Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 4, Right Now You Are Working for Free


In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen compares social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to the idea of the Panopticon. As I discussed in Part 3 of this series, Keen stresses how the big social media companies are making millions of dollars by collecting people’s personal information and browsing histories and selling them to advertisers and other third-party companies. While Keen frames this as an issue of privacy, I see it as something quite different: it’s an issue of unpaid labor.

Simply put, you and I and the other millions of people using social media are working for free.

With every post, share, click, connect, and “like,” we are providing income for some of richest corporations on earth. And we are doing it without expectation of remuneration.

This is not a new idea. Canadian media researcher Dallas W. Smythe first proposed the idea of the media audience as workers in 1981 in an article titled “On the Audience Commodity and its Work.”(1) Smythe asserts that the audience is at once a commodity – something to be bought and sold – and a source of labor. Both ideas are important, but before I get to that discussion, let’s start with two key premises.

  1. All media outlets exist for the sole purpose of making money.

Both traditional media (radio, newspaper, television) and digital media (Internet-based companies) share the ultimate concern of making a profit, and in today’s form of capitalism, that means large and ever-increasing profit.

But, wait! – you might say – don’t the media promote the conservative agenda of state? And I answer, yes, this is true. The actions of media company and the textual content serve to advance values that support consumer-driven capitalism and the people and institutions that profit from it. However, this is neither ideologically or politically motivated; it’s all about money – first, last, and always. If radical criticism made money, they’d be all over it – in fact, co-opting and assimilating ideas that are outside the norm can be extremely profitable (seriously, virtually all of TLC’s lineup). That the ideas become neutralized is simply a side benefit.

  1. All media rely on the active participation of the audience to make its profits.

If people don’t read magazines and newspapers, they go out of business. If nobody watches a certain TV program, it gets cancelled. And if people stop using social media sites (think Friendster ), they go bust.

Now, you may argue that our use of these media are a fair exchange. We invest our time and money, and in return we receive information, entertainment, and pleasure. Fair enough – but that means that our primary relationship with the media outlets is an economic one.

That’s the conclusion that Dallas Smythe came to when he envisioned the media audience as both commodity and labor. Let me briefly summarize.

Audience as Commodity

First, Smythe views the audience as a commodity for the same reason Keen does: individual users (viewers, listeners, readers) make up groups that share common characteristics, and these groups can be “sold” to advertisers who hope to market to a specific audience. Traditional media has been actively collecting                                           demographics on its audiences for a long time (there’s evidence of analysis of radio audiences as early as 1923 (2)). In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen illustrates well how the data gathering power of the Internet takes audience commodification to a new level. As an individual user of social media, your activities are profiled to such as an extent that you receive immediate and personalized advertisements. This is what happened in my incidental excursion into the CVS parking lot, discussed in Part 3.

Audience as Labor

The second point Smythe makes is a little harder to grasp, but as with the audience-as-commodity model, the audience-as-labor model becomes more intense with social media.

The Internet as we know it didn’t exist in 1981, so Smythe uses magazines, radio, and (primarily) television to illustrate his point. He says that much of the work performed by the audience is mental, taking place “in the heads of audience members” (p. 231). (For more info, see Enzenberger’s ideas on the “consciousness industry.”)  This mental work – reading, watching, discussing – “fuels both the economy of mass produced goods and the promotion of the interests of the government,” Smythe says (p. 233). (See premise #2 above.) The media audience is therefore a necessary economic component of what Smythe refers to as “monopoly capitalism,” which comprises the political-economic hegemony.

You may feel like watching television or listening to the radio is relaxing or entertaining, but in actuality, you are working. Smythe explains, “You audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you receive the program material and the explicit advertisements.” (p. 238)

Moreover, as audience members we pay for the opportunity to do this work, not only in the cost of our equipment, our cable bills, our subscriptions to digital streaming services, our subscriptions to digital newspapers and magazines, our cell phone service, and so on.

And, our labor on social media is much more than mental. Our status updates, tweets, photo posts, blogging, and sharing actually create the content that attracts more users and therefore creates more profit for the media companies.

Are You Having Fun? Marx Would Say No

But posting and sharing is fun, you might say, and we do it voluntarily, on our own time. No one forces us to take pictures of our dinner and share it online, so how can we call it work? Okay, here it gets a bit complicated, and I’ll discuss the idea of leisure time in a future post. For now, I’ll turn to British communication professor Christian Fuchs, who provides an excellent explanation as well as a great overview and analysis of the issue in view of Marxism theory. (3)

Fuchs asserts that the audience is exploited in its labor of generating content and serving as audience commodity for social media companies. In short, you are giving the social media companies a great deal more than you are receiving. To understand why, ask yourself who is benefitting the most from your online activity?

Let’s back up. We’ve already established that your relationship with media outlets is an economic one. In exchange for entertainment and information, you provide work as both an audience commodity and a generator of content. But is it a fair exchange? Fuchs says no for the simple fact that what you produce is not yours. It feels like yours – your Facebook page, your Instagram account, etc., right? Not from an economic point of view.

Are You Being Exploited?

Fuchs says that “digital labour” is exploited in three ways: coercion, alienation, and appropriation.

First, we are coerced to use corporate-owned social media platforms. It hasn’t always been that way, and many of us can remember the olden days of MUDs, BBSes, and listservs that were created and maintained by individuals and used by groups with no substantial profit to anyone. A few of these still exist, but by and large, the corporate takeover of the Internet is virtually complete. Just using a search engine or an online email account forces us into becoming the audience commodity.

Secondly, our labor is exploited because we are alienated from the process and the product. This is a term in Marxism that Fuchs explains in detail in this context, and since my field is not economics, I’ll direct you to his article (cited below) for his explanation. Let me just ask: Who is richer, you or Mark Zuckerberg? If the final product of your labor is profit, you see none of it.

In this regard Fuchs discusses Marx’s idea of surplus value. In a capitalistic system, labor must generate more value than it costs, or else there is no profit and no funds for reinvestment and growth. As you skim through your newsfeed, share an interesting article, or invite your friends to play Farmville, you may be enjoying yourself, but you are also creating surplus value – voluntarily – that builds tremendous profits for the social media companies.

So that leads us to Fuchs’ third point, appropriation. Your personal data is taken from you and sold, without your express knowledge of consent. Oh, sure, there are terms of service.  You can turn off GPS locators and opt out of cookies. But it’s exactly that – an opt-out structure. Unless you specifically refuse – and that’s very hard to do – your labor is appropriated and your online behavior is bundled up and sold for someone else’s profit.

So … Are You Working for Free?

Now let’s come back to a question I asked earlier: Is it a fair exchange? Is your activity as both commodity and labor a fair economic exchange for the pleasure of connecting with friends and the entertainment of watching funny cat videos? Is what you are “buying” equivalent to the megaprofits that social media companies are racking up because of your online actions? Fuchs says no – you are getting the short end of the deal. What do you say?


  1. Smythe, Dallas W., “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Revised Edition, ed. Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, 230-256, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  2. New York Times, “Public Criticism Aids Programs.” July 1. Archives. Accessed Sept. 30, 2013.
  3. Fuchs, Christian. “Dallas Smythe and Digital Labor,” The Routledge Companion to Labor and Media, ed. Richard Maxwell, 51-62, New York: Routledge, 2015.