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Digital Laborscape: Navigating Value in Social Media
Every tap, every tag – in the vast expanse of the digital world, we find ourselves engaged in what seems like menial tasks. But what lies beneath the surface of this digital routine?
Lindgren describes how digital society enables old forms of structural dominance to inhabit new forms online. One such old form of dominance is the capitalist exploitation of the value created by people’s work. (Lindgren, 2017, “Playbour and Exploitation”, Digital Media & Society, p.207) The notion of digital labor on social media arises from the fact that most of the value of any social media platform is created and shaped by the users as we navigate its digital landscape and engage with its tasks. Therefore they can be considered as digital workers on the platform. Users are creative, social, and active contributors, engaging in a culture of sharing, connecting, and making. Our digital interactions become a form of collaborative creation.
Digital labor often finds itself detached from its processes, tools, and outcomes. While it can be described as a form of exploitation, this might not be immediately apparent because digital labor on social media often takes the guise of playful engagement. Fun and work at the same time, which can be described with the term “playbour” The apparent enjoyment in connecting with and meeting other users can obscure the underlying reality of exploitation.
Behind the scenes, social media companies actively encourage users to spend as much time as possible on their platforms. This encouragement is not purely for the sake of providing an enjoyable experience; rather, it serves the companies’ interests. The more time users spend on these platforms, the more data is generated. Social media companies harvest this data, analyzing user behaviors, preferences, and interactions. This wealth of information becomes a valuable commodity, shaping targeted advertising, user profiling, and ultimately contributing to the company’s financial success.
Us internet users however, are not only willing but even enthusiastic about partaking in activities that benefit companies, as long as these activities don’t impede their freedom to pursue whatever they wish to do. This suggests a complex relationship where the joy of digital interaction coexists with a subtle acknowledgment of the role digital labor plays in the broader economic landscape.
In essence, the exploitation lies in the unequal exchange between the user and the social media platform. While users contribute time, creativity, and personal data, the returns are often disproportionately skewed towards the platform’s profit. This dynamic is not always overtly felt by users, as the pleasurable aspects of digital engagement can overshadow the economic transactions occurring beneath the surface. David Gauntlett furthermore argued, while the idea of exploitation here is true on the macro level of digital society, it is much harder to evaluate this at the individual level. People may in fact be happy to freely create and share things, and few would probably themselves see what they do on social media as ‘work’ that they would expect to get paid for. (Gauntlett, 2011, Making is Connecting. p188)
We don’t engage with social media expecting value in return from the platform we engage with, but from instead the other users that contribute to the value of the platform itself.
Collective dynamics: digital labor’s impact
The collective nature of social media, reliant on contributions from users, deeply influences user dynamics and psychological well-being. This dependence can foster insecurities and a perceived obligation towards what can be termed as ‘digital labor.’Since the platform’s value hinges on user-generated content and interactions, individuals naturally seek validation and recognition.This leads to a dependency on feedback for social worth, fostering a comparative mindset that fuels insecurities.
The collective effort also generates a fear of missing out (FOMO), compelling continuous engagement.
This dependency, however, comes with psychological costs, contributing to anxiety and self-awareness.
Importantly, recognizing this collective effort raises awareness of the impact of one’s digital footprint, prompting a sense of responsibility towards fostering a positive online environment.
This understanding is pivotal in acknowledging the evolving landscape of digital labor and its implications for individual well-being in the digital age.
Conclusion: Call to conscious engagement
As we reflect on this digital journey, the importance of understanding digital labor, exploitation, and the value derived from the collective becomes increasingly evident. The landscape of social media, once perceived as mere digital pastime, now reveals intricate power dynamics and psychological implications.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial to focus on these dynamics. The digital age has amplified the impact of our collective actions, emphasizing the need for conscious engagement. Recognizing the value we contribute, understanding the potential exploitation, and navigating the psychological toll can empower us to shape a digital world that prioritizes authenticity, well-being, and collective responsibility.
Every tap, every tag, serves as a reminder of our agency in this digital laborscape – a call to approach our online interactions with awareness, intention, and a commitment to fostering a digital landscape that values the collective contributions of every user.
David Gauntlett, Making is Connecting, The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.
Simon Lindgren, Digital Media & Society. SAGE publications, 2017.
PJ Rey, Alienation, Exploitation, and Social Media. SAGE publications, 2012.
Christian Fuchs & Sebastian Sevignani, What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?. Triple C, 2013.