting is that audiences today (i.e. you and I) actually enjoy their labour and are thus less aware of the exploitative nature of the media due to the “empowerment” rhetoric that comes with producing one’s own content (look at this fantastic blog I’ve created!). However, it’s hard to believe that we really are getting something so great for free. People often talking about social media as a blessing or a curse, but it seems to me that it cannot be defined as purely empowering or exploitative, but rather that the two of these elements coexist.
The most prolific work done by the Facebook audience, or users, is the actual production of content: updating statuses (“I just made the most delicious baked Alaska!” — and other gems like this) , sharing photos, writing notes and “liking” pages – for example, musicians, films, and products (Did you see Jake Gyllanhaal in Source Code?). Tied into this is the sharing of content from other websites – like YouTube videos, news articles and pictures from sources other than themselves. Users also circulate the medium of Facebook itself, by sharing things and using it as the dominant online social space – allowing it to become an omnipresent platform. Functions like “connect with Facebook” that allow users to register their details on other websites via signing in with Facebook – saving time filling out forms – help to reinforce the ubiquity of the medium.
There is an interesting correlation between “watching” on Facebook, and “being watched”. The users “watch” each other’s networks – updates, photos (God knows how long I spend “face-stalking” a friend-of-a-friend – She just came back from Africa, you know) – and are in turn watched by marketing companies who collect the data that users share and circulate. While the “watching” is conscious – that is, the users are aware that they are consuming other people’s information – there is less awareness about the collection of their data. It is this lack of transparency, arguably, that makes people uncomfortable.
“iMedia: The case of interactive TV” (Andrejevic, 2007) explores the elements of participation, empowerment and exploitation quite eloquently. Andrejevic doesn’t think that the internet has become a new platform for democracy and public conversation, rather, that it has allowed for the “democratization of publicity as self-promotion” and that “publicity has become synonymous with public relations” (136). This focus on self-promotion versus conversation takes away from the empowerment rhetoric that is so strongly attached to the internet and multimedia publishing, and instead feeds the exploitative functions of the web – the more you promote yourself, the more marketers can learn from you. This type of work also normalizes surveillance; if you are constantly self-promoting, than you accept – and even desire – that you are constantly being watched. As Andrejevic states, self-commodification becomes merged with self-expression and this expression, in turn, “provides a rich vein for data miners” (137).
Despite this, it is difficult to argue that the internet does not give users some sense of empowerment, regardless of how the shared information may be used. Take something like “Television Without Pity” — a forum style website where users talk about and critique popular television shows – it is easy to see the power of the internet at work in popular culture. Successful and prolific television producer JJ Abrams says online fan sites are an “integral part” of the production process:
“If the Internet is your audience, TV is quite like a play … Movies are a done deal – there’s no give and take – but in a play, you listen to the applause, the missing laughs, the boos. It’s the same with the Internet. If you ignore that sort of response, you probably shouldn’t be working in TV right now.”
In this example it is clear that “meaning-makers” – in this case, television producers, definitely do take into account the response from viewers via the internet, which strengthens the empowerment rhetoric quite dramatically. This merging of audience participation – their participation both makes it more interesting for them and can offer helpful, often technical, advice or constructive criticism for the producers – demonstrates quite strongly the effect of audience participation and its recognition by decision-makers. This gives some weight to the “empowerment” side of the internet, where users can clearly see their opinions making differences.
So we’re really not getting everything for free, and advertisers do use our information to sell us products. But to be totally honest, I’d much rather see ads featuring hair products than male enhancement pills. As long as we have control over precisely what information we share – I say bring on personalized advertising!