American Culture

We're just serfs in the machines of Facebook, Twitter, HuffPo

I am a content slave — a serf, says David Carr of The New York Times.

[T]hink of Facebook, which is composed of half a billion freely given user profiles, along with a daily stream of videos, posts and messages. It is both a media site and a social network, and all of the content is provided free of charge. By creating a template for information and a frame around it, along with a community that also serves as an audience, this new generation of content companies have created the equivalent of a refrigerator that manufactures and consumes its own food. [emphasis added]

A helluva business model, eh? It’s paying off handsomely for the folks who own the refrigerator. Arianna Huffington et al. have sold The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million. Over the past several months, Facebook’s market cap (a company’s capitalized value calculated by multiplying current share price by the number of outstanding shares) has been variously estimated between $25 billion and $41 billion.

Twitter has been valued at $8 billion to $10 billion — not bad for a company with about 300 paid employees.

Let’s leave to another day (and a more competent correspondent) the question of whether media companies whose business models appear dependent on serfs like me are overvalued. More important considerations linger.

I’m on Facebook. And Twitter. And WordPress. I am a miniscule fragment of the 13 to 15 percent of the world’s population who provide free content to media companies such as Facebook and Twitter. Smaller entities, too, enjoy free content. Ever post a comment on a story at a news media website? You’re a serf. Ever have a blog post aggregated by another blog — or HuffPo itself? You’re a serf. And, of course, all those works provided by serfs like you and me are interwoven (a polite word for aggregated? stolen?) among these content companies (whether they like it or not). Writes The Times‘ Carr:

One of The Huffington Post’s strengths has been creating an online community of readers with tens of millions of people. Their ability to leave comments on Huffington Post news articles and blog posts and to share them on Twitter and Facebook has been a major reason the site attracts so many readers. It is routine for articles to draw thousands of comments each and be cross-linked across multiple social networks. [emphasis added]

Well, so what?

It’s easy to build an argument that says the corporate heads of FB, Twitter, HuffPo et al. are greedheads profiting on the uncompensated labor of hundreds of millions of typists. But why shouldn’t the creative people who took risks to undertake these enterprises have a chance to cash in on those risks?

No one forced me to become a Facebook serf and Twitter retweeter. When I measure my FB and Twitter costs against benefits accrued, I win. The infrastructures of such companies allow me to communicate with friends, family, and students virtually cost free save for my time. They also provide platforms that allow me to promote my posts here at S&R. My time has value, but the capabilities FB and Twitter provide me to reach a broader audience represent a fair trade.

Facebook and Twitter have permitted serfs like me to transmit raw information in circumstances other media could not and have not — an attempted revolution in Iran (apparently renewing) and an (apparently) successful revolution in Egypt come to mind.

It’s that “raw information,” however, that troubles me. If upwards of an eighth of the world’s population (that’s a lot of serfs) is tossing out tweets and status lines, that’s an enormous amount of information. How does a rationally ignorant reader make sense of it? (Yes, I know that marketers have enormous analytical abilities for their purposes to make sense of the demographics of the eyeballs.) The marginal cost of analysis is sufficiently high against the perceived benefits that individuals are less likely to try. But that crowd of the rationally ignorant has an amicus curiae, so to speak — journalists. They get paid to sift through gobs of information to find patterns — or breaks in patterns — that others do not not necessarily have the resources to see. That’s the nature of the job.

But tens of thousands of experienced daily print journalists have lost their jobs since 2007. The broadcast journalism community was gutted long before that. Cable news companies seem committed only to cutting into each other’s market share. Media companies that own (or once owned) journalistic entities like newspapers now use financially uncompensated serfs and aggregation to reduce costs and replace profits.

As an individual serf, my costs are minimal to produce information through social media. But if the benefit I need is to understand how the world at large works and why it works that way, my membership in serfdom has enormous costs. I remain rationally ignorant because the monitoring cost is too high for me to individually analyze the varied grand stages of the political, economic, and cultural worlds tweeted and aggregated and status-lined around me.

So I write the occasional status line, the occasional tweet, perhaps post some of my photography from time to time. I benefit from brief interaction on my individual terms.

But I continue to know less about the evolving world I live in. Being a serf has a terrible cost — so much data and only occasional, intermittent, sometimes anonymous, and not always credible or competent voices to explain what it all means. It rather reminds me of the CIA of many years ago, devaluing HUMINT (human intelligence sources) for SIGINT (signals, or electronic, intelligence). That didn’t work out so well, did it?

So much noise buries the signal today. As the amount of serf-produced information extant increases exponentially, skilled journalists become more valuable. It’s sad, frustrating, and frightening that so few people grasp that.

5 replies »

  1. It’s important not to overestimate the internet and social networking space.

    I mean, what, is every last soul on the planet going to tweet or twitter every detail of their existence? Are you going to twitter while you are on your deathbed?

    Besides, this is all fiat, digital money supporting this, it’s not real. It can be inflated to infinity, which means it’s worthless.

    This whole thing is coming crashing down, folks. You can’t digitally create food or water or oil.

  2. Debbie Downer! You need to watch the Lee Camp video and wait for the revolution tweets here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Social media is the revenge of the nerds. Remeber that stupid thing you did way back when? Of course, because its now posted on your wall. Don’t you want to know when Jimmy has gone from “waiting at the post office and pissed” to “Forcing one more pair of jeans into the washer is a bad idea”? Sure, thats why he keeps you updated. Wondering how Billy Ray knew when Mylie was on the pot? Right after she was tagged “totally choking on a Graffix.

    This whole thing is crashing down, but hopefully we are high enough to cushion our fall on the massive pile of broken dreams of people who have lost hope already.I estimate it will be similar to walking on broken glass in pieces so numerous a single shard is unable to cut the flesh for lack of relative elevation gain.

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