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Toward an Ethics of the Sociable Web

Source: [http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2007-July/002652.html]

A conversation between Trebor Scholz and Mark Deuze

TS: Given all the efforts to make use of the affective labor of millions of users, do you think that we could reach a point where networked publics feel exploited (or at least used)? Today, there is little indication of that as people get much out of their online sociality; they gain friendships, dates, information, skills, and more. At the same time media giants rake in billions. Just compare NewsCorp's acquisition of MySpace for $580 million to its projected value of $15 billion by 2008. Centrality and media conglomeration are additional complicating issues. Largely because of user-generated content, only ten websites are getting 40% of all page views on the World Wide Web. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Which ethical guidelines do you propose in the context of the social web?

MD: There are several problems with the way these important issues are phrased here. The key to understanding the currently emerging relationships between media consumers and producers, or between media owners and media workers (whether paid or voluntarist) for that matter, is their complexity, their reciprocity as well as animosity: their liquidity. Such relationships are seldom stable, generally temporary, and at the very least unpredictable. Yochai Benkler and others articulate in this context a hybrid or new mixed media ecology, typified by a global digital culture that can be understood in terms of what Lev Manovich calls a culture of remix and remixability, where user-generated content exists both within and outside of commercial contexts, and supports as well as subverts corporate control. So while one can indeed see the End User Licensing Agreements and Terms of Service of the major user-created content sites (including but not limited to game modding platforms, corporate citizen journalism initiatives, and viral marketing sites) as informal labor contracts, it would be a mistake to presume that the collective intelligence of the user community thus is "controlled" by the corporation (or vice versa). For example, as part of my research I talk with professionals throughout the news and entertainment industries (both in the U.S. and elsewhere), and many if not most of them express openly the fear that they have lost control over their own brands and properties as they get taken up and deployed by consumers and users in diverse, disorganized, decentralized, but very public ways.

TS: Again, the platforms of the social media giants make people easier to use. The mentioned surplus value speaks for itself. There is a rather obvious paradox of labor and people are being monetized without their knowledge and that breaks the social contract.

MD: I am not sure I can agree with your concern regarding the behavior of "media giants," using their impressive earnings as evidence. Not only does research within such organizations (for News Corp consider Tim Marjoribank's or Eric Louw's work for example) show that creativity, commercialism and management operate in much more complex ways than the singular/monolithic way you suggest, and not only do many if not most workers in such organizations also just want to tell great stories - within constraints of commercial and corporate pressures, granted – now we see consumers (former audiences) move in and out of these organizations and their creative processes as well. In a world without any media literacy, that would be a real problem - but frankly, I am doubtful whether we are still living in such a world. If anything, consumers-turned-users should be educated/trained to enable them to engage the "media giants" much more on their own turf. And simply earning a lot of money does not make a company unethical.

There are important concerns regarding the increased outsourcing (“crowdsourcing”) of media production to media consumers – not in the least because it seems to correlate with an increase in lay-offs throughout the media industries. So education works at least in two ways: in order to survive in a competitive, globally networked and niche-driven world, media organizations have to invest in their talent and reconsider crowdsourcing as a cost-cutting measure, and the people formerly known as the audience (Jay Rosen’s apt expression) need to become literate regarding the effective exploitation of their labor. Perhaps we need a global union for unsalaried media employees?

TS: Education for participatory cultures is, no doubt, a key issue. Knowing how to navigate the corporate lawn is important. That does not, however, cancel out peer-to-peer alternatives and public, independent media.

MD: Indeed, my argument calls for a "not only, but also" perspective on the emerging media ecosystem. Within such a system there are constant struggles, between top down and bottom up, between independence and control, between professionals and amateurs, where opportunities to tell all stories in all ways are plentiful. I think it is our job to identify the necessary conditions under which such meaningful and open exchange can truly take place, while at the same time enabling culture creators to earn a decent living.

TS: While I concur that we should support cultural producers in finding novel ways of earning a living, it is important to recognize that the sociable web today echoes real existing capitalism. Most attention and influence is concentrated at the core where corporate entities are situated. Toward the periphery we find the artists, educators, non-profits, and hard-blogging citizens. There are exemptions but let's not mistake them for the myth of the garage entrepreneur or the American Dream gone wired.

