Karl Marx – Alienation and Commodity Fetishism in Social Media
R&C – Political Economy
When one thinks of the political economy of Marx, social media is probably not high on the scale of relevancy. Indeed, what likely comes to mind is a sepia-toned depiction of laborers slaving away their lives under a ruthless capitalist in a gritty turn of the century factory. While this image is indeed how Marx would likely have you conceptualize some of his ideas, I would like to humbly suggest that a more modern picture of Marxian political economy could be drawn; and in a very unlikely place.
Social Media; the Siren’s Call?
The past decade has seen incredible increases in the use of social media. Facebook alone has gone from nearly one million users at the end of 2004 to over 500 million today (Facebook, 2011). Twitter and LinkedIn both have over 100 million members and Google’s latest venture into social media (with limited invitations) has already hit the 10 million-user mark and is expected to rapidly hit 20 million in a matter of days (Greene, 2011; HuffingtonPost, 2010; LinkedIn, 2011b).
Such rapid growth and adoption of new online services is not surprising in this media-driven and connected age. What is surprising, however, is how much time is spent not only online, but on social media applications specifically. According to Nielsen research, in 2010 Americans spend almost a quarter (22.7%) of their online time on social media and blogs. This is up 43% from a year before. Social media activity comprises the largest amount of time out of the ten categories measured in the study. Indeed, 40% of the average American’s time online is spent between three activities: social networking, game playing, and emailing (Nielsen, 2010).
Figure 1 - (Nielsen, 2010)
Compounding this social media craze is the parallel craze for smartphones; application driven and web-enabled mobile phone devices. These devices have found a home with 31% of all mobile phone consumers in the United States (Kellogg, 2011). Recent surveys have found that in 2011, the average U.S. mobile phone user spent 74 minutes on the web and 81 minutes on mobile applications. This represents a 91% increase over 2010 numbers for mobile application use (Newark-French, 2011). Large portions of these new mobile applications are social media driven and are poised to be the next go-to technology (Falls, 2010).
Social Media, an Addiction?
With the increasing amount of time people spend on social media applications and the ever-increasing accessibility through mobile devices, one might guess that much of the population is addicted to social media. Recent data shows that this idea might not be far from the truth.
According to a 2010 Retrevo survey, people’s interactions with social media applications does indeed border on addiction. Retrevo found that nearly 50% of respondents under age 25 checked their social media accounts after they go to bed or soon after waking up. A full 56% of social media users check their accounts at least once a day while over 40% said that they didn’t mind being interrupted to check a status update.
Rigorous academic study of social media addiction seems to have been largely unexplored. However, social media addiction appears to fall within the category of general Internet addiction, which is characterized as an impulse control disorder. This disorder is more likely in ages under 35 and is a gradual onset (Shaw & Black, 2008). Symptoms can include excessive time spent using the technology to the detriment of other responsibilities and can lead to dependence, obsessive thoughts, and withdrawals. Yet despite these characteristics there is still debate as to whether Internet addiction is even a true pathological condition (Davis, 2001; Song, Larose, Eastin, & Lin, 2004).
Despite this, it is certain that more and more people are using social media applications for increasingly significant portions of their day. While it may be a stretch to claim a pathological addiction to social media, the next question to ask is, are we slaves to social media?
Do we have a Choice?
Technological revolutions may not necessarily be scientific ones but much like a Kuhnian paradigm shift, once a new technology takes hold, it can be very difficult to get by without adoption. Like vinyl records gave way to tapes; that gave way to CD’s; that are currently giving way to pure digital music files (mp3’s and the like); old technologies, no matter how loved by their connoisseur’s, eventually must pass on and new technologies must be adopted.
So it is with the Internet and social media. Certain age groups not withstanding, if someone were to tell you that they do not have an email account (or even worse, do not know how to use email), you would likely wonder how it is that they can even operate in the world today. Indeed, social media appears to be at that border of optional and necessary where a lack of adoption could hinder one’s ability to successfully operate in the modern world.
Social media sites like Linkedin.com (120+ million members [LinkedIn, 2011a]), a professional social network, are fast becoming avenues of job promotion, recommendation, searching, and headhunting. Meetup.com, consisting of regional and special interest groups, is being used more and more to organize real world events. Then of course there is Google+, Facebook and Twitter, quickly becoming the de facto method of communicating and keeping up to date with family, friends and acquaintances. Even the highest levels of government are using Internet and social media applications to conduct citizen outreach (Twitter, 2011).
With so many avenues of connection, is it even practical to not be at least somewhat connected to this virtual social web? Will there come a time when people wanting to connect with each other will have little choice but to use applications like Facebook? E-mail, once the “new” technology standard, is beginning to show its age with a significant decline in use by younger generations (Lorenz, 2007). Many websites are now beginning to use shared authentication sources like Facebook to register and control access to their sites (Facebook, b; Melanson, 2010). This means that if you want to participate on some websites, you must have a Facebook account.
Marxian Happiness, Alienation, and Commodity Fetishism
To understand how social media can be viewed through the eyes of Marxist ideology, we have to detail Marx’s ideas of species being, alienation, and commodity fetishism.
