Wages for Facebook?

This page, Wages for Facebook, appeared in my feed the other day. Strange. Besides being entirely anonymous, no links, no credits, nothing to indicate its source, in blaring all-caps, it gives the reader less freedom from information than Facebook itself, scrolling away beyond my control, feeding me the prescribed dose of rhetoric embedded hip deep in rigid ideology. Is it art? Or what?

Turns out this scrolling iPad page was part of an art exhibit at UC-San Diego, an installation called How Are We Feeling Today  mounted in part by Lauren Ptak, a curator and faculty member at Parsons. She had been incubating it for a year, discussing it with students. After all that effort, how did she manage to be so off target?

OK. So the concept is interesting. What Facebook is extracting from us is unpaid labor. And we should be compensated. Marxism 101. It’s unclear whether she expects actual payment, merely a change in consciousness or some in-kind contribution.

What this polemic gets wrong is 1) the presumption that we have no choice and 2) that being surveilled is equivalent to unpaid labor. Perhaps, yes, we were duped to believe that signing on (clocking in?) meant we would get something of value in return, something more than friends and likes and community, the chance to create a personal “brand” or gain a following.

Well, yes, we do get something in return, but it’s not necessarily so obvious what that is, especially if all we do is hang out in a limited circle of intermittent activity and believe it’s all about “social presence.” In time, however, it has become increasingly clear what we are getting in return. What we are getting is distorted, bizarre, violent, myth-busting and soul-gutting. Ptak suggests we come to our senses and demand something more real in return, like….what, money?

What we are getting is hollowed out. Facebook has become an open-pit mine, an offshore oil-rig, a clear-cut forest. Our interiors, our sacred internal wilderness, is being harvested and sold off just as surely as Utah’s Grand Escalante is being cut up for oil leases. And the worst part of it is that we are doing this willingly. If what we give Facebook is labor, then we are all unpaid sub-contractors….the new gig economy, with no benefits.


In a normal world and in micro circumstances, it might have been true and acceptable that Facebook is selling a chance to be seen and possibly create community. Maybe it even started with that lofty intention and looked that way for some years. But then something happened. It’s still a space in which advocacy can flourish (if not immediately smothered by trolls and bots), but since it went public, it became the toy of venture capitalists and the revenue mechanisms (algorithms to harvest your personal information) became ever more precise and surgically invasive, bulldozing everything in their way.

Now is not normal. Facebook has become both one of the reasons now is not normal and the perfect reflection of that abnormality. Facebook is no more normal than the culture in which it is immersed and reflects/exhibits all the aberrations we now see everywhere we look, including and especially the cracking of the social order. Thanks to Trump, the corporate state and an irresponsible media, the socio-political space is fast becoming a playground for the rich with no rules and no ethical boundaries. Who benefits from that?

OK, there is a certain “aha” about this polemic. But it’s stuck in the perception that we are workers and that our participation and value is “labor.” Something crucial is being missed here. To Facebook we are not labor. What is being extracted from us has no value until it is repackaged and sold back to us. And if this factor/perspective is fully considered, it forces a redefinition of what Ptak means when she says “wages.”

That missing view is extractive capitalism, which, as we see everywhere, always externalizes as much of the real costs of extraction as possible. The “cost” to me and to the culture (that Facebook is not paying) of my participation in Facebook and Facebook’s continued success in convincing me that it’s something I need, is incalculable, particularly now as “news” is weaponized, as “truth,” the 4th Amendment and democracy circle the drain. Ptak makes no reference to this view. The only figure associated with the art installation at UC-San Diego who mentions extraction is the curator herself, Michelle Hyun.

If I, a sentient being, were to attempt a calculation of the cost to me and to the larger culture perpetrated by the extraction of my personal preferences for anything, the cost that is being externalized, massaged, traded and sold back to me, even if it could be calculated and returned as compensation, will never right the socio-political ecosystem because those wages do not address or promote any recovery from what Facebook takes.

To suggest that the true cost to me of the extraction and trading of my personal preferences can be equalized in the form of some imaginary direct payment, as wagesforfacebook suggests, would indeed be a hit to Facebook’s bottom line. A truer representation of a “repayment” for trading in my personal information would be some as yet undefined reparation–such as agency, for example–that could RESTORE what has been lost, rebuild what is broken, which is not material and cannot be converted into money. The agency of a clearcut forest cannot be restored by showering it with money, any more than the social contract or ethical standards or responsible governance can be restored the same way. Democracy cannot be rebuilt from the ground up by handing out money or merely by declining to be someone else’s strip mine.

If FB were to survive in an enlightened world, it would have to replow its profits into the promotion of restorative cultural activity that would be completely free of, and an antidote to, the primary extractive nature of its business model: a new economy– which is a reference to the original meaning of the word economy, oikos, care of the home. In other words, Facebook would have to be directly undermining its own business model with one hand while harvesting your personal data with the other. How likely is that?

But in this sense, Facebook is no different from CNN in that it has abdicated a crucial responsibility of journalism and offloaded the task (and cost) of differentiating between truth and falsehood to the viewer. It is no different from Exxon-Mobil in the sense that it has many corporate faces and stories, ones that play to the masses, others that play to investors and still others that play to legislators. As long as the externalized costs continue, a corporate system that knows no national boundaries, has no allegiance to anything but profit and remains rigidly opaque is not taking care of the planet or the culture.

They are extracting an immeasurably valuable resource, exploiting it, trading in it, and dumping the consequences on someone else. This will continue until there is nothing left to take, unless we do something about it. Like, for starters, ending online anonymity, restoring and preserving actual privacy controls, permitting a complete opt-out of personal data sharing, fostering true competition in social media and bringing transparency and regulation to the data traders.