The cost/benefit constellation of affective labor is, without question, complex, but that does not mean that we have to become corporate apologists. The question of ethics of participatory context-providing giants (companies that facilitate the social networked life of hundreds of millions of users) is related to transparency, privacy, and ownership of uploaded content.

On the one hand, there is no question that it is extremely expensive to run hundreds of thousands of servers and keep the networked publics content with more widgets. Large-scale business certainly has the capability to create very convenient networked environments.

On the other hand, NewsCorp is unethical not because it makes billions of dollars but because most kids using these platforms are not aware that their activities are heavily monetized. The specific situation on Facebook, which currently comes second in terms of the number of users--right after MySpace-- does not make much of an effort to let its users know that:

By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content...

In addition, Michael Zimmer recalls that NewsCorp tried to change the MySpace Tersm of Service so that even if users removed their account information, NewsCorp still retained rights to the content. Zimmer says:

To me, there should be no limit for corporate transparency. It is crucial that users know exactly what information is being collected and for what purposes.

Richard Sambrook, director the BBC World Service, responded to my question about values in a recent interview

In terms of serving the public interest, independence and accountability, again these are all strengthened by encouraging participation and being open to the views and the input of a wide range of users. ... Transparency about the news-gathering and selection process is as important as the journalism itself in retaining that trust.

The ethics of participation is grounded in the transparency of the "rules of the game." Also business strategist Don Trapscott and media philosopher David Weinberger don't hesitate to agree with that. If I know that I am used, if I am aware that my social emotions are monetized, and I can tolerate that, then the social contract is not broken.

How many companies,however, make an effort to ensure that users know who owns their content, what happens with the information they provide in profiles, and that leaving their social operating system will be hard. Which company supports the export of uploaded content and user contacts? The seamless interoperability is much less a reality than many people argue.

John Henry Clippinger argues for a unifying identity meta system across contexts and adds that "identity systems must only reveal information identifying a user with the user's consent." The realities of implementation of transparency, privacy, and intellectual property are, of course, very multi-faceted but there is such thing as unethical behavior.

MD: I am not contesting any of this, of course transparency and media literacy are key, and it is our responsibility as media educators and their corporate responsibility as good business practitioners to work with users rather than trying to co-opt or control them. The pre-World Wide Web experience with fan cultures has already shown us that such business strategies simply do not hold, and ultimately contribute to a brand’s downfall and loss of credibility. On the other hand: it is difficult for big mass media enterprises to retool, to reinvent – since they are used to be in control of the media marketplace in a context of information and channel scarcity. We should therefore not forget that most of these companies are still new at the online/converged/ interactive game, so perhaps we cannot blame them for trying to cut and paste their top down control model onto the World Wide Web (that does not mean its okay - its just a more grounded perspective on the current staple of co-opting practices). I operate under the assumption that such a strategy will fail, and that a new one, as advocated by Sambrook and others, of transparency, co-creation and participation will prevail. Indeed, I find it more inspiring to search for instances, examples, initiatives, values and praxis within (or: at the margins of) the professional media world where there is diverse and complex co-creative collaboration and exchange, rather than just lamenting those evil corporations that just do not tell you in all honesty that all they want is to control you and the dollars you spend.

TS: How do you interpret the "Facebook rebellion" in September 2006 when over 700.000 users stood up against the introduction of a RSS feature that, according to many students, breeched their privacy? I'd propose the protest as an expression of a kind of communal lock down (even if the word “protest” may sound a bit dramatic). Again, the exit costs for Facebookers are simply too high. Just consider that Facebook dominates the American university market in terms of social networking. Students have all their friends on that platform and much content (pictures, videos, text entries, diaries), none of which they could easily take with them should they decide to leave. Their only chance is to protest as moving on to another platform would be too socially costly. They "outsourced" their memory and now they are a "captive community." How do you interpret this incident?

MD: First, I would contend that Facebook users are not "captive" (nobody is forcing them in or out), but the observation that users increasingly enact some kind of critical agency in the face of less-than-convenient features of social networks (especially the often complete lack of transportability in migrating avatars, content and databases between different sites). Again, I would hesitate to frame all things occurring in this media environment in terms of binary oppositions. Sure, companies are trying to monetize the collective intelligence of cyberspace. And yes, users sometimes accept, and sometimes reject the conditions under which their participation is enabled. But the interdependency of all the actors involved makes for a more complex and liquid reality than simply one of all-powerful professional producers versus hapless, captive and easily exploitable users.

