Toward a Critique of the Social Web

republic.jpgA debate between Trebor Scholz and Paul Hartzog + a call for papers for further discussion. Published on Re-Public. In the debate that launches the special issue with the same title, Paul Hartzog and Trebor Scholz attempt to outline a critique of the social web along 5 axes: production, exploitation, individuality/collectivity, cultural difference, activism.

Thanasis/Pavlos: How central is the question of “who owns the means of production” in relation to the net economy?

Paul Hartzog: I think that what is happening now underscores the fact that ownership was never the issue. Ownership grants you the capacity to make and implement decisions about production, and to enjoy the fruits of those decisions. Ownership gives you access to production. Access has now been disaggregated and mediated.

Consequently, I would say that not “means of production” but “means of access” is the crucial factor now. Let’s look at a concrete example: Wikipedia. For wikipedia to work you need to have 1) access to the production, i.e. the pages have to be editable; 2) access to consumption, i.e. the pages have to be reachable for reading, and 3) access to the Internet. Governments make access possible for ISPs who make access possible for end-users, and the owners of wikipedia make access possible by keeping the servers running and having an open-editing system. There are numerous points in that chain for obstruction, surveillance, exploitation, etc.

Just recently we saw, through the user revolt on Digg and the similar crisis on LiveJournal, evidence of a cultural shift in values about what it means to participate in network culture.

People are increasingly demanding accountability from the people who run the servers and the ISPs. Nevertheless, as long as there are servers, ISPs, and other bottlenecks – in other words, as long as the Internet is not fully peer-to-peer – there will be ways for the powerful to shut down accounts, block access to websites, etc.

We can see the impact of this shift in a number of current disputes:

The “net neutrality” debate, for example, or the more general debate over whether internet access should be a private or a public good.

The targeting of ISPs as points of surveillance by governments and corporations is another example. The economics of the “long tail” is all about how access changes the dynamics of production insofar as it affects what will be produced and for whom. P2P file-sharing applications like BitTorrent enable access to films, music, and other media outside of traditional (and highly controlled) outlets.

To conclude, what was important about the means of production was that it was not simply producing an artefact but, as Marx said, an entire way of life. What is actually being produced is culture, knowledge, style, routine, class, etc. Anything between the producers and the production is potentially problematic. Access is what must be protected.

Trebor Scholz: Before answering your question, I’d like to respond to Paul Hartzog. The corporate lingo of Web 2.0 rings indeed the bells of openness and newness and it’s good that Paul cautions such naivete. Even within economically developed countries there are large enclaves of the working poor, illegal immigrants, and also youth in rural areas who are the real access-have-less. What does the Web do for them? Any critique of the Social Web will sound like an elitist problem that they wished they had.

On the other hand, talk of producers on the Social Web as elite users is absurd if you think of the 160 million people on the Chinese social networking site QQ or the 180 million users who have created a profile on MySpace. Most North American students are on Facebook and the South Korean social networking site Cyworld counts some 20 million contributors. On an international scale, social networking sites like Orkut took over Brazil and India. The age, gender, and language diversity online has changed for the better and the overwhelmingly high numbers of users speak for themselves.

In the United States, many people are physically isolated due to urban sprawl, a culture of fear, overly controlling parental behaviour, a lost sense of place, and the nature of the job market, as well as widespread individualism. People move for new jobs and have extremely short vacations (an average of two weeks total in the United States).

Therefore they simply don’t have enough time to meet former friends or neighbours. Real-life public spaces are not built to accommodate meaningful face to face encounters but instead serve as transitional zones of commerce.

The Social Web allows them to stay in touch, make friends, or reconnect. Social platforms become a partial remedy, a fix for these societal ills. It would not be hard to find cases of social isolation but overall the obese teenager or the alienated adult is not a product of the Social Web but of the described problems of society at large.

In response to the question: those who can get their hands on the countless “social operating systems” gain the means of web-based production. The motivating carrot for the participation of networked publics is the “free” service that does, however, come with the hidden price tag of utilization. Users read posts on social networking sites.

They tweak the design of their MySpace pages. They enter their status on Facebook (FB) ( e.g., “O. is ummm”. not telling you what she is about to do or Y. is feeling pink or E. is feeling oppressed by her hairbrush after coming back from a Patti Smith concert.).

