Christian Fuchs: The Digital Labour Theory of Value and Karl Marx in the Age of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Weibo

Video of “The Digital Labour Theory of Value and Karl Marx in the Age of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Weibo”
Christian Fuchs

Talk at the COST Action “Dynamic of Virtual Work”‘s Workshop “The Labour Theory of Value in the Digital Age”
The Open University of Israel
June 16, 2014

Video on Vimeo

Content Overview
1. Introduction
2. Time
3. Productive Labour
4. Rent
5. Fetishism
6. Conclusion

Duration 1h 32min 02sec

short summary: chapter in the workshop proceedings “Reconsidering Value and Labour in the Digital Age” (ed. Eran Fisher & Christian Fuchs) (Palgrave Macmillan 2015, Volume 1 of the Dynamics of Virtual Work-book series edited by Ursula Huws and Rosalind Gill)
extended version: chapter 5. Social Media and Productive Labour in the book
Christian Fuchs: “Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media” (Routledge 2015)


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E-democracy workshop in the UK Parliament


On 19 May, scholars from the University of Westminster’s Centre for Social Media Research (CSMR) in the Faculty of Media, Arts & Design and the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities joined officials from the House of Commons’ Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy in a workshop ‘citizen engagement and digital democracy in the work of Parliament’.

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy aims to consider, report and make recommendations on how parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom can embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world. To aid this work, the workshop focused on the identification and mapping of the range of different opportunities that exist in the work of Parliament to engage citizens through the use of digital and social media. The University of Westminster’s participants were Professor Christian Fuchs (CSMR), Professor Graham Smith (CSD), Anthony Staddon (CSD) and Dr Anastasia Kavada (CSMR), who were able to draw on their interdisciplinary cross-faculty expertise in the study of participation and democracy.

The Speaker, Rt Hon John Bercow welcomed the participants to the Speaker’s House and stressed the opportunity that the Commission represents for redesigning the practice of parliament. The workshop identified various intervention points for citizens through the use of digital and social media technologies in the parliamentary process as well as the necessary cultural changes and resources required for advancing digital democracy.

Christian Fuchs, Professor of Social Media, commented: “Digital and social media are often seen as potential solutions to society’s pressing challenges. But there is no technological fix to political and social problems. User-generated videos, wikis, microblogs, online discussions, social networking sites and related technologies can support democratic reforms, but for doing so it is crucial that these forms of political communication are embedded into institutional reforms and offline interactions and that digital media experts and interdisciplinary research support and analyse their introduction.”

Graham Smith, Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, commented: “It is a real pleasure to work across academic-practice boundaries on an issue of real political importance. The aims and motivations of the Speaker’s Commission are to be applauded and I await its recommendations with interest. The practices of Parliament need to be reformed as a matter of urgency. The challenge will be to institutionalise forms of digital democracy that are meaningful to citizens, parliamentarians and officials alike.”

Anthony Staddon, who has consulted parliaments and parliamentarians around the world, said: “Many parliaments around the world are taking steps to use a range of ICT tools to strengthen their own internal management and improve the accessibility and transparency of the legislature.  While this is a welcome trend, the application of ICT to enable citizens to actively contribute to parliamentary proceedings and processes has the potential to revitalise the work of parliament and rebuild interest and trust in traditional democratic institutions.”

Anastasia Kavada, whose research focuses on the use of digital media by social movements and non-governmental organisations, noted that “Increasing the citizens’ sense of political efficacy and the parliamentarians’ responsiveness and accountability to the people they represent cannot be effected solely through the introduction of digital democracy tools, but require a more sweeping cultural change on the part of both citizens and politicians. The Speaker’s Commission should be commended for exploring not only the quick and easy to implement digital solutions, but also the broader democratic and cultural reforms that need to accompany these solutions.”

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Lawrence & Wishart vs. The Marxists Internet Archive: The Blindness of the Copyright Left

Lawrence & Wishart vs. The Marxists Internet Archive: The Blindness of the Copyright Left
Christian Fuchs

The publisher Lawrence & Wishart (L&W) has issued a takedown notice to the operators of the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA, in order to have them delete the online version of the copyrighted volumes of the Marx Engels-Collected Works (MECW) that L&W distributes and sells in 50 volumes. The basic argument of L&W is that the online version is ruining the company financially: The online version’s “[i]nfringement of this copyright [L&W’s copyright on MECW] has the effect of depriving a small radical publisher of the funds it needs to remain in existence“.

