pavlos hatzopoulos on Thu, 1 Nov 2007 22:48:05 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Toward a critique of the social web

 *A debate between Trebor Scholz and Paul Hartzog*
* *
*+* a call for papers for further

** *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
Revolt>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

*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
naivet??. 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

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

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
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
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

*Trebor Scholz:* If we aim to live ethical lives in the
context of the (mobile) Social Web, we'll need any platform?C
corporate, hybrid, or non-market that can serve as a place
for meaningful interventions. Henry Jenkins, in Convergence
4756.html>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
cebook-replies/>. 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
er/q13-24.htm>." 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
"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
<> 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
collectiosn 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.

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