They respond to so-called FB wall posts, create and upload videos, update their profiles (complain that there is no option to be married to one’s job). Users groom their FB galleries, tell each other if their photos are hot or not. They poke each other or watch each other’s videos. They friend and unfriend and embed videos. Time can be spent installing one of the 400 applications on Facebook, or by just blogging on MySpace and chatting on Skype.

All these activities create monetary value, which is sometimes based on involuntary participation. Interfaces put only few hindrances in the way of contribution. However, it’s a breach of the social contract if users don’t know that they are used. At other times, people are aware of the fact that they are utilized and can live with that. It’s a trade-off?C corporations get rich while users enjoy the pleasure of creation and sociality, gain friendships, share their life experiences, archive their memories, get jobs, find dates and contribute to the greater good.

To sum up my response to the question, I’d point out that the means of production are available to networked publics; these tools and platforms are, however, owned by corporations.

Thanasis/Pavlos: Is exploitation still the key social relationship that structures immaterial labour and peer-to-peer production?

Trebor Scholz: The situation is complex and paradoxical. I started to describe it in my previous answer. On the one hand, people are more easily used through the Social Web. From Heinz Ketchup to, companies experiment with crowdsourcing as part of which the work is outsourced to a large group of people in the form of an open call over the Internet. The workers/producers receive little or no pay.

Many of the “free” services on the Social Web intrude into the personal life of the users. Market research leads to well-placed ads (unwanted content). Dating sites commodify intimacy and spam reigns supreme. helps people to find books and music but also erodes valuable processes by which people discover new authors or artists. It limits the accidents of everyday life, which are the basis for many enjoyable and meaningful yet inefficient activities. Are users used? Most definitely. Do they mind it? Not yet.

To technically support the social life of 200 million people is costly. Google runs thousands of servers. Nevertheless, in the case of MySpace, News Corp made over 14 billion dollars??this value is being created by networked publics. Such monetization of affective labour is not new. It was first attempted online in 1987 with Lucas Habitat, an early, technologically influential online role-playing game. Later, NewHoo (later called The Open Directory Project or DMOZ) made commercial use of its volunteer editors.

Paul Hartzog: I don’t think so. There’s a reason it’s called the “sharing economy.” The fact that some companies are able to take the results of that sharing and generate profit is, I think, a not-terribly-relevant footnote, because it’s not where the action is.

The economy in which commodification and the extraction of surplus value takes place is a very different network than the peer-to-peer sharing economy. Copyleft and Creative Commons are in place precisely to prevent the appropriation (via proprietization) of deliberately open shared works.

You really have two things happening. One is that people no longer require massive media companies to be effective at getting paid for their work. Just look at Now you COULD say that companies can now get access to good stock photos for less money, and therefore there is exploitation. But you could also say that individuals can now get paid directly without layers and layers of media, distribution, and licensing organizations, and therefore they are actually circumventing entire categories of exploitation on which the industrial era thrived. The music industry is another typical example where all of the money previously remained within a network of elites who controlled the infrastructure, and almost none of it reached the creative producers. Now the money goes directly to the creators. It’s not so much who is exploiting whom, but rather that individuals are now empowered to circumvent previously-existing exploitative structures and practices. That option for individuals forces those structures to change.

But even this is too narrow, I think. To stick with the music example, it is a common belief among music media moguls that without commodification and financial incentives creators will not create. Thanks to what Lawrence Lessig calls “remix culture” we know this is not the case (in fact, artists knew it all along). People don’t NEED a financial incentive to share their bookmarks on, their photos on flickr, their music on MySpace. And much of this creativity IS spawned via proprietary mechanisms, for example, the current rage of “make yourself as a Simpson’s character” at, which has even its own photo pool on where people are sharing the images generated on that proprietary site. Now the Simpson’s crew is notorious for their radical copyright attitude, and yet, individuals are getting a lot of surplus value out of exploiting the image-building interface and then sharing all of the images over at This is definitely a complexification of the traditional “exploitation” rhetoric.

>Trebor Scholz: People are being used and empowered at the same time. It is too early to say how effective new types of content licensing will be, or in fact are, in preventing (commercial) appropriation. Being used is one thing; not knowing that your attention is monetized is another.