The MIA commented: “Removing them from generalized Internet access and bouncing the MECW ‘upstairs’ into the Academy is the opposite of ’maintaining a public presence of the Works.’ It restricts access to those having current academic status at a university that is subscribing to the service. This is the same as for readership of learned journals. It is not public access. This is the opposite of the general trend toward making things available for free on the Internet. What L&W argues is truly a cognitive disconnect of major proportions. It also destroys the enhanced functionality which MIA gave to the MECW material, embedding it with the writings of other Marxists“.

The question is how viable L&W’s argument is. The online version does not contain page numbers, which is an incentive for scholars, institutions and libraries to also buy printed volumes. It is furthermore doubtful that more people will buy the (expensive) volumes priced at £50 each or £1500 as a set once the MIA has taken down the online version. The L&W argument misperceives the nature of digital information on the Internet that allows easy, quick and cheap distribution, copying and access. What is likely to have already happened is that thousands of users have made copies of the online edition for personal use and for further spreading it on the Internet. Takedown notices have the opposite effect of what they intend to bring about: they are likely to further help spreading the information whose distribution they want to hinder.

Let us have a look at MECW Volume 35 (Capital Vol. 1). It was published in 1996. 6 people seem to have been involved in the editorial project. After the publication of Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Marx put efforts on writing a sequel that finally became Capital, Volume 1, and was delivered to the publisher in Hamburg by Marx in person in April 1867. So it is fair to assume that Marx at least put 20 000 hours of work into Capital, Volume 1. The L&W translation is based on the edition that Samuel Moore (1838-1911) and Edward Aveling (1849-1898) translated under the editorial leadership of Engels. We can assume that this translation took also up to 10 000 hours and Engels’ editorial work also some years, let’s say 5 000 hours. According to MECW’s editorial note, the edition is “based on the first English edition” by Moore/Aveling/Engels. It is unclear what “based” here actually means. If you compare some sample passages from MECW 35 to the original Moore/Aveling/Engels edition, then there are indications that they are quite identical (I used a sample of about 20 arbitrarily selected sentences that are all identical).

Putting together this edition, layouting and distributing it etc has taken some time, but the actual text we are reading has primarily been enabled by estimated 20 000 hours of Marx’s work, 10 000 hours of Moore and Aveling’s work and 5 000 hours of Engels’ work. Furthermore the editors of MECW Volume 35 write that they have copied translations of French, Greek, Italian and Latin quotes from Ben Fowkes’ 1976 Penguin translation.

MECW 35 is mainly the work of Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling. L&W sells it for £18.99 in a special edition and for £50 in the MECW edition. Certainly for each sold volume one pays to a specific degree for the labour conducted by printers, L&W employees, etc. But who pays for the labour conducted by Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling? L&W benefits from Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling’s work without ever having paid them because they are dead. No single translation could be made without their original work. Claiming copyright is problematic because the labour involved is not just the new editorial and sales work, but first and foremost also the original work conducted by Marx and Engels. If we apply the copyright logic that L&W applies to the MIA to L&W itself, then one can only say that by selling MECW L&W exploits Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling who cannot be paid for the revenue that L&W makes from their labour because they are dead. L&W is claiming copyright on works that were primarily produced by thousands of Marx and Engels’ intellectual working hours. The solution however is not to prohibit L&W to further sell these volumes or to prohibit MIA to provide Marx and Engels’ works online, but to respect the fact that Marx and Engels’ works are common goods and should be available as such. Claiming the MIA is stealing information from L&W is just as absurd and misplaced as claiming that L&W is stealing information from Marx and Engels because the whole idea of a copyright on Marx and Engels’ works is absurd.

Given these circumstances, it is idiosyncratic to suggest, as some observers have done, that the to date 1435 signees of the petition that asks L&W to allow MECW to be public domain should pay L&W or collect money for L&W. If anything is feasible, then it is organising resources for new online translations conducted as collaborative wiki project. Threatening and debating copyrights on Marx and Engels’ works is just a deflection of attention from a much more needed task – new translations. New translations? Why?

Take again Capital, Volume 1. The main translations used are MECW (=Moore/Aveling) and Penguin (Fawkes). Let’s take two example passages.

MEW 23, 558 + Urfassung von 1867, 521: Von diesen Widersprüchen abgesehn, würde ein direkter Austausch von Geld, d.h. vergegenständlichter Arbeit, mit lebendiger Arbeit entweder das Wertgesetz aufheben, welches sich grade erst auf Grundlage der kapitalistischen Produktion frei entwickelt, oder die kapitalistische Produktion selbst aufheben, welche grade auf der Lohnarbeit beruht.
MECW 35, 536: Apart from these contradictions, a direct exchange of money, i.e., of realised labour, with living labour would either do away with the law of value which only begins to develop itself freely on the basis of capitalist production, or do away with with capitalist production itself, which rests directly on wage labour.
Penguin, 676: Apart from these contradictions, a direct exchange of money, i.e., of objectified labour, with living labour would either supersede the law of value, which only begins to develop freely on the basis of capitalist production, or supersede capitalist production itself, which rests directly on wage labour.

