Anti-communication and fictious commodities

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15 years ago, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, then still called thefacebook, as a network for students at Harvard University. Today, almost 2.7 billion people use its services. And for 15 years he has been stressing like a prayer wheel that "connecting" and "sharing" make the world a better place and that Facebook stands for the epochal transition from oppressive hierarchical bureaucracies to liberating horizontal networks.

Today, he's pretty much on his own with that statement. On the one hand, Facebook Inc. has grown into an overpowering, opaque company that has incorporated 72 companies to date, including Instagram (2012), WhatsApp (2014), and virtual reality developer Oculus VR (2014). Moreover, the ownership structure is such that Zuckerberg can exercise almost unlimited power. On the other hand, Facebook is accused of facilitating the dissemination of false or manipulative information and thus contributing to the division of societies and the intensification of conflicts, for example in Great Britain, Sri Lanka, the USA, and Myanmar.

How could a harmless idea - people should be able to communicate easily and quickly with their friends and acquaintances - unfold such a destructive force? The answer is less to be found in the idea of horizontal communication itself or in digital media in general, but in the specific way Facebook implements this idea.

In the context of a largely unregulated pursuit of profit, Facebook (like all other large commercial social networks) transformed social communication into a commodity - with a radicalism that only the tabloid or yellow press had previously done. For both applies: The stimulation of stimuli, the fast impulse is the only thing that counts. Journalistic standards or social principles do not play any role and violations of the law are part of the business model. At least in the case of the yellow press, the social consequences were largely harmless, since it represented a clearly limited segment of the news landscape, of which most knew that the entertainment value was well above the information value. Facebook, however, extends this principle, completely indifferent to content, to all forms of communication. The consequences are grave.

Communication is not only a commodity but above all an essential means by which people orient themselves individually and societies collectively, communicate and coordinate. In his standard work "The Great Transformation" of 1944, the economist Karl Polanyi coined the term "fictitious commodity" for goods that are more than just commodities and identified three of them: Work, land and money. A commodity is a good that has been produced for sale and whose value fluctuates according to supply and demand; if there is no demand, it disappears from the market. A good is not a genuine commodity if it is an essential element of the economy but has not been created for sale. Thus labor is a central factor of production, but labor is an inseparable part of human life and no man has ever been "produced" to sell his labor. The same applies to natural resources. They are essential for the economy, but an inseparable part of nature as a whole and not produced for the market.

Facebook - a harmless idea with destructive power

If these fictitious commodities are treated like real goods in a market-radical system, this means that all non-commodity dimensions are ignored. If, however, man is only seen as a labor force, if nature is only seen as a resource, then the complex contexts that are necessary for its reproduction - a rich social life and ecological diversity - are removed from consideration, devalued and destroyed in the long term. Polanyi, therefore, called the idea of the self-regulating market a "stark utopia", because its realization would destroy the foundations of society.

The commercial social media, which function as a largely unregulated market, have now created another fictitious commodity from the complexity of social communication: the so-called "engagement". "Commitment," according to the popular consultant prose, "simply means getting your fans/followers/friends to do something in response to your contribution: 'like', 'comment', open a picture, click on links, or 'share'. These are all forms of engagement, and every time one of these things is done, Facebook measures it accurately. As a result, your post will become more popular and Facebook will show it to more people." In other words, engagement is any form of response to an action. This is measured and is to be increased further and further in the sense of steady growth. The entire Facebook infrastructure is geared towards producing "engagement". Users are also offered specialized tools to measure how many responses their respective posts have produced and to optimize their own contributions so that this number can be increased. Because it is this "engagement" that is sold to advertisers: the increased probability that a particular user will respond to a particular stimulus.

From this perspective, commercial social media are unregulated markets in which the entire complexity of social communication is reduced to the dimension of "engagement". Everything else, above all the question of meaning, the multi-layered forms of classification and evaluation, even such basic distinctions as those between fact-based and fictional, are ignored. Yes, it doesn't even matter whether the "engagement" comes from a person or a machine. Despite all assertions to the contrary, most social networks only proceed very laxly against automated accounts, because even their forms of "engagement" are potentially usable. This exclusive focus on "engagement" is increasingly destroying the possibilities and abilities of communication itself - the complex negotiation of meaning and orientation. This leads to stress, confusion, and paranoia among users, to which many react by retreating into echo chambers and fleeing into conspiracy theories.

Polanyi noted that in order to protect society from the destruction of its livelihoods by the stark utopia of the free market, counter-movements are emerging that promise protection and stability. The workers' and environmental movements can be understood as counter-movements that limit the logic of the market and protect life beyond the market. As a victim of fascism (Polanyi had to leave Austria as early as 1935), however, it was clear to him that such counter-movements did not necessarily have to be constructive, but could be even more destructive than the problem they were trying to solve.

Stress, confusion, and paranoia

But what could a democratic counter-movement look like that puts a stop to the erosion of communication and its reduction to a stimulus-response scheme? Part of the answer will certainly include classical regulation, similar to how existing media companies are regulated to find a balance between the commercial and non-commercial aspects of social communication. But this requires deep interventions in the infrastructure (e.g. in the recommendation algorithms), which is not only technically difficult, because these things are usually intransparent and change very often, but also meet with great resistance on the part of the corporations.

Paradoxically, another idea goes in the direction of expanding the market even further. The ability of social mass media to produce the commodity "engagement" is based on the communicative work of its users, who do it free of charge. Facebook (and the other social mass media) argue that this is justified because they can use the expensive infrastructure and services free of charge. If you look at the extreme profits these companies are making quarter after quarter, you can see that this exchange is not even fair in an economic sense. Shouldn't social media then pay their users directly for their work? No! This would be the wrong solution, which would only aggravate the problem by completely undermining data protection and further deepening the concept of communication as a meaningless production of engagement.

However, it is true that users are entitled to a share of the value created by their work. Traditionally, the problem that the economy is based on collective preconditions (infrastructure, education, legal security, social peace, etc.), which it does not pay itself, is solved by taxes. In this sense, social media companies should be obliged to pay a levy per user, which would then create communication infrastructures designed to promote, rather than ignore, the communicative aspects. This is not simply a "non-commercial Facebook", but a new infrastructure for social participation. There are enough approaches to this, from municipal data pools to collaborative forms of journalism, from public welfare-oriented organizations in the provision of public services (such as running the energy grid) to forms of participatory democracy (such as "participatory budgeting"). All this requires adapted infrastructures and professional work. The knowledge is there, what is missing are long-term financial resources and the political will to break new ground.

This is a slightly edited machine-translation of my article "Anti-Kommunikation und Wertschöpfung" which appeared in LE MONDE diplomatique (DE), March 2019, p.3