Marx, like many philosophers, had thoughts on the nature of humanity; what life meant to humans and how to achieve the things that we want. According to Marx, humans sought a type of self-actualization, a self-fulfillment of social and individual consciousness and awareness that he termed species being (C, 1988; Marx, 1975). Though, unlike other theorists contemplating the goals of humanity, Marx’s basis for determining the actualization of our species being was tied to the outputs of our work and production. More specifically, our happiness is tied to the fulfilling work and production of goods and services that meet our individual and social needs and that the producers of those goods and services are also the consumers of those creations (Marx, 1975).
Yet according to Marx, in a capitalist system, the modes of production (also considered to be the basis of other social systems and social dynamics) are controlled by a limited number of bourgeoisie or upper class. These bourgeoisie benefit from the surplus labor exerted by the lower proletariat class in what Marx sees as an exploitive and domineering relationship designed specifically to force the proletariat class into subjugation (C, 1988).
The central conflict in Marx’s critique of capitalism is that the proletariat masses cannot be self-actualized if they are not in control of the modes of production and subsequently the resulting products of their labor power:
So much does the realization of labor appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital (Marx, 1975, p. 2).
Here, Marx lays the foundation for what he subsequently identifies as alienation; the idea that because the expended labor power of the worker goes into a product/s that the worker is not the owner of (and increasingly cannot afford with subsistence wages), that they are abstracted from that product and hence from the actualization of the species being:
In these two respects, then, the worker becomes a slave of his object; firstly, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e., he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. Firstly, then, so that he can exist as a worker, and secondly as a physical subject. The culmination of this slavery is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and only as a physical subject that he is a worker (Marx, 1975, p. 3).
Second to the idea of alienation is that of commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism, something Marx attributes to a larger distortion called false consciousness, is where people attribute social relations or phenomena as being properties of and between objects or products (C, 1988). These social relationships are fundamental to commodity-producing systems, “it is the social relations of production which govern the way in which material objects enter the economic process” (C, 1988, p. 43).
Thus, because social relations are continually expressed through these objects (commodities), they are arbitrarily given value by people (independent of the labor used to create it) and can impart a sort of control over the relationships of the people trading them (C, 1988; Marx, 2010). Obvious examples of commodity fetishism are things like cars and jewelry; items that some feel impart a sort of prestige or enviable feeling in others. Indeed, many people could be said to be dominated by their commodities (Klayman, 2011; Tran, 2010).
Tying in Social Media
So what does Marxist ideology have to do with social media? My thought is that social media is the new capitalist industrial political economy of the information age. The new proletariat class is the mass of people actively participating in social networks. The new labor power is the time and intellectual content provided by those people. The new capitalists are the owners and marketers of the social networks that profit off the labor power of the masses.
Figure 2 – Traditional Profit Path
In tying Marxist ideology to social media, there are a number of things to clarify, as the comparison is not a perfect one. Perhaps the most questionable caveat is the ownership of the modes of production. In the social media model, it can be said that the proletariat themselves own the modes of productions since they typically own the computer or devices that they are using to channel their intellectual labor through. Additionally, almost all popular social media networks today allow users to retain the copyright of the content that they post (Facebook, a; MySpace, n.d.; Twitter, n.d.). Thus, it would seem that making the argument that users are alienated from the results of their intellectual labor power is a moot point.
Social Media and the Modes of Production
Let us examine these ideas a little deeper before entirely passing them off. While is it true that the proletariat in the social media model do own the primary mode of production, there are in fact more layers of production in this model than in Marx’s traditional industrial model.
Layers of production in the social media model
Layer of production mode
Owner of production mode
Telecommunication provider (bourgeoisie)
Social media service
Social media provider (bourgeoisie)
Figure 3 – Layers of production in the social media model
As Figure 3 outlines, there are three dominant layers of production in the new social media model vs. the single mode of production in Marx’s industrial model. Despite the fact that the proletariat may own a single layer, all must be utilized in order to participate in the social media model. Given that capitalists still own two of the three layers of the production modes, we cannot say that the proletariat owns the modes of production.
Social Media and Ownership of Outputs
The next point to cover is the idea that because the proletariat retains all rights to the intellectual content they submit, that it means they own the product or result of their labor. From a purely legal perspective, this is true; the rights to all content submitted to most social media sites remain with the author/submitter. However, central to Marx’s point was that the alienation caused by the lack of control over the modes of production and the output of the worker’s labor power was an affront to the actualization of the worker’s species being; their happiness.
I humbly suggest that in the social media model, owning the output or product of intellectual labor power has little if anything to do with Marx’s species being. Instead, I feel that it is the social connections created, broken, strengthened, or weakened that feed directly to the worker’s species being. Since the output of the intellectual labor power in this case is not a tangible good, the only “finished product” that the worker can place value in and not be alienated from is the actual social connection that their output generates; not the actual output itself. This allows for a supra or meta level of social connection above that of the social connections embodied in physical outputs outlined by Marx.