Paul Hartzog: Yes, I agree. It’s an interesting question as to whether the requirement for transparency should be a legal solution, i.e. a law requiring public disclosure, or a market solution, i.e. users demanding that sites disclose or going elsewhere. It’s too early to tell which way that will play out, I think.

Thanasis/Pavlos: What type of sociality does the ‘Social Web’ produce? How does it deal with the problems of individualisation and community construction?

Paul Hartzog: I think this is a key area where we can identify what is working and what isn’t, with respect to the future of social technology and online participation. One can think of the two types of sociality being produced as two forces, one pulling towards individuals, and the other towards communities.

First, you have systems with an individualistic ontology. In these systems, the infrastructure exists to provide the ideal rational utilitarian user/consumer with some obvious personal benefit. If the individual utility drops too low, the user leaves. In my opinion, this kind of sociality is not really about community at all. You don’t feel a sense of community with other visitors to who just happened to rate or comment on the same book you did.

Contrasted with that, you have online communities where the participants see the community as something beyond themselves. In these spaces, individuals are willing to transform themselves for the good of the community. I have witnessed this firsthand recently, in fact. A long debate about the core values of that community resulted in the creation of new spaces to accommodate the questions raised. The whole affair reminded me of the U.S. civil-rights era.

Where this distinction is analytically useful is that you can immediately see that certain kinds of online participants would naturally fall into the first category. These folks are really only concerned with the first type of sociality: sociality with an agenda. It should be noted that both the site-builders as well as the users can fall into this category. I don’t really GO to to be social; I go to buy books. Conversely, the second category regards sociality as an intrinsic good, a process to be engaged in for its own sake. The difference between the two is typically self-organization.

This distinction goes all the way back to Aristotle and the idea that we are only fully human when we are engaging in the governance of our community. The first key point is that you can identify which type of sociality you are likely to encounter by simply looking at the motives of the community creators. The second key point is that very often communities escape from the motives of the creators and do something novel. This distinction has a significant consequence for political theorizing. In the physical world, a citizen can typically engage solely in the governance of a single geographical entity (sometimes nested entities). This meant that the primary political-theoretical conversation concerned the “best” or “optimal” form of government, and this has remained the case for thousands of years. However, now, online, people can and do simultaneously engage in numerous communities with widely varying forms of governance. So the question changes from having to pick one type of regime and argue for it, to simply being able to navigate as a participant the advantages, disadvantages, and rules of appropriate action from community to community. In addition, participants bring their experiences and expectations with them from community to community. Many communities, many forms of governance, many kinds of participants. I think this multiple-identity and community mobility ultimately creates a participant (citizen) who is much more sensitive to the joys and challenges of an actively engaged political life.

Trebor Scholz: Typologies of participation on the Social web would need to start with a separation of voluntary and involuntary participation (e.g., data mining).

The main activities on the Social Web are commenting, tagging, ranking, forwarding, reading, subscribing, re-posting, linking, moderating, remixing, sharing, collaborating, favoriting, writing; flirting, working, playing, chatting, gossiping, discussing, and learning.

A crucial phenomenon of the Web is that of captive community. Users contribute their content to social environments and are not able to take it with them if they wish to leave (eg., when you have uploaded years of your home videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr). User’s friends are concentrated in only a few places, which is a key motivating factor for people to congregate there. Content, therefore, is also concentrated, which makes these sites more attractive. This captivity is not accidental but is rather central to startup business strategies.

Thanasis/Pavlos: How does this sociality address the question of cultural difference? Is it gender-blind?

Trebor Scholz: Cultural difference is a big issue. 1.114 billion people use the Internet today – this number is so high due to the growth of the economically developing world. Half of this population is made up of women today. Things are changing in terms of the gender dynamic: within the 25-34 age group, women now dominate the Web.

However, in many participatory environments women prefer to read and participate silently (forward, copy, comment). Cultural difference is interesting to observe with regard to the success of certain social networking sites.

MySpace and Facebook took off in North America and Australia.

