Playbour: the infinite labour glitch within user-generated content

Photo by Andras Vas on Unsplash

“Playbour” is the combination of play and digital labour on social media platforms. This phenomenon was born after the emergence of social media networks that required users to surrender their personal data and labour in exchange for access to a platform. The Digital Labour argument presented by Christian Fuchs and Sebastian Sevignani states that Playbour is the dominant model of corporate Internet platforms — user-generated content creates value for social media networks (Fuchs 237). Social media users knowingly perform unpaid labour when they are interacting and engaging on any platform. Building on Fuchs’ argument, Geert Lovink explores the paradoxical condition of the digital world through an examination of users’ awareness of online surveillance and their indifference to “technologies of capture and cultures of fear” (Lovink 10). The normalization of surveillance and data collection as the entry fee to social media channels has allowed corporate Internet platforms to exploit user labour without much backlash.

This paper will argue that the solution to avoiding exploitative digital labour is to shift all social media platforms away from private monetization and towards collective user ownership, where all users will retain ownership over their creative labour and the platform itself. Social media networks have changed the way privacy and ownership are valued. Online privacy has separated itself into a category away from physical surveillance (like the presence of large amounts of police or security in public spaces), which society still rejects as overbearing and a violation of rights. The foundation of this paper will be based on the structure of social media in reference to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon model and how this model has normalized Playbour. This argument will be supported through a critical analysis of Playbour and voluntary servitude on the digital sphere, pulling from Fuchs, Lovink, and Romele’s works on the exploitation of social media users.

An evolved version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon has found a breeding ground in social media. On these platforms, the panopticon model has the same effect, but it is reversed, because the controlled (the user) is alone in the middle of the prison (the sociotechnical system) and the controllers (the other users) are all around her or him (Romele 205). People are increasingly aware of surveillance exercised by and through social media, but not much is changing in consumer practices online. Under the panopticon surveillance model, intrusions of privacy are consensual. The term for this phenomena is “voluntary servitude”, which is a paradoxical notion because it represents the attempt of connecting two opposite facts: human beings’ free will and their submission (Romele 206).

Bentham’s model has been adapted since its conception in the 18th century to fit a new standard of living. In place of the physical watchtower, there are digital footprints and portfolios, cookies and trackers. The application of a surveillance model intended for a prison setting to the digital sphere paves way for the exploitation of digital labour. Because the act of simply being on social media creates value and profit for the companies, dataveillance has become a major aspect of Playbour. Dataveillance has impacted society both culturally and socially by changing the way privacy is valued. While most people are cautious about allowing strangers to follow them home, many willingly offer lifetime access to a portfolio of personal online data and activity to Internet companies without hesitation.

The desire to have access to some form of social media (typically through a smartphone or laptop) at all times has made most of Western society, specifically Gen Z and Millenials, extremely vulnerable to 24/7 digital surveillance. Social media networks, as explained by tech experts in The Social Dilemma, are designed to become addictive platforms to its users. The act of “pulling down” on a timeline and newsfeed to refresh the page mimics the act of pulling the lever on a slot machine. A win on a slot machine provides instant gratification and the addiction of these machines relies on the expectation (gambling) of rewards. Similar to refreshing a newsfeed, users may be rewarded with Likes, Comments, interesting content, or they may receive nothing. Regardless, social media users find themselves addicted to the “slot machine”, in hopes that on one of their turns, they will “win”. As Deborah Lupton says in “The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self Tracking”:

The ways in which people incorporate objects into the routines of their everyday lives — or effectively how they become entangled in assemblages with these objects — are important elements of sociomaterial investigations. Objects are transformed through this process of incorporation, becoming endowed with a biographical meaning that is specific to the living practices and spatial contexts in which these objects are used […] Smartphones are not only touched by and carried on our bodies, wearables not only sit on our wrists: they are repositories of highly personal and individualised information — images, messages, appointments, details about our bodily functions, location and activities, our friends and our family members (Lupton 34).

In summation, her point is that a device like a smartphone is no longer simply an object used to communicate, but has transformed to be an integral part of life. Furthermore, user reliance on these devices have allowed them to continuously collect information on digital and physical movements, creating an ever growing, online personal data portfolio. Lupton’s description of all the aspects of a user’s life that are detailed in smartphones (from upcoming doctor’s appointments to one’s current location) highlights just how much personal data is volunteered to different social media applications on mobile devices without any thought. Not only are digital footprints traced, physical steps — with the help of a pedometer app — are tracked as well. All of this consistently collected information translates into an excessive amount of Playbour.