TS: In the case of Facebook, it's hard to not perceive this platform as a social imperative for college students in the United States where 85% of all students have a profile there. If you don't want to be a social outcast, you better join. Apart from the significant peer pressure, as I said, it is a considerable loss of weak ties but also content if you'd decide to migrate to another platform.
Do you think that users should have full control over their own content on a social platform?

MD: Yes, but to a large extent, I think they already do (and such control also depends, as you argue, on users investing time and
resources in understanding or even rejecting oppressive terms of service). The problematic areas are in the fields of copyrights and
privacy (that are often related, such as in the case of the commercial repurposing by companies of user-generated content like personal photographs).

TS: The facts on the ground of the dominating social platforms look different. Users do not know what happens with the very detailed information that they contribute. A quick look at Yahoo makes that clear.

Yahoo! reserves the right to send users unsolicited emails without an option to be removed from this email list. All content a user produces (including emails and instant messages) can be read by Yahoo! employees. Your personal information may be disclosed if Yahoo! believes it to be in its best interests.

Also Facebook has clearly stated that it owns all content uploaded to its site. On the social web it is the exemption that users have control over their own content.

MD: There is a difference between not knowing or not being interested in corporate content regulations, and not being able to control your own content. I agree with the first premise, but also want to articulate that the opportunities for knowing and enacting agency are there, too. Sure, social pressures make it difficult to stay inside or leave. On the other hand: in a hyper-individualized society being part of Facebook or MySpace is, to some extent, temporary, and not being part of it can be an equally significant symbolic act of membership of other social networks. So again, the either/or perspective (being "in" or "out") just does not seem adequate to explain or predict what is happening in our media life today. Overall, I am just not convinced that such categories– any categories – are that stable to be able to base longterm theories or models on.

TS: When advertising started in the United States in the 1880s it was soon associated with the loyalty to and identification a brand. Is not MySpace very similar to that? There is, of course, the difference that MySpace is not a product per se (i.e. compared to Coca Cola) but rather it is a context-providing platform. Today, community is the product but loyalty to a brand is still as desirable for the enterprise. Where do you see the difference? What has changed?

MD: Today, everything and everyone is a commodity that needs to be marketed, presented, constantly updated and remade, and sold. Every Facebook profile or MySpace page is an ongoing advertising campaign. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, in today's "consuming life" people are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote. I prefer to think of this inevitable catastrophe (in Bauman’s terms) as one that potentially opens up new power relationships, new ways of organized networks of users/producers acting collectively where collective action otherwise has been marginalized or cancelled out.

TS: I do not share the inevitability of everything becoming a product that you assert. Capitalism, in your paradigm, sounds like a trans-historical imperative.

MySpace is pushing for "engagement marketing." It aims at "power users" or what they call "influencers," people with thousands of "friends" on MySpace. NewsCorp may offer them money in order for them to recommend products that they like to their social network.

Do you agree with Zizek who stated that "it's possible to imagine the end of the world; it's not possible to imagine the end of capitalism."

MD: Intellectually, Zizek calls for an important insight into the way we critique the information age: it is often (and at least in part)
premised on a model of society that is in part responsible for creating the conditions for the very system we criticize. However, I am less interested in imagining the end of capitalism than in teaching students to be as creative and independent as possible when entering the global media marketplace. On a different level of abstraction there are - there must be - plenty alternatives to the capitalist model- and even "capitalism" is a more complex system than we often presume it to be. The economy of culture and the culture of economy is a crucial object of study in this regard – opening up a perspective on markets, economies and capital that does not necessary require a polar position of culture and creativity at the other end of the spectrum.

TS: Are there any alternatives in sight? What about an independent, public social networking site?

MD: Optimist that I am, I'm sure there are hundreds if not thousands of those in operation already, in various P2P, open source, or otherwise “alternative” capacities. Yet an exciting alternative to me does not necessarily exist outside of the capitalist/corporate model. Again, I find it more inspiring to think of hybrid models, complex alternatives. Of course your perspective is perfectly valid and important, I just choose a different route towards audience empowerment and corporate responsibilities.