In my view, a better translation is:
Apart from these antagonisms, a direct exchange of money, i.e. objectified labour, with living labour would either sublate the law of value that just now develops itself freely on the basis of capitalist production, or sublate capitalist production itself that precisely rests on wage-labour.

MEW, 791: Die aus der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise hervorgehende kapitalistische Aneignungsweise, daher das kapitalistische Privateigentum, ist die erste Negation des individuellen, auf eigne Arbeit gegründeten Privateigentums. Aber die kapitalistische Produktion erzeugt mit der Notwendigkeit eines Naturprozesses ihre eigne Negation. Es ist Negation der Negation. Diese stellt nicht das Privateigentum wieder her, wohl aber das individuelle Eigentum auf Grundlage der Errungenschaft der kapitalistischen Ära: der Kooperation und des Gemeinbesitzes der Erde und der durch die Arbeit selbst produzierten Produktionsmittel.
Kapital, Urfassung von 1867, 744f: Die kapitalistische Produktions- und Aneignungsweise, daher das kapitalistische Privateigenthum, ist die erste Negation des individuellen, auf eigene Arbeit gegründeten Privateigenthums. Die Negation der kapitalistischen Produktion wird durch sie selbst, mit der Nothwendigkeit eines Naturprozesses, producirt. Es ist Negation der Negation. Diese stellt das individuelle Eigentum wieder her, aber auf Grundlage der Errungenschaft der kapitalistischen Aera, der Cooperation freier Arbeiter und ihrem Gemeineigenthum an der Erde und den durch die Arbeit selbst producirten Produktionsmitteln.
MECW, 751: The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.
Penguin, 929: The capitalist mode of appropriation, which springs from the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of its proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a natural process, its own negation. This is the negation of the negation. It does not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself

Taking into account both the formulation in the MEW and the Urfassung, in my view a better English translation is:
The capitalist mode of appropriation emerging from the capitalist mode of production, hence capitalist private property, is the first negation of private property founded on an individual’s own labour. But capitalist production produces with the necessity of a natural process its own negation. It is the negation of the negation. This does not re-establish private property, but indeed individual property on the basis of the capitalist era’s attainments: the co-operation of free labourers, their common possession of the Earth and the means of production produced by labour itself.

Marx and Engels’ knowledge work is the primary work objectified in MECW and all other translations and editions. It is therefore ridiculous to stage struggles about copyrights, access and who is allowed to monetarily benefit from the sale of Marx and Engels’ dead work that has created works that are very alive up until today and into the future. Limiting access or making it more difficult makes these living works partly dead. The most important task is to make good translations as easily and as widely available to as many people as possible in order to enable them to read Marx and Engels’ analyses of capitalism that have crucial political relevance. The current debate has highlighted that there is a political economy of Marx and Engels’ writings that concerns questions of authorship, work and ownership. It has rather overlooked that there is also a cultural political economy involved that must aim at finding ways, means, media, resources and the work necessary to globally disseminate Marx and Engels’ writings. We should not deflect attention away from the importance of having good translations readily available in easy and accessible form for as many people as possible. The WWW can make an important contribution to this purpose.

The task should therefore be that we create a new and improved English online edition of Marx and Engels’ works, starting with Capital Volume 1, by making use of wiki-based collaborative translation work. We shouldn’t pay L&W, but gather work force and resources to improve the availability and quality of Marx and Engels’ works.

Marxist translators of the world unite!

Christian Fuchs is editor of the open access online journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique

The petition for keeping Marx and Engels’ works common knowledge can be signed here

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9 movies about social media research-books

9 movies about social media research books

Students in the University of Westminster’s MA in Social Media have as part of my module “Critical Theory of Social Media and the Internet” directed movies about books that present theoretical knowledge and empirical research about social media’s role in society.

Abdullah Anees produced a film about Tom Standage’s book “Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years”, in which the author speaks about his work.

María Belén Conti directed a movie about the collected volume “Media, surveillance and identity”, for which she interviewed the book’s editors André Jansson and Miyase Christensen.

Jamileh Kadivar created a movie about Paolo Gerbaudo’s book “Tweets and The Streets: Social Media And Contemporary Activism” that features both the author and Miriyam Aouragh, who wrote a review of the book.