Playbour is what creates value for social media networks. Without user-generated content and engagement, Facebook remains an empty frame for both its audience (workers) and its advertisers (employers). In her book, Deborah Lupton explains how a decrease in risk awareness regarding personal digital information has been exploited by large companies:

“The value of the data that prosumption produces explains why so many services such as social media platforms and apps are offered for free. An entire industry has developed around harvesting big data and finding profitable ways of using and selling them. The ‘internet empires’ — the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon — exert tremendous power by virtue of their ownership and control over digital data in the global information economy” (35).

If social media empires can convince millions of users to fill out a profile and accept terms allowing third parties access to their information, this exchange of data becomes normalized. The public no longer perceives this as a breach of privacy, but rather a fair trade off.

In Julian Kucklich’s article, Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry, he states that:

While the commercialisation of leisure is hardly a new phenomenon […] it seems a radical departure from the established business models of the leisure industries that the games industry not only sells entertainment products, but also capitalises on the products of the leisure derived from them. In order to gain a firmer grip on this slippery issue, it seems necessary to differentiate forms of “productive leisure” from unproductive leisure. (Kucklich, 2018).

Kucklich’s observation of the commercialisation of leisure in the digital games industry and forms of “productive” and “unproductive” leisure can be applied directly to the Playbour argument. Playbour is essentially the commercialisation of one’s free time — their “unproductive” leisure. The social media platform is not being sold to the user, but rather, the user is the commodity. So what should social media users do in order to avoid this digital exploitation?

In Social Media Abyss, Lovink explains that governance models and the structure of the Web are not well monitored and that it is the responsibility of users to build alternative platforms. In Marysia Lewandowska’s review of Lovink’s book, she states that his argument,

… Makes us deeply aware of our own weaknesses in developing forms of sociality, what he calls collective awareness platforms where emphasis is placed on long-term collaborations over one-off events […] Social media means sharing amongst the users and doesn’t extend to collective ownership or public utility, recounting Jean Baudrilliard’s theorized transition from subject to consumer. (Lewandowska 2).

To avoid being exploited through Playbour, users need to work towards shifting all social media platforms away from private monetization and towards collective user ownership, where users will retain ownership over their creative labour and the platform itself. User-owned social media gives control to users, allowing the networking aspect of social media platforms to be controlled by them, and not an unknown algorithm. Mastodon, one of the top user-owned social media networks, allows its users to publish unrestricted content through a platform that is community-owned and ad-free (Step Change 2018). Mastodon’s mission is to provide a safer social media experience for users through its anti-abuse tools and features through an independent network, with user moderators (Step Change 2018). User-owned social media platforms are open-sourced networks that compensate users for their digital labour. Alternative social networking sites, like Minds, awards users with tokens when they spend time on the platform. These tokens can be used for “News Feed boosts” and “peer-to-peer” boosts that allow users to promote and advertise their own posts on the platform.

Playbour is essential to social media networking sites today. Although it is normalized, the exploitation of “unproductive” user labour violates user data privacy and content ownership. Social media networks should aim to be user-oriented and friendly, as user-generated content is what creates value for these platforms. Private monetization prevents social media users from owning the content they produce, protecting themselves from data breaches and dataveillance, and having control over new features and networking algorithms. Open-source social media networks allow users to move away from Playbour and towards non-exploitative leisure time. Many user-owned and controlled platforms have already garnered significant followings (Mastodon has over a million monthly users), paving the way for the emergence of more social media channels that value user privacy and collective ownership.

Sources

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Power.” In A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, edited by Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan, 94–101. 2nd ed. London: Open University Press, 2009.

Fuchs, Christian, and Sebastian Sevignani. “What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s Their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, vol. 11, no. 2, 2013, pp. 237–293., doi:10.31269/vol11iss2pp237–293.

Lewandowska, Marysia. “Book Review: Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures and the Force of Negation.” Media International Australia, vol. 167, no. 1, 2018, pp. 198–199., doi:10.1177/1329878x18757787f.

Lovink, Geert. Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures and the Force of Negation. Polity, 2016

Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self: a Sociology of Self-Tracking. Polity, 2016.

Kucklich, Julian. “The Fibreculture Journal : Issue 5: Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry.” The Fibreculture Journal, 2005, five.fibreculturejournal.org/.

Romele, Alberto, et al. “Panopticism is Not enough: Social Media as Technologies of Voluntary Servitude.” Surveillance & Society, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp. 204–221. ProQuest, https://www-lib-uwo-ca.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proqs t.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/docview/1903822565?accountid=15115.

Step Change. “What Is User-Owned Social Media? — Blog — Step Change.” Step Change, blog.hellostepchange.com/blog/what-is-user-owned-social-media.

The Social Dilemma. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, produced by Larissa Rhodes, Exposure Labs., 2020. Netflix.

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Fiona Huynh

Academic pieces from my time as a Media and Digital Communications student at Western University.