“You’re not on LinkedIn? Well, that means you don’t exist”. I made this comment recently to a friend who came to me for some career advice. I’ve spent the last 10 years working in the recruitment industry and have witnessed the influence of social network sites on the way people now look for work, and how employers look for new recruits. As the popularity of social network sites has exponentially increased, so too has the dependance on them. If you are not categorized, tagged and branded online, then you are not searchable and classifiable. This reliance on social network sites, may just be a product of the broader shift of society towards a networked society, but it also makes me feel like there is a darker side to our obsession and use of social media. The more we use, the more we are enabling the private companies who own these platforms to categorize and commodify us. Leading to ever greater reliance, so that those who do not wish to participate then risk network externality (Van Dijk, 2012). I am online, therefore I am. Is it worth it?
Image 1: Classification on social sites such as LinkedIn has led to questions on use vs used
Web 2.0 and social media sites
In the present day social relationships are organised through and dominated by social media and online communities (Van Dyk, 2012). This popularity is due to the characteristics of Web 2.0, in which the importance of the user and their online practices are recognised, therefore signalling a new era in participation and conversations (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013). It is a philosophy of doing business where the user is placed at the centre of the service and access is given for free or cheap. Sites empower users to express themselves, meet and connect with other people, and gain access to broad sources of information.
However, with this transition, expectations are shifting regarding how people receive and share information (Pybus, 2015). Trivial, personal and transitory events are shared constantly by individuals with their networks, making the distinction between public and private blurred (Boyd, 2010). Momentaneous in intention, but also amplified and accessible to a global audience. Accessible too, to the owners of the sites, who ask that in return for using their services, they can watch how we behave and then use that data to sell to advertisers (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013). This constant uploading of personal materials and cycle of user generated content is legitimising a culture of disclosure (Pybus, 2015), and commodifying our personal lives for the consumption of big business. There is a tenuous relationship between empowerment and exploitation and control.
Empowerment vs control
“The real revolution encompassed by Web 2.0 is a revolution in thinking, where internet companies have finally come up with a way of understanding the internet and working out effective methods for using it as a technology of control in the networked society” (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013).
This discourse around the used vs user in social media has been described by Hinton and Hjorth (2013) as being understood in two binary and opposite ways. On one end of the spectrum, social media has been hailed as a libertarian and democratizing medium that is empowering; connecting users and enabling communication and access to information and media like never before. This lowering of barriers helps to undermine traditional established power structures and gives ordinary people more control, including more control over their social networks which may lead to better chances in areas such as employment. Networked individuals and the use of social network sites has also led to a reduction on the importance of cultural intermediaries, the rise of citizen journalism and has even been implicated in regime change (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013).
On the other end, it can be understood as a tool used by private corporations to commercialise the affective, social and creative efforts of users (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013). This interaction, sharing and creation of content is accumulating vast amounts of user based data from which we see a marketplace emerging where personal data is collected, stored, sorted and sold to the highest bidder.
Andrejevic (2014) describes the ‘networked sociabilities of social network sites as ordered by a ‘separation of the user from the means of socialising, thus permitting “storable and sortable” collections of social data”. In an interview with Sarah Childress from Frontline (“We are all Lab Rats”, 2014) he talks about “data exhaust”. This is the concept that everything we do online is instantly recorded and by multiple sources. Nothing is erased, which means we are constantly shedding this ‘data exhaust’, a memory of all our actions, preferences and online decisions. This aggregated data is then used for advertisers to know what and when to target us with new products and services (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013). As we become more dependant on digital services, we become more subject to the control mechanisms of the information society. Users and their cultural and interpersonal activities are being monitored, regulated and managed like never before (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013).
“those who have access to and control the platforms have the largest, most powerful source of information about human behavior that anyone has ever had in human history. And that’s information that they are going to use for their ends, whatever those might be…. The extent to how powerful that’s going to be I think we have yet to see. But the notion that it’s going to be powerful is something that all of these companies who collect this information are betting upon. That’s why they are investing huge amounts of money in developing infrastructures to capture that information, and huge amounts of money and infrastructure for storing the information, and resources for sorting it and mining it and putting it to use” (Andrejevic, 2014)
Companies try to come across as impartial, merely as mediators, as just a ‘platform’. They help to cultivate an image of control through the level of personalisation we have over our profiles, privacy lists etc. However, all actions must occur within the confines of the structures and features of these platforms, which in essence makes them the controllers. Facebook has given few rights to users and in many cases is self serving, rather than user empowering and Google’s revenue stream is primarily from advertising (Hinton, Hjorth, 2013). Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and others are all for-profit commercial companies that do not have a public service commitment beyond the goal of making money (Andrejevic, 2014). Therefore we are their product and users are the source of value. Users are the commodity.
My social media assignment was based on a career consulting company. I used multiple platforms to seed information that job seekers may find useful, or inspiring to gain followers. However, my end goal was monetization and commercialisation. I was banking on the fact that my knowledge of how employers use social network sites, how they categorize skills and experiences, would be useful to job seekers as they try to navigate the ever complex networked society and learn how to brand and commodify their self.
Andrejevic, M. (2011) ‘Social Network Exploitation’, Z. Paparcharissi (ed.), A Networked Self. New York: Routledge. Pp. 82-101.
CHILDRESS, SARAH (2014). Mark Andrejevic: We Are All “Lab Rats” Onlin. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/mark-andrejevic-we-are-all-lab-rats-online/
Boyd, Dana (2010). Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics and Implications. In Papacharissio, Z. (Ed.), Online Social Networks: Identity, Community and Culture in the Digital Age. Florence, KY: USA Routledge.
Cvetkovich, Ann. (2003). An archive of feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press.
Dijk, Jan van (2012). The network society. 3rd Edition, London; Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, pp. 22-48.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Social Network Sites Understanding Social Media. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.