Akintola Olaniyan made a film that features Geert Lovink talking about his book “Networks without a cause: A critique of social media”.

Jinshuang Zhao produced a video about Christian Fuchs’ book “Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age”, for which she interviewed Christian Fuchs and Eran Fisher.

Tianzhang Zhao produced a film about David Gaunlett’s book “Making is Connecting” that features the author and Simon Lindgren.

Barrie Schooling created a movie, in which Dhiraj Murthy talks about his work “Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age”

Keurkoon Phoomwittaya talked to Sisse Siggaard Jenssen for a documentary about Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together”

Cheryl Jadav‘s movie is about Brian Loader and Dan Mercea’s collected volume “Social Media and Democracy”

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The 25th Anniversary of the WWW: Transition to Socialism or Regression into Barbarism?

The 25th Anniversary of the WWW: Transition to Socialism or Regression into Barbarism?
Christian Fuchs











By Svilen.milev (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

1. The WWW and Capitalism

When Tim Berners Lee created the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989 – 25 years ago – he conceived it as an “open medium”, in which “anybody could connect to anything” and everyone can connect to websites “no matter who I am”. The very idea of the WWW includes open standards that are globally agreed and allow everyone to develop and offer new services, a decentralised architecture, and the promotion of open source software. This system reflects cyberlibertarian ideas of free information flow and free speech that cannot be controlled by governments.

At the same time there was also a digital-communist reality at the heart of the WWW: Tim Berners Lee made the WWW available to anyone without payment as a commonly shared architecture for the publishing of information, communication, sharing, collaboration and community formation. The WWW’s common architecture is not only an open resource for citizens, also companies do not have to pay for it, which makes it a gratis resource for capital that invites corporate colonisation of the WWW. The WWW is in this respect comparable to public service infrastructures such as transport systems, education and health care institutions, or the pension system. Such public goods all have a dual character that at the same time immanently stabilises and transcends capitalism. It would however be a mistake to argue that the unpaid access to the WWW has made it a mere idiot serving capital. The option that users have to pay an access fee every time they enter the WWW via a web browser or a flat access fee for a specific duration is a much worse alternative. A free access system is a better option than one, in which you have to pay a fee every time you attend school, university or a doctor. If everyone has to pay a direct flat fee for access to the WWW, schools, universities, a hospital or a doctor, then the likely result is that poor people and lower-income families and individuals get no access at all or only a form of second-class access. One specific intrinsic value of the WWW is that it has to a specific degree resisted this logic of class structuration. This has become evident in the by-and-large successful resistance against the abolishment of net neutrality. A cessation of net neutrality would allow Internet Service Providers to slow down specific Internet and WWW services, sites, platforms, types of content, applications, or devices and to charge users for faster access, which would result in new forms of commodification and inequalities that privilege resource-rich companies and organisations over everyday WWW- and Internet-users

2. The WWW and Corporate Ideology

In that the Internet has overthrown matter, challenges government control and that to the early days after the WWW’s take-off in the mid-1990s, the Grateful Dead’s lyricist John Perry Barlow who was involved in the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation proclaimed in 1996 the independence of cyberspace from governments in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that asked “[g]overnments of the Industrial World” to “leave us alone” in “Cyberspace, the new home of Mind”. Around the same time, conservative thinkers around the Progress and Freedom Foundation claimed in the Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age “create the new cyberspace environment is to create new property”. When these thinkers and along with them politicians, management gurus and “new media” companies said freedom they meant the unlimited freedom of private property to treat the WWW as a commercial space for accumulating capital. Corporate power on the WWW was desired, hailed, advanced and hardly questioned. Free market and free ownership became the corporate ideology of the WWW.

As a result, the most accessed websites in April 1999 were (according to Media Metrix) AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Lycos, Go Network, GeoCities, Excite, Time Warner Online, Blue Mountain Arts, AltaVista and Amazon. All of these companies in the end wanted to sell a thing or service – access to information and communication services, software, operating systems, entertainment content, various goods offered in online shopping malls, advertisements, merchandise, greeting cards, etc. The fact that among these leading websites that dominated the WWW in 1999 there was not a single one operated by a non-profit, non-commercial organisation indicates the reduction of freedom to freedom of capital on the WWW.

