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.”