Exploitation? Who cares? They like me!
Posted by Amery Bodelson
“Please like, comment, and subscribe to see more content like this.” I finish watching a YouTube video and click the thumbs-up button to show my approval. I scroll through the comments. I then flit through Facebook and Instagram, offering a few more “likes” and posting a picture of my cat. According to Mary Chayko, author of the 2018 book Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, I am contributing to the “participatory culture” of the internet age (p. 68) in which I prosume (produce + consume) content (p. 69).
My social media presence is small, but as I’ve liked posts, articles, and pictures over the years, I notice more targeted ads and sponsored posts. They certainly know I’m a woman of a certain age who likes cats, travel, food, and yoga. In Chapter 4 of Chayko’s book, the author cautions that this free sharing of information is making corporations profitable while not paying consumers:
“As people contribute information to websites, blogs, and social media networks, they tell others a great deal about themselves and make quite a bit of personal information public without being compensated in return. Such data, in the aggregate, can make organizations and corporations very wealthy” (p. 68).
Our internet habits make large corporations money, but so did our TV habits and our radio habits before them. Buyer beware; viewer beware. At least now we have more say in what gets created.
Chayko asks if people are being exploited when they share personal, free information online so readily (p. 76). In a capitalist society, we’re driven by profit. Though cruising the internet and social media feel like casual, non-consumer activities, they’re not. The YouTuber we watch for fun is likely making a profit. The items they’ve chosen to talk about are probably profit-driven, based on viewer requests or brands scouting them. Like any form of communication, a tit-for-tat structure forms this “prosumptive nature” of the techno-social world. If you like my picture, I’ll like your video. If you ask me a question, I’ll give you an answer. While we’re not directly paying for our social media applications, we are paying with the amount of attention we give them. In the so-called “attention culture” of the internet, the amount of attention we give to a social media presence creates a currency in the form of attention paid (p. 76). This has become so important that some creators now pay for likes, comments, and subscribers: see Buzzoid or Stormlikes. We like attention, and we like to feel part of a community; social media gives us that.
“Those who communicated via these online networks very often came to feel bonded—like members of a community or club in which they were genuinely, often deeply, engaged. It was, for sure, a new way to initiate sociality ” (34).
To feel part of that genuine community, we gladly ignore exploitation.
As social media personalities become more well known, they have to become more savvy, too. Any why shouldn’t creators who put out strong content make money from that content? Many bloggers and vloggers lament the hours they spend writing, editing, and tagging their posts. They have to be skilled at technology, communication, marketing, branding, and research. Audience members are also pretty good at sniffing out phonies, and with the number of options available to click and find something new, content has to be good, or at least amusing. No matter whether we’re speaking through grunts and hieroglyphs or emojis and hashtags, we have a “timeless human desire to communicate with one another, to be seen and known and understood (p. 15). Social media and the internet allow us to do that every day, all day, if we so choose (which carries a burden of its own).
To stay part of this growing online community and attain the always-on attention we seek, most users overlook or ignore the very-real exploitative nature of this techno-social world.
(While composing this post, a series of throwback songs popped in my head, including Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”).
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