Facebook is more popular outside the US than Myspace. LiveJournal rules Russia. Orkut’s 68 million users are mainly from India and Brazil as well as Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Kuwait, Mauritius, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Thailand, and Tunisia. Fotolog is the default in South America while Mexicans love hi5. Why do certain social networking sites dominate countries far away from their US American origin? A recent study by Zahir, Dobing and Hunter suggests that the colour schemes of the portals of these sites have something to do with it. But people also want to spend time where many other people are and once a site became the default for a certain age group in a geographic region, it’s hard to break that.

Paul Hartzog: Well we’ve known for some time that cultural difference affects knowledge and sociality in a deeply fundamental way. The book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff details how cultural differences affect not only category construction, but even things as basic as colour perception.

These differences also appear in gender studies. In fact, one of my personal crusades has been against the fact that the west has been manufacturing and exporting computers whose file systems as well as their operating systems are constrained by a western male hierarchical model, i.e. a tree of folders. Globalization and its resultant interpenetrative sociality needs to be sensitive to these elusive, often hidden, modes of domination.

But, as Trebor notes, there is a kind of counter-force that works against global homogeneity, and it manifests in the way that different groups have different modes of online participation. Culture is one; gender is another. There are others: wealth, accessibility, etc. In a general way, it can be useful to say that women tend to participate one way and men another, or that the rich participate one way and the poor another (for example, Danah Boyd’s recent exposure of class divisions being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook), but that doesn’t get us to the why of it all.

If our technologies are not difference-blind, then it is clearly because we, as human beings who have choices in how we deploy technology, are not difference-blind. But often what we are is blind to ourselves – our prejudices, our judgements, our habits, etc. The internet-worked world brings a lot of that to the forefront, and suddenly, you have some computer programmer somewhere whose work is going to be deployed globally, and he has to contend with the cultural biases in that work in a way that he never had to before. And not just individuals, but entire industries of knowledge production are pushed to adapt to this new environment.

Thanasis/Pavlos: You both maintain, at different degrees, a critical caution towards the Web 2.0 hype. What type of activism would you say would be more productive in relation to Web 2.0: the appropriation of the existing platforms of the social web, the creation of alternative ones?

Trebor Scholz: If we aim to live ethical lives in the context of the (mobile) Social Web, we’ll need any platform? Corporate, hybrid, or non-market that can serve as a place for meaningful interventions. Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture writes that “The debate keeps getting framed as if the only true alternative were to opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses” (pp. 248-49).

There are a few new fields of possibility in which networked publics can fight back. In September 2006 communal negotiating power was made apparent when 741,000 users joined the group against the introduction of the RSS feed on Facebook. The company withdrew the feature. In the past, such joint action of consumers was not as easy. Today’s information flows make it simpler to organize such a “rebellion.”

There are also many non-profit tools, peer-to-peer solutions and hybrid environments, and ethical businesses such as Craigslist. I’m also curious about ways in which individuals are making money on the Social Web-from Google Adsense to YouTube’s planned user pay-back scheme.

An additional example is the art practice of Kevin Killian, a San Francisco poet, who wrote 1525 reviews on (as of January 7th, 2006), arguably starting a new genre of literature. In a small bookstore in Brooklyn I found a booklet of the reviews that he wrote on . These texts are not really reviews, they are autobiographical fiction in the form of reviews, ranging from sweet potato baby food to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

>Thanasis/Pavlos: How far are we from substantially connecting this type of activisms with offline critical practices?

Paul Hartzog: I think both kinds of engagement have costs and benefits. Clearly the appropriation of existing platforms saves on development costs. My earlier example of the alternative uses which have appeared on flickr.comis an example. No open-source group had to go invest time and money in an alternative photo-sharing platform. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that online platforms, which have been launched for specific reasons, will embrace or even tolerate alternative uses no matter how creative or popular. Even gmail might vanish.

Therefore, when faced with the constraints of existing structures, it is often the case that people will choose to, or be compelled, to turn aside and create something new on their own. This is the primary reason, in fact, why I keep returning to Hannah Arendt as a political thinker. From her we gain insight into the ability of people to undermine ostensibly illegitimate political and social practices, not by attacking them, but by simply engaging in some other practice that, by its very nature, calls the existing practices into question and, eventually, to account.

Ultimately, I think this is where Marxism fails, except maybe for Gramsci’s “war of position.” It’s the “tar baby” principle: You become attached to what you attack. You don’t want to take on those structures at the sites that they have defined, and which they hold, because, first of all, they operate in that space better than you do, and, second, you end up taking on their negative features in order to confront them. You lose a lot of yourself in that kind of terminal opposition. What you CAN do is refuse to play by their rules, and go off and explore what it is like to play by some other rules.