3. The WWW’s Shit Hits the Fan: The 2000 Dot-Com Crisis

By Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia (Crisis? What Crisis?  Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the WWW’s dominant practice of freedom was coming at a price. Information is a peculiar commodity because it is not used up by consumption, it can easily, quickly and cheaply be copied and transported, it can be consumed simultaneously by many people, it has large initial production costs (sunk cost rule) but low to zero reproduction costs, it can often only be sold when it becomes a “hit” as part of a broader portfolio (hit rule), and it has uncertain demand which causes high risks (nobody knows anything rule). Selling on the Internet is uncertain, risky and contradictory. The new economy hype was spurred by the search for high profits that could never be achieved in a sustainable manner since the 1970s. The WWW promised to be a new electronic frontier of capital accumulation, which resulted in the financialisation of the online economy. Large amounts of venture capital were invested into Internet start-ups and one after another WWW-company announced its initial public offering on the stock market. The difficulties of making profit in the information economy culminated in 2000 when the new economy financial bubble burst (“dot-com crisis”) and WWW-companies such as,,,,,, and many others went bankrupt. The promises expressed in stock market valuations could not live up to the reality of capital accumulation on the WWW.

4. The Materiality and Division of the WWW

The WWW’s first (and probably not last) economic crisis showed the materiality of the Web and that it is not the “home of the Mind” (Barlow) or the “overthrow of matter” (Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, Toffler). It is rather a space, in which money and power act as material forces. To get on the WWW, you need a computer, laptop, mobile phone or tablet that is produced by physical labour and ends up as e-waste predominantly in developing countries, where these devices are disassembled under toxic conditions, pile up as heaps of junk and threaten the livelihood of humans and nature.

There has without a doubt been an impressive increase of the number of people who have access to the WWW and the Internet from 360 million in 2000 to 2.7 billion (40% of the world population) in 2013. But given that Internet access is a material question having to do with money, skills and motivation, the economically and culturally deprived people of the world are facing disadvantages in Internet and WWW access and use. As long as we live in a world class society – capitalism is not “world class”, but a worldwide class society – they will simply not be able to “catch” up and are bound to not at all use the WWW and certain technologies and services, or to use second-class services and devices (remember the trash computers that One Laptop Per Child wanted to sell to people and governments in developing countries?), or to not benefit to the same extent from technology as others do. Given the realities of class society’s global inequality, it is no surprise that in 2013 the Internet access rate has been 74.7% in Europe, but only 16.3% in Africa.

By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One can certainly point out in this context the “success” of the increase of African Internet users from 17 million in 2005 to 140 million in 2013 or China’s a Internet “success story”: China had an Internet access rate of 42.3%in 2012 compared to 1.78% in 2000, which makes it with more than 500 million users the country with the largest number of Internet users in absolute terms). But inequalities result with necessity in differentiated access to and benefits from the Internet, which makes it an illusion that the WWW can ever be democratic as long as classes and inequalities exist. The “growth of China” has been accompanied by a rise of Gini-inequality from 29.1 in 1981 to 41.1 in 2009. That the farmer in China’s poorest province Guizhou will finally be able to send an SMS does not make a true difference as long as the relational reality is that people in Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York and other parts of the world have the possibility and material capacities to live-stream movies on the WWW and the farmer besides staying physically poor also does not have such informational possibilities. Capitalism breeds global, regional, national and local structures of inequality that are reflected in complex manners by the WWW, the Internet and the media in general.

5. The Structural Discrimination of Alternatives on the WWW

By Christian Heilmann (Flickr: Eff Facebook) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Online freedom tends to be more understood as free speech instead of also as free beer. For Facebook online freedom means “the power to share and to make the world more open and connected” (Facebook). For Google, freedom is the organisation of “the world’s information” in order to “make it universally accessible and useful” and “make money without doing evil” (Google). YouTube conceives the essence of freedom as possibility “to connect, inform and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers large and small”. For Twitter, freedom is “to connect with people, express yourself and discover what’s happening” and “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly”. Instagram understands freedom as fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with friends and family”. Pinterest means by freedom “collecting and organising things you love” (Pinterest). LinkedIn sees freedom in the possibility to “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”. tumblr conceives freedom as a way to “share the things you love” (tumblr). For Sina Weibo, freedom means to “allow users to connect and share information anywhere, anytime and with anyone on our platform” and “an array of online media and social networking services to our user to create a rich canvas for businesses and brand advertisers to connect and engage with their targeted audiences”. Tencent (QQ, WeChat) sees freedom in ”value-added Internet, mobile and telecom services and online advertising under the strategic goal of providing users with ‘one-stop online lifestyle services’” and in the possibility to “connect with friends across platforms” (WeChat). For VK, freedom is “a web resource that helps you stay in touch with your old and new friends” (VK). For WhatsApp, freedom is “a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS” (WhatsApp). Corporate social media have hijacked the concept of free access and turned it into an ideology that tries to conceal the existence of a mode of capital accumulation that is based on the commodification of personal data and targeted advertising. Corporate social media present themselves as free, open and social, but are in reality unfree, closed and particularistic machines for the commodification of personal data that produce and sell targeted ads.

