In You As In User, an academic text on Web 2.0 economics, Dennis Knopf (aka Tracky Birthday) explains the way in which large social networks such as Facebook thrive on the sale, not of network space, but rather of information culled from network users.
Facebook, without this data, is worthless.
Value here is traded through its users’ voluntarily offered likes, dislikes, pictures, keywords, ratings, and other personal information which advertisers can, in turn, use to micro-target clusters of audiences, maximizing the ratio of advertisement signal to advertisement noise in each user’s daily media diet.
For some, this is seen to be progress—a “win-win” situation in which the consumer is afforded the freedom to seek out their most intricately individualized desires and the corporation offering this service is afforded the freedom to transform all of the data traces left by users into streams of financial capital.
But think of what this does to the potential for shared experience.
As one’s consumption becomes more and more individualized, does it perhaps decrease one’s ability to personally connect with other people consuming other sets of media?
And, furthermore, think of the existential dilemma posed by the ostensibly infinite choice of networked consumption.
As one’s initial mania for endless novelty wanes, is there a point in which this enthusiasm transforms into a dread regarding the possibility of endless fun consumption, endless deference of “true” satisfaction?
What exactly is the consumer getting out of this deal?
Knopf (following a thoughtful, not to mention substantial, presentation of research) writes in his conclusion:
The myth of complete consumer freedom and the seeming focus on giving users the chance to express their individuality is to be questioned. Web2.0 has opened up a world of opportunities and introduced technologies that have changed our relation to media. But as long as strategies like the walled gardens and the segmentation of media are just to construct differentiated, homogeneous audiences then the world of Web2.0 is not much of a democracy.
That said, though, what is the user supposed to do here?
Perhaps one severs their relationship to digital media in disgust and starts reading Hegel all day.
Perhaps one says, “the Hell with it,” leaping head first into the void of novelty, hoping to burst through to some other realm.
Knopf’s own suggestion takes a different path.
Effective counter-culture–here–aims to inform users of their exploitation in the system; he points to the practice of “culture jamming” in which the content of, say, an advertisement is designed to alienate the viewer of the ad from the ad’s message, thus catalyzing the viewer’s criticality towards not just this ad, but (ideally) all ads.
What would it mean to confront these conditions in contemporary art?
How does the contemporary art audience become conscious of contemporary art’s own involvement with these very economic models in which information is more valuable than material?
One place to look for an answer to both of these questions is the artist Ben Schumacher’s Immaterial Labour works.
In Immaterial Labour 4, for example, one views three beach towels inverted to hang on a wall.
Printed on each of the towels is a black and white photographic image of, respectively, a young woman, a man reading art books in a room filled with other art books, and another young woman.
It turns out that these images were not created by Schumacher, but rather were appropriated by him from the Facebook pages of users who identified that they were going to attend that show in which the towels were first exhibited.
Schumacher selects the image he wants to display, prints it onto a towel at Walmart, and, then, when the user attends the event, he or she sees themselves transformed into a work of art.
In each work, what one is viewing, if one is to follow the title’s lead, is not necessarily a person, but a concept—immaterial labour—the post-industrial labor of, for example, data sharing, the service industry, intellectual consulting, etc.
For an artist, particularly a young artist working in a networked culture, the capital they manage, before it’s financial capital, is social capital which can be quantified in terms of, for example, how many other Facebook users (and which Facebook users) acknowledge that they are going to attend your show.
If a ton of people indicate that they’re coming and a ton of people the artist desires, in particular, to indicate that they’re coming, then his show is, all of the sudden, worth something which might result in financial capital down the road.
Schumacher—in these Immaterial Labour works—transports this very process of others conducting free, immaterial labour for him into the eye of the art space.
What one views here, then, is, on the one hand, a towel whose face value (like Facebook’s face value) is negligible; and, on the other hand, a towel containing information (like Facebook’s user information) which is worth something.
It’s culture jamming. The product is a self-reflexive critique of its underlying economic function.