Early hackers did this, and so we ended up with open-source.

I think “long tail” and gift economics point outward as well.

MMORPG money markets, shared credit, and even systems that circumvent money (like FreeCycle) are all pioneering the new landscapes.

And this points to the other question concerning “offline” critical practices. Specifically, as writers like Paul Dourish, Malcolm McCullough, and others are pointing out, we are facing the “end of cyberspace.” In other words, as the information world becomes layered onto the physical world by mobility and ubiquity, the whole online/offline distinction becomes less useful as a framing metaphor ( e.g. see Alex Pang’s It is not a “here” and “there,” but rather, a relationship of complex landscapes that intersect and interact at many points. I don’t think we are far from that now, but I definitely think that the younger generations have a much better intuitive sense of what it requires of them to participate in that kind of world. What I think will become increasingly important, and here I know Trebor would agree, is that we mobilize (both in the sense of “carry around” as well as “use”) our critical faculties regardless of the particular social space in which we are present at that moment. It is “presence” that is useful as the new metaphor. On which landscapes are we present, and what do we want to do there?

In other words, in one space, you have a group of players who are saying “you have to do it our way or else,” and their model is an industrial-era model. The individuals and groups that choose not to detach themselves from those structures and practices will make themselves disappear just like Tower Records, EMI, and others (and I include traditional firms and governments in that group). Meanwhile, in this other space you have a group of people who are saying “Hey, look what we are doing! It’s pretty neat. Come join us if you are interested in cooperating to create some new rules.”

The invitation is always open.

Trebor Scholz: In 1991 Peter Lamborn Wilson (a.k.a. Hakim Bey) wrote Temporary Autonomous Zone, in which he used historical examples to describe the tactics of shaping temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control. The essay inspired Internet pioneers to experiment with the freedoms afforded by Internet. There was, for example, De Digitale Stad (“The Digital City“), which was launched by De Balie and XS4ALL as a publicly accessible (free-net) system with the goal of bringing politics and citizens together in an online community. Geert Lovink referred to De Digitale Stad as “a social experiment in Internet freedom.” It was the attempt of staying independent in an increasingly commercial environment.

Many of the altruistic projects that are still alive and kicking today, however, were funded by money entrepreneurs made in the early and mid 90s. Just take Brewster Khale was one of the first Internet entrepreneurs who made the 15 million dollars that allowed him to build . Mitch Kapor made 100 million dollars with Lotus 1-2-3 and then set up the Open Source Foundation. The Omidyar Network was set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar with the goal to “enable individual self-empowerment on a global scale” and employ “business as a tool for social good.” Jeff Bezos of funds progressive film productions and has his independent space travel program.

But that’s not the only way. There is Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg, which is driven entirely by volunteers, without the initial money making scheme, without the resistance from within (the fortune 100) that so many in the US argue is inevitable. Project Gutenberg (PG) is the “oldest digital library built on volunteer efforts to digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works.” It is one of the largest single collections of free electronic books, or eBooks, online.

Third, there are uses of technologies and platforms against the intentions of the inventors. Twitter is used as human right advocacy tool in Egypt. Blogs are important in authoritarian regimes. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg provided the 741,000 people who joined the Student Against Facebook NewsFeed with a tool to unite against the company.

On May 1, 2007 an article appeared on’s homepage that contained the encryption key for the AACS digital rights management protection of HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Digg removed the submissions and banned contributors. Many users saw the removals as a capitulation to corporate interests and an assault on free speech. The Digg community staged a widespread revolt. One of the Digg users referred to it as a “Digital Boston Tea Party.” Digg’s Kevin Rose responded:

“[A]fter seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.”

While I think that there are definite limits to the negotiating power of networked publics, these examples show that they have certain manoeuvrability and that this space for manoeuvre has become larger.

Capitalism has always given space to such critical movements. Now it is easier for users/producers to join up, complain, strive for free cooperation and for the renegotiation of some rules, as Paul mentions.

This, however, has nothing to do with deep-rooted social change.

Nov 1, 19:11
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