Book Review: ‘Social Media. A Critical Introduction’ by Christian Fuchs

30 May

A version of this review is forthcoming in Anarchist Studies. More information on and sample chapters from the book are available at Christian Fuchs’ website.

 

In his Social Media. A Critical Introduction, Christian Fuchs sets out to provide an account of social media that draws on a Marxist understanding of economic exploitation and class. He does so by highlighting the political economy at work when we use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube and shows that in the case of these mainstream examples of social media they both mirror the power structures of capitalist society (according more influence to more economically powerful actors) (e.g. 190-2) and exploit the data that’s provided to them by users for free.

Source: fuchs.uti.at

This second point is crucial for Fuchs and he argues convincingly that according to a Marxist analysis, the labour performed by social media users is done so under a situation of complete exploitation insofar as it is unpaid. Users create data about preferences and are sold as audience commodities to advertisers. Following this, Fuchs describes how the rate of exploitation (roughly the rate at which profit exceeds the cost of labour) ‘converges towards infinity’ (111) in the case of social media data-mining as companies like Facebook exploit all of the value produced and pay none of it back to the user.

Fuch’s develops this argument and applies it to several case studies throughout the book: Google, Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks and Wikipedia; highlighting Wikipedia as a genuine alternative in so far as it represent an example of ‘communist elements in contemporary society’ (243) by virtue of its democratic approach to creating and organising knowledge and its rejection of the economic exploitation of data produced by users.

It is this account of what the alternatives to corporate social media would need to be like which is perhaps of most interest in Fuchs’ book. Sadly it’s also one of the areas he’s the most sketchy on. The book’s aim is stated as analysing ‘the actuality of social media in contemporary capitalism and the potentials and limits for overcoming the corporate character of social media’. (24) While Fuchs does provide a rigorous understanding of the political economy of mainstream social media within capitalism, his approach to alternatives is somewhat lacking, both empirically and theoretically.

Empirically, Fuchs restricts his discussion of alternatives to Wikipedia, for which he does provide an interesting analysis, and Diaspora* (an alternative to Facebook), which is discussed in a couple of pages (173-4). He fails, however, to mention activist-oriented social media such as Crabgrass, N-1, Mumble and collaborative pads. Theoretically, he doesn’t elaborate on the potential within mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Fuchs recognises that these corporate social media are contradictory in character (‘made up of class conflicts and other conflicts between dominant and dominated groups’ (206)) but seems reluctant to suggest that they could be used in ways that embody participatory democracy and anti-capitalist values, despite their intended roles.

While the creation of alternatives to corporate social media is clearly necessary, there should be something to say for subverting existing platforms and using them for radical ends. While one needs to be acutely aware of the intended function of corporate social media (and this is the strength of Fuchs’ book) and the framework within which alternatives need to be set, this is not to say that mainstream tools can’t be used in the meantime. An analysis of this potential would bring to the table an element of critique that Fuchs seems to ignore. Nevertheless, his book is invaluable and should be required reading for anyone studying social media and Internet technologies.

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One Response to “Book Review: ‘Social Media. A Critical Introduction’ by Christian Fuchs”

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  1. 6 things tsū can tell us about how social media work | Social Media and Radical Politics - November 5, 2014

    […] of predicted future clicks. TV advertising works in exactly the same way, and the concept of the audience commodity has been used by theorists like Christian Fuchs to explain how Facebook makes its money. The main difference is that with TV advertising, companies […]

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