TS: So far, I can't locate any public, independent social networking site that manages to support social life on a significant scale. There is much pervasive surveillance on the sociable web, which makes it hard to build trust into any corporate platform with our data.

Today, Facebook is seen as a convenient place to conduct background check. The LA Times reported on June 25, 2007 that Rupert Murdoch has subjected MySpace in China to heavy censorship. Yahoo's reputation has already suffered from their complicity in the arrest of pro-democracy activists in China.  Do you think that users are really aware of this fact?

MySpace is a surveillance ground for police going after illegal activity. But censorship on MySpace in the United States has been battled by MoveOn for its refusal to run an ad about a political issue, its deletion of the most popular Murdoch parody profile, its deletion of profiles with homosexual-related content, its disabling of a MySpace blog forum where user discussed censorship issues, its disabling of links to YouTube in December 2005, and many other sites including VideoCodeZone, Revver and Stickam.

You may describe these problems as dilemmas that companies need to address head-on to be successful. But are not there vital interests of marketers that are simply at odds with values such as transparency or trust? David Weinberger recently pointed out that marketing is about entering a conversation in order to influence it. Where do you locate realistic limits to corporate transparency?

MD: Perhaps you are right when you express the worry, that many of not most (and especially the youngest and the newest) users do not understand or even read the conditions and rules which govern their interactions online. On the other hand, I do believe the level of media literacy in this context is rising, and will continue to do so, in part because of the work of media educators and scholars. Furthermore, the surveillance you talk about can increasingly be characterized as a reciprocal transparency, or perhaps even a participatory Panopticon: with half of the population on the planet owning a cell phone, everyone is watching (sometimes, through digital cameras, literally) everybody else. This gives shape to new problematic or worrisome situations, as we know that surveillance does not work for deviants, but rather functions as a illusory device for the rest, increasing Homeland Security in the U.S., however understandable as a response against an attack, cannot deter terrorism, but primary is intended to make most Americans feel safer when shopping or traveling. So what will happen if everyone surveys everyone else? What are the social consequences of a P2P Panopticism? The whole of the world and our lived experience in it can indeed be seen as framed by, mitigated through, and made immediate by pervasive and ubiquitous, personalized and converged, digital and networked media. This world is what the late Roger Silverstone in his last book considers a "mediapolis": a mediated public space where media underpin and overarch the experiences of everyday life. Combining such insights with critical and complex notions of a mixed media ecology, media researchers - as scholars of the new human condition - can explore new avenues of research and understanding. But we have to be critical of easy and convenient intellectual endeavors based on simplistic models, categories and reductionist theories.

TS: I agree that reading the Terms of Service needs to be an essential part of the list of skills for participatory cultures but the
participatory panopticon does not really work as a metaphor for me; the situation that you describe has little in common with Bentham's panopticon. What would be a more useful model for a situation in which everybody watches anybody else?

MD: That is a stark assessment. if the primary function of the panopticon is for society to police itself, the current participatory
media environment (and especially its corporate tentacles like MySpace or Cyworld) works pretty well. Often, you really have to know specific web designers or net artists and their communities online to find deviance, difference, the unexpected. Just as a panopticon in terms of security and surveillance ultimately functions to police just those submitting to being policed, I think the same goes for the current ecology.

However, your challenge is inspiring: what would be a more useful model? There are several useful concepts generated in recent literatures, some of those I already mentioned: the mixed/hybrid media ecology (Benkler and others), Henry Jenkins' concept of convergence culture, the culture of remix and remixability developed by Manovich, Silverstone's mediapolis, and perhaps my own notion of a life lived in (rather than affected by) media, a media life. Each of these models contributes to describing and explaining what is going on, but indeed, sometimes fails to offer instruments to effectively critique it. I especially recommend
Silverstone's last book, Media And Morality, for an inspiring call to arms in that context.

TS: Jamais Cascio, the Worldchanging.com founder who introduced the term "participatory panopticon," points to important changes in the nature of surveillance. “Sousveillance” reigns supreme when thousands of demonstrators use their easily concealed cameras to submit photo and video evidence of police violence to the web. Cascio mentions Video the Vote, Witness, and The Blair Watch Project, all attesting to the power of "see--snap--send" as method for political action.

