Social media architecture derives from an utilitarian approach of obtaining the most efficiency out of the human subject it yearns to control. Making use of deception and other ubiquitous strategies such as the instrumentalization of communities and factorization/machinization of social activity, the neoliberal apparatus has found ways to coopt yet another one of its critiques, labelling our current mode of exploitation under the "social" tag. At the same time, one can witness a paradigm shift in the way users participate in culture, from culture participation to participatory culture. But in which terms is that participation defined and to what extent do we participate in culture? Is this participation affected by our socio-political and geographical situation? I mantain that the "losses" caused by our claim to culture participation are hugely counteracted by the way social media architecture crowdsources the multitude, draining every possible metadata we produce online as a means of control through information possession.
"For those professionally or even incidentally embedded in media, to say that we are manipulated, that trickery and deception are effectively exercised on a regular basis, is not to deny that people cannot or do not think, but it would be to further deceive and manipulate ourselves to think that rational subjects are not outstripped by events."
(Fuller and Goffey, 2007)
Jeremy Bentham, utilitarian reformer of the 19th century, dreamt of a world where there would be nowhere to hide, a paradise of transparency where everyone would be visible and therefore no secrets would exist - although only for those who could not afford privacy. This architectural idea was to be applied to the management of schools, prisons, factories and other primarily social spaces of subjectivity formation. All in the good name of efficiency and with the ever so appropriate name of "Panopticon" - a state of permanent surveillance and discipline presenting magnificent benefits to the maintenance of the economical infrastructure. This Foucaldian disciplinary society moved on to what Deleuze describes as the control society, when the crowd is no longer contained within a single space, thus witnessing the appearance of the multitude. The multitude's surveillance is now participatory, for it is the way we participate with our data that provides the tools for our control and subjectivity formation. And if it is true that we participate in the construction of our subjectivities, we still construct them within a certain system - this collective and social construction is always determined by the disciplinary methods of the neoliberal apparatus. In that sense, we might control certain aspects of that subjectivity, but the way we produce it is still coded by a much bigger apparatus. Andrew Keen warn us that the prison of the 19th century has reappeared within the social web (or, as Reid Hoffman puts it, Web 3.0), but with a plot twist: it is now considered as pleasurable and entertaining. Social media architecture derives from an utilitarian approach of obtaining the most efficiency out of the human subject it yearns to control. Making use of deception and other ubiquitous strategies such as the instrumentalization of communities and factorization/machinization of social activity, the neoliberal apparatus has found ways to coopt yet another one of its critiques, labelling our current mode of exploitation under the "social" tag. We participate willingly but not always knowingly in our own incarceration.
"Immaterial labor", in Maurizio Lazzarato's understanding, can be seen as incorporating most of post-industrial production characteristics: cooperation, self-directed management, autonomy, networks and flows. However, one must bear in mind the normative character of said characteristics as a means of achieving the most efficiency possible. Immaterial labor combines intellectual, manual and entrepeneurial skills and its cycle of production operates on a social level, there where social communication corresponds to economic value, the "social" directly identifying with the "economical". This assumes that the public/consumer now implicitly takes part in the process of production by means of his/her interaction with cultural commodities. Immaterial labor, then, both satisfies and produces a demand, ultimately forming subjectivity. Lazzarato sustains that subjectivity is now the "raw material" of immaterial labor, conspicuously producing a social relation. No innovation is then possible, as in the end all comes down to the management of social relations through the control of public access to information. One interesting case study of this production is that of the Amazon's Mechanical Turk. a system in which workers around the world browse HIT's (Human Intelligence Tasks) and choose which ones to complete. As explored in "The Return of the Crowds: Mechanical Turk", an essay by Ayhan Aytes, this phenomena can be described as crowdsourcing, a term which describes the relationship, whithin the neoliberal apparatus, of the outsourcing paradigm and the crowds of the digital networks, the breaking down of barriers between amateurs and profissionals brought about by the massified access to communication commodities, the latter being seen as one of the factors for pushing down labor costs. It relies heavily on labor and time arbitrage, which exploit the neoliberal apparatus gray legislative areas. This state of exception contributes further to the cultural detachment of the cognitive worker/cultural producer, who sees the access to the cultural dimension of the commodity he/she produces completely denied, for it informs social relations somewhere else in the world and ends up not affecting their own. The information production cycles impact differently on subjectivity due to the immediate and direct effect on the domain where they are produced.
