In “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Tiziana Terranova discusses postindustrial societies’ emphasis on knowledge as a new commodity for consumption. While I had never directly considered knowledge in this way, as an entity as commodified as anything material, what struck me more about Terranova’s article was not the idea of free labor and its fueling of Internet capitalism (though it is simultaneously exhausted and largely unrewarded), but rather the extents to which this free labor stretches – just how many free laborers the Internet is contingent upon, individuals who make possible some of its largest capitalist enterprises yet are not acknowledged or reimbursed for their efforts. Moreover, they are often not even aware of their own labors. When you consider a site like eBay, mentioned in a post below, it is quite amazing how holistically the entire system depends on free labor. Users must photograph, describe, and post their products to be sold; sellers must browse seemingly endless pages and bid constantly to secure their win. Negotiations between the winning bidder and the seller are common, and occur directly through email: what, then, does eBay really do to sustain itself, besides providing the domain and interface through which buyers and sellers may find one another? For, once they do find each other, the labor rests almost entirely on them. Of course, eBay, like all other large commercial websites (e.g. Amazon) has adopted customization features, telling users what products they might be interested in based on past purchases, but even still, the site itself, i.e. its paid and acknowledged employees, are not particularly responsible for the site’s capital revenue. The users’ labors, the posting and bidding and emailing and shipping, fuel the site through its commission and seller fees.
Even a site like Facebook, where no direct transactions involving the users are executed, still depends on the free labor of those who join it. The more Facebook users, the more wall postings and uploaded pictures and general time spent on the site – all a sort of labor in itself – and thusly the more site traffic, which attracts the advertisers that clog the margins of our screens and create large amounts of revenue for Mark Zuckerberg et al. To go a step farther, even news websites like The New York Times Online or CNN online – which certainly do create much of their own revenue through their journalists – still depend partially on the free labor of others. News coverage of the riots in Iran last year, for example, was deeply rooted in the cell phone videos and pictures submitted to the NYT, CNN and others by people far removed from the organizations – people present at the event itself. It was their labor, their strife and the effort of capturing it, which allowed online news publications to break the news with on-the-scene video and photographs.
And yet, as Terranova very astutely says, free laborers are not entirely exploited: they have a “desire for affective and cultural production that is nonetheless real just because it is socially shaped,” which creates an interesting distinction between the free-labor-dependent capitalist structures of the contemporary Internet and, perhaps, a stricter Marxist view of capitalism (Terranova, 36-37). There is a sense of “fulfillment through work” that drives the voluntary labor of so many web users (37). We enjoy viewing and consuming Facebook pictures, and thus post them to create/produce our own fulfilling experiences. With eBay, there is a monetary/material gain (whether you buy or sell) but fulfillment plays its part too. And of course, in the example of online news sources, one might contribute to worldwide awareness of a cause or event; the free laborer’s contribution and production has undeniably beneficial ramifications in the news world, thusly supporting Terranova’s claims of “fulfillment through work,” even when it is free, uncompensated, under-appreciated work.