The problem is that Internet companies, consultants, managers and those who believe in their ideology do not see that freedom is, as Karl Marx stressed, a “realm of freedom” that is not based on the logic of profitability and accumulation, but the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”, which implies that the “primary freedom” of the media “lies in not being a trade”. The consequences of the reduction of the WWW’s freedom to freedom of property, the market and trade have been that the WWW is today first and foremost a shopping mall and a huge advertising space, in which the world’s largest advertising agencies disguise themselves as “social media” and “mobile media” in order to garner and commodify personal data as “big data”. The WWW is the world’s biggest narcissistic self-presentation machine and individualising spectacle, in which users are not connected to WeTube, OurBook, OurSpace, but to YouTube, Facebook and MySpace in order to advertise their own selves to others. The task is to gain competitive advantages and accumulate reputation in order to be better “employable” and more successful. Individualism is designed into corporate “social” media platforms and has become a strategy of survival for many workers who tend to see themselves not as an exploited class, but reflect their existence as individual freelancers by conceiving themselves not as precarious workers, but as “knowledge professionals”, “middle class”, “makers” and “creatives”.

Being the world’s largest shop window and mall is the WWW’s dominant, but not its only reality. On the WWW, we also find critical-political online news media, such as AlterNet, Common Dreams, Democracy Now!, Free Spech TV, Indymedia, Occupy News Network, openDemocracy, Project Censored, Truth Out, TomDispatch, ZNet, and many others. There is also the alternative press that puts out printed journals or magazines and makes use of the WWW in its publishing efforts. Examples include Adbusters Magazine, In These Times, Left Business Observer, Mother Jones, N+1, The Nation, or The Progressive. On the WWW, there are also whistle-blowing and watchdog platforms such as Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, China Labor Watch, Corporate Crime Reporter, Corporate Europe Observatory, Corporate Watch, CorpWatch, PR Watch, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour, or WikiLeaks.

The WWW also is the home of federated/distributed social networks and alternative social media such as Wikipedia, Diaspora that describes itself as “the privacy-aware, decentralized social network which puts users in control of their data security”, N-1 that says it is the “social network of the people and for the people”,, StatusNet, Quitter – “a federation of microbloggers who care about ethics and solidarity and want to quit the centralist capitalist services” and that “will always be non-profit”, Vinilox, Load Average, Thimbl – “free, open source and distributed micro-blogging” that challenges “proprietary, centralized platforms like Twitter” that “exist only to capture profit”, and others.

Together such platforms and projects constitute an alternative WWW.

The alternative web is however confronted with structural inequalities: non-profit projects have more problems to mobilise resources than commercial projects that sell something and make profits. Alternative web platforms face hierarchies of visibility and reputation an compete with monopoly- and oligopoly-capitalist platforms that lock in users. Although the Internet and the WWW have a decentralised technological structure, there is a centralised architecture of power that today governs these systems’ usage, application, and their structures of influence, visibility and attention. Setting up, operating and maintaining alternative WWW platforms as well as trying to compete with capitalist platforms is often precarious and difficult. The capitalist WWW structurally discriminates the alternative WWW. As a consequence, capitalist platforms dominate the WWW and alternative ones are more marginal: Google, Facebook, YouTube, QQ, LinkedIn, Twitter, Sina, Blogspot, Weibo, VK, Pinterest, tumblr and Instagram were on March 13, 2014, in the list of the most accessed websites of the world ranked on positions #1, #2, #3, #7, #8, #10, #13, #16, #17, #23, #28, #35, #37. Some of the federated social networks were in contrast ranked on positions #68,507 (, #96,497 (Diaspora), #98,516 (StatusNet), #265,098 (N-1), #1,587,492 (Thimbl), #2,212, 575 (Quitter), #5,736,695 (Load Average), #6,047,362 (Vinilox). Whereas the websites of mainstream news organisations such as the Huffington Post (#82), Daily Mail (#101), India Times (#108), New York Times (#118), Fox News (#164) occupied top positions, some of the alternative news platforms were only ranked on positions #3,828 (AlterNet), #13,064 (WikiLeaks), #17,185 (Democracy Now!), #19,139 (Common Dreams), #20,319 (Truth Out), or #66,068 (Open Democracy). Alternative WWW projects are also not save from co-optation and capitalist subsumption as the example of Creative Commons open access journals and open access book publishers shows: Most of them are alternative, non-profit academic publishing projects, but some open access projects have developed into predatory companies that accept all articles and charge authors high article processing fees in order to accumulate capital.

Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown the existence of a global surveillance system that secret services such as the NSA and GCHQ use for monitoring communications, the Internet and the WWW. On the one hand the reaction to these revelations were the standard cyberlibertarian concerns over state institutions’ invasion of individual privacy. Privacy International for example describes Prism as “widespread and invasive spying regime operated by the US National Security Agency, with the complicity of officials entrusted to protect the rights of citizens, carried out by the world’s supposed beacon of democracy”. Prism for Privacy International underpins “the lack of legal protections in place to protect the privacy of people around the world”. On the other hand it is hard to only blame the state because it has become evident that communications and WWW companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and AOL! and private security companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton are complicit in mass surveillance, from which they derive monetary profits. Snowden’s revelations do not show the existence of state surveillance, but of a surveillance-industrial complex, in which the combination of corporate power and state power controls communications, the Internet and the WWW. If Snowden had remained silent, would Facebook, Google and the other companies involved in Prism ever have revealed the existence of this surveillance system? This seems very unlikely, although many of these companies now want to make use believe that they are also opposed to the very surveillance that they help conducting.

6. Towards an Alternative WWW?

Tim Berners-Lee. By Enrique Dans from Madrid, Spain (Con Tim Berners-Lee) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Given the alarming status of the WWW 25 years after he founded it, Tim Berners-Lee voiced his concerns. He stressed that the WWW was founded as a common and public system: “The web is now a public resource on which people, businesses, communities and governments depend. It is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium”. The web would in 2014 face massive threats: “I believe that the future of the web is under threat from some governments that may abuse their powers, some businesses that may try to undermine the open market, and from criminal activity. In recent years we have seen a steady increase in censorship of the web by governments around the world. We’ve seen a proliferation of corporate walled gardens, excessively punitive laws pertaining to copyright and computer misuse, and attempts to undermine or disregard net neutrality. But mass surveillance, and particularly the reported attempts by intelligence agencies in the US and UK to break commercial encryption systems to make it easier to spy on people, is the most worrying of all, because it could engender a loss of trust and lead to Balkanisation of the web”. Berners-Lee questions corporate and state control of the WWW and the Internet, but the question is if the accumulation logics of corporations and state control agencies such as secret services do not always and fundamentally pose a threat to the WWW, freedom and democracy. If so, then we need a WWW that is independent from particularistic control and colonisation – an alternative WWW.

Tim Berners-Lee calls for action to save the WWW: “The future of the web depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for this extraordinary resource and challenging those who seek to manipulate the web against the public good”. He continues: “We need a global constitution – a bill of rights. […] Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it. […] The removal of the explicit link to the US department of commerce is long overdue. The US can’t have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national. There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm’s length”.

Rosa Luxemburg

Many users definitely share Berners-Lee’s concerns about the WWW’s particularistic control. The important question is if an alternative to the controlled and colonised WWW – a web that serves the common and public good – can be achieved within the framework of capitalism and the capitalist state. I strongly doubt it. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, we can say that after 25 years, the WWW “stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”. A public debate about radical reforms of the media system, the Internet and the WWW is urgently needed.

Christian Fuchs is professor of social media at the University of Westminster and author of books such as Social Media: A Critical Introduction , Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies, or Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age.

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The (Un-)Freedom of Information under Capitalism

The (Un-)Freedom of Information under Capitalism

On February 28 and March 1, 2014, around 200 scholars, activists, journalists, lawyers, librarians, media practitioners, experts of open culture and public space, policy makers and critical citizens participated in the conference “Freedom of Information under Pressure: Control – Crisis – Culture” at Vienna University of Technology in order to discuss threats that freedom, the media and the Internet are facing in contemporary capitalism.

The topics that were discussed included the prosecution of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, secret services’ (NSA, GCHQ etc) communications- and Internet- surveillance as part of the Prism surveillance system, the limitation of the freedom of the press (including repression and violence against journalists) in countries such as Greece and the United Kingdom, the dangers of the commercialisation and commodification of the Internet, social media and communications; the contradictions of media power, threats to public service media such as the closure of the Greek public service broadcaster ERT, journalism and the media’s role in commercialisation and tabloidisation, implications of online whistle-blowing, public and open access to knowledge and libraries, transparency and intransparency of corporate and state power, models of resistance in Internet and media activism.

The conference alerted the public to ways corporate and state power limit the freedom of information in capitalism and that alternatives to the dominant ways the media and the Internet are organised and controlled are urgently needed. The participants are preparing a freedom of information-petition and declaration.