Mirkos Tobias Schäfer's chapter two - "Claiming Participation" of his book "Bastard Culture" further explores the idea of self organized communities interacting with culture in a variety of ways, questioning the extent to which we participate in it and how. Technology both enables and shapes participatory culture. According to Mirkos Tobias Schäfer, participatory culture marks a shift between cultural participation, in which users take part by an intelectual deconstruction of cultural artefacts, participation which is still very much restricted to an intelectual elite, and the fading of barriers between amateur culture and professionals, users and producers, in which action, construction and modification are common interactions of the user with cultural artifacts. This participation extends beyond media text production and modification to software development, which is "the means of production of the digital age". This shift is allowed by new technologies and the architecture of Web 2.0. The way we perceive participation has been shaped by the employment of media technology for social interaction and political activism. Participation here is viewed as a critical practice. In popular discourse, participation comes associated with the idea of promoting new technologies, whilst a more academic discourse perceives it as a cultural phenomenon which can help explain contemporary media practice. New terms have been coined to describe this user-generated culture: "produser", "prosumer", DIY culture, peer-to-peer and the ideas of a collective, of community and collaboration often come associated with it.
However, one must not incur in common misunderstandings regarding participatory culture, which comprise the assumption of social progress, that participation is always explicit and based around communities sharing similar motivations and which ignore design choices which implement this participation, as well as neglect that when we participate in culture, participation in power structures and general revenues is still out of our reach. A good example of this last point is, yet again, that of the Mechanical Turk.
So, in order to better understand participatory culture, one must keep in mind two key aspects, which declare that participants don't share a common motivation determined by an homogeneous socio-political background and do not always participate in areas dependent of big media industries; participation is not always explicit, but often times implicit, so that it becomes more difficult to assess the extent to which cultural production is affected by user generated content.
Explicit participation is driven by extrinsic or intrinsic motivation, which varies according to the different users' skills. It should not be reduced to altruistic motivations, or critical activism against hegemonic culture, but perceived as heterogeneous in the sense that concerns users from the most different backgrounds whose range of skills vary greatly, from different contexts such as paid labour, leisure or unpaid voluntary work. It relies on the appropriation of technology by users, and further development of technical skills.
Implicit participation is a consequence of design choices that take advantage of user activity and habits by automating and facilitating. It doesn't necessarily require conscious activity of cultural production or problem-solving by users, nor is there any need for them to collaborate and communicate. There's no need for interaction, shared values and common goals. These are platforms which benefit from user generated content contributing to information management systems, which can be exploited for improving information retrieval or gathering user info for market research.
Schäfer's mapping of the domains of user participation divides internet labour in three main areas: accumulation, archiving and construction, which can sometimes overlap and often occur in conflict areas in which user activities converge with the interests of culture industries.
- Accumulation describes all user activities which comment or interact in any way with massified popular culture. Within this domain one can stumble across the principles of "remixing": combining, changing and adapting pre-existing cultural artefacts, often belonging to major media companies. However, even if some of these activities are protected by fair use, it is not always the case since Copyright Law has been becoming more and more restrictive - cultural industries are not too keen on having their profits under menace. This causes for many Digital Millenium Copyright Act letters to be sent and disproportionate lawsuits to take action.
- Archiving is defined by user storage of artefacts, building online data collections and reorganizing cultural resources and knowledge bases. Again, this domain often clashes with copyright law, namely in the case of bit torrent sites and web storing and sharing services which not always survive copyright's holders attempt to have them shut down or their content removed.
- Construction refers to production not dependent on culture industries, where distribution and production means are not subjected to a centralized power. An example of this type of production is that of software, in collaborative environments which abide to free/open source principles. Not unlike the previous domains, within the field of modification of software-based artefacts new interactions between amateur cultural and big media industries occur.
If, explicitly, these cultural interactions often clash with big media industries' interests, implicitly the revenue our activities represent can be imagined to greatly counteract these "losses". It seems to require ever more effort to escape the neoliberal "social". The web opens up new spaces for activism, community exchange and decentralized information sharing, but it's not hard to imagine well-succeeded attempts to instrumentalise it by means of ever more invasive Copyright laws, implicit metadata extraction, etc. However, this opens up a vast array of new possibilities of dissent and interrogation by means of exploring the amount of possibilities offered by the same technologies which allow for the cooptation of the web.