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Particularly in the contemporary era, when the media-producing organization, as Theodor Adorno described it long ago in  “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (republished in 2001 in The Culture Industry) “no longer even needs to directly pursue everywhere the profit interests,” but can instead achieve profit indirectly through “the manufacturing of ‘goodwill’” (p. 100), it is vital that the common-sense linkage between “produsage” or “prosumption” and democratization be broken.

That is, though Henry Jenkins most likely did not mean it this way in Convergence Culture it’s essential to pay attention to the “the work—and play—spectators perform in the new media system” ( p. 3), and we should pay special attention to the fact that the exploitation of users’ freely-given, playful labor for corporate profit is always a possibility.

This is particularly so when, as José Van Dijck and David Nieborg point out in their 2009 piece Wikinomics and its Discontents: A Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos, many of the most enthusiastic expositions of the possibilities of user-generated content—for example Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing (2009) and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008)—are business books designed to help companies build businesses around this unpaid labor.

In Class, Knowledge and New Media (2010), Christian Fuchs argues that “the produser commodity does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems, but the total commodification of human creativity”(pp. 148-9). In this way, he contends, the labor done by users of Web 2.0 sites produces value for the capitalist without said capitalist having much (or even any) outlay of labor costs, resulting in more or less pure profit (143, 147).

Fuchs does this quite explicitly, demonstrating—in what strikes me as a particularly orthodox Marxist way, with those delightful M-C-M’ formulas—the “overexploitation” of these produsers. However, there’s also something to be said for a more theoretical articulation, which is what Adorno gives us. It’s a bit less concrete, admittedly, but it is very good to think with (things I never thought I’d say about Adorno include . . . ).

In particular, Adorno’s vision helps us understand the sleight-of-hand involved in linking self-exploitation with democracy—just how it is that “for the citizen the free capacity to produce replaces the idea of a life free from domination” and mass culture, a “culture industry” product, is passed off as “something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves”(pp. 88, 98.)

In fact, what we quite eagerly take on in the name of freedom is really quite the opposite: “the masses are [ . . . ] an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object” (Adorno, p. 99).

In this way, it is clear that “we should not think of those plain new rows of dwellings but rather of the detached family houses which fill such a large part of Old and New England: standardized mass products which even standardize the claim of each one to be irreplaceably unique” (Adorno, pp. 78-9).

That is, it’s not the little boxes made of ticky-tacky you need to keep your eye on, not what is transparently mass-produced, but rather that which appeals to the sense of smugness we get from not being “taken in” by the mass produced, and this is exactly what much of Web 2.0 is.

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  1. […] themselves, and while this is a form of freedom, it’s simultaneously unremunerated labor. (See Old Fashioned Marxism for New Media Labor for more on […]

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