So then why bother applying Marx’s alienation to the social media model at all? Well, as it turns out, as with all digital “products,” they can be replicated, stored or distributed with virtually little additional labor or cost. In a sense, the output of intellectual labor in the social media model (indeed, in the digital model as a whole) is that the end product is nearly infinitely reproducible. This means that there is no longer a single object that the worker can own that will constitute self-actualization in Marx’s terms.
What this means is that now the “output” of intellectual labor power can be used in a multitude of ways by many different entities. Indeed, the majority of popular social networking applications are free for public use. This seemingly contrarian model of business logic has some fascinating underpinnings (Anderson, 2009; Shuen, 2008). Yet perhaps the simplest explanation of this was expressed by blue_beetle, a user from the website MetaFilter.com when s/he said, “if you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” (blue_beetle, 2010); and herein lies the problem.
Social Media and Alienation
Social media sites fit what is called the Web 2.0 model, a term coined by Tim O’Reilly to describe a generation of websites that shifted from an information production and distribution model to a user-generated one (O’Reilly, 2005; Shuen, 2008). This model capitalizes on the use of user-generated information to drive site popularity and in turn, profits. All major social sites from Facebook to Titter to MeetUp to Google applications use this model. What most of these sites won’t openly tell you is that the primary method for generating profits from user’s free intellectual labor power is that they continually track your usage statistics for the purposes of cutting edge marketing (Anderson, 2009; Shuen, 2008). In other words, these sites track what you type, who your “friends” are, where you go (GPS in mobile devices and “check-ins”), what you buy, and what you are thinking about (through status updates) in order to more effectively market products and services to you.
In effect, these sites are using your own outputs against you (and anyone connected to you in their systems) in order to subjugate you into seeing what they want you to see and to buy what they want you to buy (Pariser, 2011). This is in effect the ultimate mode of exploitation and domination; using the proletariat’s own free intellectual labor power to voluntarily subject themselves to intimately effective marketing strategies designed to treat them as a product instead of the worker creating the product!
Thus, we loop back around and are faced squarely with Marx’s problem of alienation. Given that the proletariat’s “ghost” ownership of the outputs of the social media model contribute directly to their own subjugation, from Marx’s perspective, the workers are still alienated from the true outputs of their intellectual labor. While I did outline above that I believe one of the meta outputs of intellectual labor in the social media system does indeed speak directly to the social connections necessary to an actualized species being, the fact that the workers do not completely own all outputs (and uses there of) of their intellectual labor still leaves them being alienated, if even at an unrealized level, from their outputs.
Social Media and Commodity Fetishism
Finally, we are left with commodity fetishism, the attribution of certain qualities (oftentimes human or social) into commodities as a result of our alienation with the end results of our labor. From the social media model perspective, it’s fairly easy to see an almost unhealthy fetishistic relationship between the proletariat social media users and the multiple “product outputs” of social media.
With the statistics outlined in the introduction of this paper, it is easy to see the level of fascination certain segments of society have with social media. Social media communications have taken the place of a number of once strictly human-to-human interactions and brought them online. While we might think that this level of abstraction would lessen the emotional impact of social-media based communications (and much of it has [Turkle, 2011]), reality has proven otherwise.
From teens committing suicide from cyberbullying (CSBNews, 2010; Oliver, 2010) to couples ending real relationships over Facebook status updates (“Teaching Kids How to Break Up Nicely,” 2011), social media has a very real impact on us and we often appear to attach very real attributes to the “product outcomes” of others. As I stated above, this can be explained by the real meta-level social connections created by our “outputs” through social media. Indeed, these kinds of attributions are expected, for the outputs owned by the proletariat in the social media model are intimately emotional by nature.
Though, what of the other outputs? The outputs used by social media sites themselves to exploit the worker’s intellectual labor. Here too, we can see an exploitive relationship through the use of highly visible measures like popularity indexes and featured users/posts/news (when generated from proletariat intellectual labor). Now, voting and popularity measures are fundamental to many useful functions of online and social spaces. There already exists an explosion of information available online and the very real problem of information overload is a difficult one to solve (Pariser, 2011).
However, voting systems are also fundamental to furthering commodity fetishism in social media. They create a drive for popularity that in turn promotes further input of free intellectual labor power in order to compete. We can see this with friend count’s on Facebook (Marrin, 2010) and followers on Twitter (Smart, 2010. Additionally, because it promotes the proletariat user base to attribute false notions of meaning to these numbers, the bourgeoisie have again fooled the proletariat into willfully contributing to their own commodification.
As I have attempted to show, Marxist ideologies can indeed be attributed to the very modern trend of social media applications. While the picture that I have painted may appear mildly critical, even conspiratorial, I ensure you that I hold no ill regard towards the social media model. One would be foolish to criticize and downplay the overwhelmingly positive impact that social media technologies have played, especially for business and for emerging democracies across the globe.
However, it is always important for societies to be critical of new “advances” in technological and social progress. Just because something is overwhelmingly positive, doesn’t mean that its ill effects should be ignored entirely. In this case, I have attempted to show that the Marxist ideologies of exploitation and domination are alive and well, if not well concealed, under the guise of new technology. While the names and players may have changed, the game itself has not.
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