Contrary to mainstream practice – with its residual romanticism of solitary authorship and single-signature value – we at n.e.w.s. contend that value is always collectively produced through linguistic cooperation (polemics or just idle chatter) – that is, through the collective intellect. Of course people already get paid for online content – but they are often the wrong people, because they are not all the people who worked to produce that content. Our paradoxical objective is to leverage the potential of participative technologies and communities to ensure that user-produced value be remunerated. Because n.e.w.s. is a non-commercial platform, without any institutional structural subsidy, we have been investigating alternative models of exchange and collaboration, retooling our critical lexicon: instead of the seemingly self-evident binaries of producer/consumer, we have opted for the more inclusive and extensive category of usership – of the paid variety.
Over the past twenty years, people working in the cultural sector have come to use the web not only as a means of communication and distribution but as a medium for artistic and curatorial production, such as online contexts for the analysis and development of art-related activities. But it is also the place where people engage in discourse about the nature of those precarious forms of knowledge and labour produced within it. The challenge of facilitating return generated not only from attention getting but also from finding means of ensuring sustainability through potential models of gifting, immaterial labour, surplus capital and niche development could all be plausible models for paid usership.
Gift, Debt and Return: speculations on the cultural economy
Okay, so everybody wants to be paid to use. But the very idea continues to sound pretty counterintuitive even to the most open-minded, and downright heretical to orthodox twentieth-century economics. Let’s quickly run through some of the conceptual underpinnings of the whole notion.
If the value of money—as classical Marxist theory would have it—is derived from ‘labour power’, or even, as some recent strains put it, more broadly from creative action, and if it is only through the institution of the wage that this creative action becomes a commodity, why is it so few of us are getting paid in a Web 2.0 economy? David Graeber has argued that the common distinction between "value" and "values" is based on the commodification of labour: "value" is simply our way of talking about the importance of actions commensurated by money (value being that which money measures), while "values" (where familial, societal, ethical, religious, artistic) are assumed to be that which should not be corrupted by the market. “Values” are valued for their very incommensurability. So where do we place the Internet in that scheme? It is, certainly, a sphere of social relations that is continually adapting and changing, but many of the resulting struggles revolve around the question of what sorts of value and, indeed, values, it embodies. On the other hand, this is, perhaps, only to be expected, as Graeber puts it, ‘if only because the most important political struggles in any society will always be over how value itself is to be defined.’
Notion of the gift in a user-generated economy
Even though we may find it worthwhile to take part in online forums and activities without being paid, one does tend to feel one is giving something away. The notion of the gift, as developed by the sociologist Marcel Mauss, has been interpreted as assuming that gifts are not free, but imply that something needs to be returned or exchanged. In fact, Mauss’ 1924 essay on the gift was, he claimed, really part of a larger project on the ‘origins of the idea of contractual obligation’ and in a way, about the origin of debt and about how social obligations become entangled in things. Mauss even argued that the gift is about detaching pieces of ourselves, our creative energies to create images of community. The Maussian distinction between gift exchange and economic transactions actually works by an analogous logic: The gift is largely concerned with relations between persons; a commodity exchange is equivalence between things. Gift economies, those that have not been remunerated, have always been an inherent part of capitalism – much of capitalism functions, exists, propagates itself because of unpaid labour: slavery, women’s housework labour, child labour as well as intellectual labour by workers in the ‘culture industries’ but this labour disappears from social visibility.
Immaterial labour and valorisation
Immaterial labour theory assumes ‘we’ are engaged in a kind of communistic mutual fashioning where obligations cannot be quantified by definition, just harvested by capitalists, so the ‘law of value’ no longer exists, value can no longer be measured. Since the 1970s this has changed the organisation of production and how intellectual labour results in what Maurizio Lazzarato terms the ‘process of valorisation’. Valorisation is no longer confined to the factory, the value of products is created more and more by all of us, in our supposed leisure time, thus we are all basically working for free. With the advent of computers and the ability to gather data, companies harvest our creative energy to understand and market that information. Thus we are adding to the value of the product for free as we distribute parts of ourselves, spreading our ‘data’. This ‘gift-giving’ of time, energy and knowledge (content) exists in an economy that bids farewell to the client and welcomes instead the user/collaborator (prosumer). Though both gift economies and immaterial labour raise similar questions problematising our assumptions about value in the Internet, they don’t seem to contextualise the looming problem of our society: obligation, debt and remuneration.
Social creativity, data within virtual, debt economies
In social exchange, relations do not have the anonymity of money but rather provide reciprocal returns in broader terms, open-ended networking models and tit-for-tat exchanges between people. This could also be said of n.e.w.s. But how does this affect the classic (Marxist) idea of commodity fetishism, to reveal social relations hidden by things and human creativity? Etymologically ‘data’ is the Latin plural of datum, neuter past participle of dare, ‘to give’, hence ‘something given’. With the advancement of computers we use ‘databases’ that are able to collect, store, use all forms with data acquisition, data analysis, data farming. Data mining is the art of finding hidden patterns or anomalies that are used in profiling, and applied to fields of consumer analysis, marketing and surveillance. If we ‘give’ data freely, as we give our time, remit our rights of privacy and right to remuneration, how can we create other systems of negotiation and payment?
The expansion of credit money and giving ‘data’, produces an implicit tautology. Computers, which keep track of the complex lines of transaction that were invisible when done with hard, material currency, simultaneously also provide complex ways of hiding abstract securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that have accrued so much that this amount of debt is larger than ‘real’ economies.
Virtual labour and virtual economies
Remuneration for labour or contributions (user-generated content) on the web is based on gift-economies, debt economies and mostly, attention economics (visibility). This distribution of attention is reflected in theories such as Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’, which proposes that instead of economy and culture focusing on the mass market, where hits are related to popularity, the niche market will enable a longer (tail) of supply. New distribution mechanisms, from digital downloading to peer-to-peer (P2P) markets such as e-bay, mediators taking a tiny cut of vast numbers of transactions, offer more return. But where will the borders reside of speed, access and censorship and what sort of power relations will determine them?
Virtual labour and virtual economies are made possible by exchanges of value on the Internet. Derivatives, mortgage-backed securities and other synthetic constructions are the replacement models for classic ‘wage labour’ and are based on debt securitization. How can financial obligation become an infinitely expanding promise of future profits without false value? Is the origin of this value really in the unpaid labour of the Internet? Can the ‘Free’ in Anderson’s book be maintained beyond ‘freemium’ models? Or will we all need to survive off of our freemium activities in order to generate more content to contribute to the critical mass? In attempting to understand the link between new forms of virtual labour and virtual money, might we need to look at them not only from actions of ‘gifting’ but from the perspective of obligation, debt and remuneration?
From pay-for-use to paid-to-use
n.e.w.s. is currently finishing a book, to be published in 2013, dealing amongst other things with remunerated usership (online and off line) as an innovative way of equitably redistributing community-produced value. We would like to invite you to contribute to this forum, remunerated in some way of course, terms negotiated. How would you like to be paid? How much? Such questions are by no means facetious; they are potentially revolutionary and invite carefully reasoned, radical responses. Ultimately we hope to eventually be able to finance readership – yes, dear readers, dear users, we think we should all be paid for reading, writing and using – but first we need to come up with some kind of sustainable model for paid usership. And who better to help with that than all of us? :)