However, the panopticon, as metaphor, does not fully fit here as its core characteristic cannot be applied. The idea of the panopticon, of course, is to allow usually a single observer to observe all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not.

The fact that one never knows when one is watched, however, matches the idea of the panopticon. Today, people are largely aware of the transparency of their lives, their vulnerability to surveillance by the many and it's not just one watchman but all of us, as of course you point out. Perhaps "many-to-many surveillance" is a better-suited term to describe this situation, which is not the same like sousveillance.

Jenkins describes fan cultures that in some way "spy" on TV production companies (e.g., Survivor) but he does not really address many-to-many surveillance very much. Manovich and Benkler don't focus on surveillance.

MD: Indeed, this would call for a more holistic approach to media life – one that includes the role personalized and portable multimedia technologies play in collective surveillance as well as collective intelligence. My best guess at this time would be is to open up the analytical field for interventions that include, rather than reject, the role companies and corporation have to play in all of this. Let me repeat my core argument here: our concerns regarding the role and business practices of multinational media corporations in the  emerging global media ecology are important markers for a critical media research agenda. However, a juxtaposition between "them" (the corporations, the Market) and "us" (the activists/P2P users/the People) is, if anything, just a very small part of the picture, and it rather unreflexively reproduces Adorno/Horkheimer-type false dichotomies that are perhaps convenient, but really do not seem to do much justice to what Louw calls the "communicative complexity" or what Bauman would
suggest as a "permanent impermanence" in the media world today. Sure, power is unequally divided, especially if one thinks in terms of returns on investment, but the studies I know signal that at any given moment even the smallest independent entrepreneur or fan community can be extremely powerful vis-a-vis the global media system for example: if you are a developer specializing in Wii or PS3 games today, you have a lot of power because Nintendo and Sony are desperate to build a catalogue.
However, as an Xbox 360 developer it is much more difficult to remain autonomous. On the other hand, if you are an avid XNA Studio Express user, you can circumvent Microsoft on its own console and play your own games with your friends online. There is power everywhere, and that is where my research and teaching are located.

TS: I agree that there is no complete autonomy, not even temporarily, and that the “us” versus “them” dichotomy is indeed a dead end. Brian Holmes and other wrote convincingly about the managerial other within us.

However, at the same time not all narratives are equally valid and shades of complex gray should not trick us into academic positions of mere observation!! There are large corporate participatory environments and, as Alain Badiou would suggest, there is an ethics of each specific situation. Despite Google's corporate motto "Don't be evil," there evidentially is such thing as unethical behavior when it comes to those who facilitate large-scale sociality. Business strategists, Tapscott in "Wikinomics" for example, love the idea and work hard to teach the corporate world how to "bleed" the enterprise into distributed networked publics-- blurring the edges between hanging out online and creating wealth for platform-facilitating others.

It is part of capitalism's game plan to leave the players at the bottom of the pyramid enough room for maneuver, sufficient flexibility to not feel exploited or oppressed. While the power that you assign to developers only speaks to a small group of technically empowered experts (or professional/amateur hybrid users), I do agree, that today, the ease of information flows allows groups of people to coalesce (not in a class sense, to be sure). Speaking out to a corporate entity is harder for people who drink a new variety of Coke than it is for Facebook users.

MD: I am hesitant to think of capitalism as a singular entity with a linear "game plan" - that view does not seem to be supported by the evidence from media research as far as I am aware of. My own work focuses on the working lives of media professionals in different fields (as documented in "Media Work", published in 2007 by Polity Press), and considers how these people, often working within one or more "capitalist" media corporations, manage their “workstyles”: their ways of working and being at work. Such workstyles for example give meaning to a delicate and continually contested balance between creative freedom and job (in-)security, between autonomous production and user-producer co-creation, between telling the stories they want to tell and remaining commercially relevant. If anything, what I see and hear from these media workers offers quite a few fascinating markers on a future roadmap for ethical, diverse and transparent participatory media practices, and most certainly suggests that media capitalism is as much to blame for exploitative and controlling business models, as it can be an effective agent in circumventing, exposing or even erasing such ways of doing things. To paraphrase the late Richard Rorty: that gives me social hope.

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