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Should Facebook Pay Its Users? | The Nation

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Jessica Weisberg

Jessica Weisberg

Immigration and labor.

Should Facebook Pay Its Users?

Facebook IPO

A flag announcing the IPO of Facebook flies outside the offices of JPMorgan in New York City (Reuters/Lee Celano)

Facebook has 1.3 billion users. If it were a country, it would be the second-largest in the world. Every twenty minutes, its users share 1 million links, write 3 million messages, and attempt to make 2 million new friends.

“Content” is the Internet’s anesthetizing term for everything it publishes, from articles to listicles, videos to slideshows. In the digital economy, form (or infrastructure) is valued more than content—we pay engineers, not oversharers. Facebook is worth more than $140 billion (though many argue that it’s far overvalued), and while the company pays its designers and marketing specialists, the 1.3 billion writers, photographers, link-bait generators and filmmakers who spend, on average, more than fifteen hours per month on the site are seen as “users,” not contributors.

Laurel Ptak, a curator and professor at the New School, recently published a manifesto, “Wages for Facebook.” Written in all-caps and with theatrical swagger (“OUR FINGERTIPS HAVE BECOME DISTORTED FROM SO MUCH LIKING, OUR FEELINGS HAVE GOTTEN LOST FROM SO MANY FRIENDSHIPS”), Ptak insists that Facebook’s “content generators” ought—MUST!—be paid for what they bring to the site. The text of the manifesto scrolls automatically so it can be read on a mobile device with both hands at ease. Ptak appears to want clearer lines between participation and consumption, and scrolling—one of many gestures that have been patented by technology companies—turns the reader’s body into a kind of “on” switch.  

Ptak’s manifesto seems a bit ludicrous at first. If it paid its users, Facebook wouldn’t be able to offer its services for free. Say you have a couch to sell, or an apartment to rent, or a part-time position to fill, you would probably see if any of your Facebook friends were interested before purchasing an ad on Craigslist. (I say “you” because I’m not on Facebook anymore.) Facebook may taketh, but it giveth too. (Though earlier this month, two users sued Facebook for violating their privacy and intercepting private messages. Free often has hidden costs.)

But Ptak believes that this moneyless arrangement is distorting, along with our fingers, our understanding of what work is. If the content on Facebook contributes to the company’s value, then the people who produce that content deserve a dividend, she says. She’s worried less about the doling out of actual cents (or maybe bitcoins) than political empowerment. “IF WE TAKE WAGES FOR FACEBOOK AS A POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE WE CAN SEE THAT STRUGGLING FOR IT IS GOING TO PRODUCE A REVOLUTION IN OUR LIVES AND IN OUR SOCIAL POWER.” Social media has become obligatory and by categorizing Facebook as work, Ptak says, we’ll be better poised to opt out of it. “CAPITAL HAD TO CONVINCE US THAT IT IS A NATURAL, UNAVOIDABLE AND EVEN FULFILLING ACTIVITY,” she writes, of Facebook. “TO SAY WE WANT MONEY FOR FACEBOOK IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS REFUSING TO DO IT.”

Ptak styled her manifesto on the demands and aesthetics of the Wages for Housework movement from the 1970s, which called for recognizing cleaning and cooking as a kind of work, regardless of whether it was paid (one of the movement’s key theorists, Silvia Federici, called for Wages Against Housework in that spirit), so that women might be able to refuse to do it. Ptak’s manifesto echoes Stephanie Coontz’ New York Times op-ed this weekend about the feminization of working conditions. Forty or fifty years ago, Coontz writes, employers hired women when they needed cheaper, more agreeable workers. “They turned to companies like Kelly Girl, whose ads bragged that unlike the gimme-gimme male worker, the Kelly Girl was a ‘Never-Never’ employee: ‘Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disk or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!)’” Coontz argues that the current economy has turned us all into Kelly Girls, settling for lower wages and minimal benefits, asking little of our employers. Coontz alludes to the benefits of universal income, a policy soon to go to vote in Switzerland that would guarantee a small salary for every citizen. The idea has earned support from feminist Marxists, like Kathi Weeks, and conservative pundits, like Charles Murray—universal income is one of those seemingly liberal things, like open borders or Star Trek, that is more libertarian the more you think about it. Murray supports basic income because it would cut government programs and give money directly to people—helping the poor and starving the beast. Weeks supports it because, as she writes, “It would enhance the bargaining position of all workers vis-à-vis employers and enable some people to opt out of waged work without the stigma and precariousness of means-tested welfare programs.” In other words, it would reorient work as a choice. Weeks writes, “These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.”

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Ptak’s manifesto is meant to call attention to the “feminization” of digital labor by encouraging users to demand more from social media sites and to question what prompts them to engage in these sites at all. When I quit Facebook, I was shown a series of photos of all the friends who would “miss” me and then I had to fill out a survey to explain why I was shutting my account. One possible answer was “I’m spending too much time on Facebook,” but my real reason for leaving was just the opposite—the site made me too voyeuristic and it felt selfish, looking through other people’s albums without posting my own. (I eventually selected “This is just temporary. I’ll be back,” which, I think, will turn out to be accurate.) I’m more active on Twitter, but I still can’t quite get into the rhythm of it—I prefer conversations to feel like a volley and Twitter is more like a series of serves. But the people I follow are good to me, they make me laugh, keep me informed, and I certainly wouldn’t have joined Twitter if they hadn’t first. I’d like to see them get paid for all the time they pour into their feeds, even if it is pleasant enough to count as a hobby. Or as Ptak writes, “WE WANT TO CALL WORK WHAT IS WORK SO THAT EVENUTALLY WE MIGHT REDISCOVER WHAT FRIENDSHIP IS.”

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