Trebor Scholz’s Cautionary Note on Social Media (via Howard Rheingold)

[blipit id=”1017251″]

As seen on Howard Rheingold’s vlog:

Whenever people refer me to pseudo-critics of social media (i.e. Andrew Keen), I refer them to Fred Turner or to Trebor Scholz, who actually know something about what they are criticizing. I recommend Scholz’ paper, What The MySpace Generation Need To Know About Working For Free for those who want to learn more.

It’s nice to see a familiar face on an Internet celebrity’s blog. If you recall, I participated in Trebor’s graduate seminars last year and took in various readings on how electronic networks change the way we live. I saw an iterative pattern, from the telegraph to the social web, towards how we coordinate ourselves throughout history. The only real change to me though, is complexity.

I believe that as networks get more complex, motivations and agendas become more implicit. With that, I picked up Trebor’s perspectives on the dark side of the social web, especially since most of what we hear online seemed one-sided towards the excitement of online social networking (is the proper term “in-selling“?).

It’s easy to get lost in the crowd when the mob is blindsided by the various pleasures of socializing, from the simple action of adding friends on Facebook, to more deliberate action of joining in a video lipdub. Thing is, do we question the larger agenda? Who gains the most out of this implicit labor? Does it matter if users know? Are we becoming intellectual lemmings?

One of Trebor’s key arguments (which I share) is the idea of social networks being locked-in (what I call a walled garden), where users might not realize how time and labor invested on such platforms might not be exportable. As such, greater use would mean less likelihood of one leaving the network, essentially being trapped. Our collective action in such networks turns into free creative labor for the site owners, from which is used to attract even more users (i.e. network effect).

There has been effort on the opposing end to liberate our personal identity (including our media) across networks, such as the Data Portability initiative, which a few major companies have agreed to partake in. It remains to be seen how generous social networks like Facebook and MySpace will be, in risking their already enormous population of captive users.

10 thoughts on “Trebor Scholz’s Cautionary Note on Social Media (via Howard Rheingold)

  1. Interesting video, thanks for posting it. After watching it, now I feel like I have to go read his paper. Thanks for linking to it.

  2. Absolutely, most people dont realise and frankly dont care what happens to their personal information. Has anyone actually read Facebooks terms? They have so many loopholes about personal info. I think in the near future some of these sites will get into serious legal problems with a few bad ” test” cases.

  3. I just read Scholz’s paper and I find it quite thought provoking. As he mentions, capitalism now comes in the power of the internet. Google itself is a very fine example. With immensely popular and addictive social sites like MySpace and Facebook, it’s not hard to see this gradual move towards monoculture which Scholz mention in his paper. If this continues on for long enough, this will essentially be the ONLY way people socialize. Life outside of a network or even the internet will eventually not matter anymore.

  4. Waihoe, the idea of capitalism is that it pervades the fabric of all societies, even where governments fail. While that is nothing new, the challenge I think exists in the notion that the Internet seems free, e.g. Friends asking me why Youtube is free. Our concept of free mostly resides in the notion of money, but as we know, it costs us in more intangible defragmented ways, such as distributed effort. Amazon Mechanical Turk recognizes this and formalizes the process. My question is whether this is considered exploitation and if awareness of it makes any difference.

  5. Actually, what I was trying to say is that, in the internet, capitalism has found another rich new ground to thrive on, just as it has been in the past whenever anything new comes up that can be milked for profit.
    As for your question about exploitation, I guess it’s really a matter of perspective and like you say, depends on our notion of profit.
    As for awareness, I guess it’s always good that every now and then issues like this get brought up so that we actually think about them actively. For instance, like you said above, are we allowing ourselves to be restricted in a particular social network and thus cutting ourselves off from life outside the network? I agreed with Scholz on the notion of social sites promoting a monoculture which I think isn’t healthy, especially for younger generations. It prevents them from actively engaging in issues outside of their online social lives which may also have an impact on them as well. This kind of monoculture is the thing which corporations milk their profit from. Articles like Scholz’s makes us aware and question ourselves from time to time whether we’re living an imbalanced life to the profit of someone else.

  6. Waihoe, the monoculture argument is a little flimsy for my taste, because it’s a catch-22 situation. Beyond the confines of any social networking service, we are always part of other communities, virtual or otherwise. We cannot not be separate from them, unless we live as hermits. Cultural norms and memes exists in every community. I wouldn’t attribute social networking as a source of monoculture, the only way I see this happen is through extreme levels of usage (e.g. addiction), in which case as with everything else, moderation is key (just like those who claim violence comes from video games, films).

  7. Personally, the way I see it, we don’t necessarily have to be hermits to be separate from our other communities. By just focusing on one and ignoring the rest long enough, when we come back to them, they seem as distant and unfamiliar as any new ones we’ll come across. And that brings me exactly to the point that you mentioned about addiction, which was what I was trying to say about having a balanced lifestyle. What I think Scholz is concerned here is the impact that social sites have on teenagers nowadays. It’s quite easy to pick up addictions during teenage years. I know I got addicted to video games when I was around 17. We know that any form of addiction is bad. Not only it is unhealthy, either physically, mentally or socially but your addiction is also profiting another party as well…
    But these are just my personal thoughts/bias that I take away from reading Scholz’s paper. What do you think about Scholz’s cautionary note? Is it overly cautious or are his concerns valid?

  8. Waihoe, Trebor’s point are valid, but how widespread it is remains in question. Those MySpace related cyberbullying and suicides are exceptional cases, not the norm. Some academics, like Howard Rheingold have mentioned (I learned via Trebor) how he’s not too concerned about it.

    Addiction is pretty universal problem… so if that is the main gripe then we have to figure out the strategies for coping and disengaging from it.

    On a related note, you might also be interested to read or watch Mark Deuze’s thesis on the “Precariousness” of Media Industry. It’s very ironic because the same free labor / exploitation online, affect professional creative media industries as well. There’s an argument that the low cost of user generated content essentially cheapens the work of professionals. Already newspaper agencies have been retrenching journalists as they’re feeling the pinch. Economically, their main revenue would come from advertising and classified ads, but both have been somewhat subsumed into the online domain (e.g. Craigslist is generally free).

Comments are closed.