Videos of the plenary talks and panel discussions have been published online.

* Gill Phillips (Director of Editorial Legal Service, The Guardian, United Kingdom): Edward Snowden – More Questions than Answers?, Moderator: Christian Fuchs (University of Westminster, UK)

* Christian Fuchs (University of Westminster, UK): Social Media, the Internet, (Un-)Freedom and the Public Sphere in Times of Crisis, Moderator: Peter Fleissner (President, transform!at, Austria)

* Panel Discussion: Surveillance and Whistle-Blowing
Participants: Miyase Christensen (Professor, Stockholm University, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, London School of Economics, UK), Christian Fuchs (University of Westminster, UK), Rene Pfeiffer (DeepSec, Austria), Minas Samatas (Professor, University of Crete, Greece), Sebastian Sevigniani (Univesity of Jena, Germany), Pepi Zawodsky (Metalab and CryptoParty, Austria), Moderator: Dimitris Tsapogas (University of Vienna, Austria)

* Panel discussion: “Reform: Policy and advocacy”
Participants: Jaqueline Harrison (Professor, Centre for Freedom of the Media, UK), Spideralex (Hacktivist, Catalonia), Kostas Efimeros (Publisher, The Press Project, Greece), Arne Hintz (Lecturer, University of Cardiff, UK), Andreas Krisch (President, European Digital Rights, Belgium), George Katrougalos (Professor, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece), Moderator: Marianne Schulze (Liga für Menschrechte, Austria)

* Augustine Zenakos (Investigative Journalist, UNFOLLOW magazine, Greece) and Mariniki Alevizopoulou (Investigative Journalist, UNFOLLOW magazine, Greece) Moderator: Dimitris Tsapogas (University of Vienna)

* Wolfgang Hofkirchner (Professor, Vienna University of Technology, Austria)
“Why freedom of information is not enough”

* Joachim Losehand (Scholar, VIBE!at, Austria): “Right of access to information and public knowledge”
Moderator: Nikolaus Hamann (Vienna Public Libraries, KRIBIBI, Austria)

* Panel discussion: “Right of access to information and public knowledge”
Nikolaus Hamann (Vienna Public Libraries, KRIBIBI, Austria), Markus »fin« Hametner (Transparenzgesetz, Austria), Antonis Broumas (Attorney at law, Digital Liberation Network, Greece), Lisa Schilhan (VÖB, University of Graz, Austria), Paloma Fernández de la Hoz (Catholic Social Academy, Austria), Terezija Stoisits (Vice President Österreichische Liga für Menschenrechte, Austria)

* George Katrougalos (Professor, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece):
What has a failed state like Greece to do with the future of Europe?
Moderator: Dimitris Tsapogas (University of Vienna, Austria)

* Erich Möchel (Journalist, ORF, Austria): “Information defense for journalists”
Moderator: Peter Fleissner (President, transform!at, Austria)

* Panel discussion: Media and journalism under pressure
William Horsley (Media Freedom Representative, Association of European Journalists),
Barbara Trionfi (Press Freedom Manager, International Press Institute), Susanne Scholl (Journalist, Austria), Kostas Arvanitis (Journalist, Greece), Stanka Tosheva (Editor in Chief of Capital, Bulgaria), Harald Schumann (Investigative journalist, Tagesspiegel, Germany),
Moderator: Gerfried Sperl (Journalist, PHOENIX, Austria)

Related posting: Christian Fuchs: (Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media

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Conference Freedom of Information under Pressure: Control – Crisis – Culture

Conference Freedom of Information under Pressure: Control – Crisis – Culture
Vienna, Austria.
February 28-March 1, 2014

Edward Snowden

PRISM logo

This event will gather more than 30 international speakers (academics, media practitioners, librarians, experts of open culture and public space, activists and policy makers) from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom, and will call for an open discussion on the challenges of freedom of information in the light of the recent surveillance revelations and the increase in censorship and prosecutions of media, journalists and whistle-blowers in Europe and beyond.

Keynote and plenary speakers include:

Gill Phillips (Director of Editorial Legal Service, The Guardian, United Kingdom)
Augoustine Zenakos (Investigative Journalist, UNFOLLOW magazine, Greece)
Mariniki Alevizopoulou (Investigative Journalist, UNFOLLOW magazine, Greece)
Christian Fuchs (Professor of Social Media, University of Westminster, United Kingdom)
Joachim Losehand (Scholar, VIBE!at, Austria)
George Katrougalos (Professor, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece)
Wolfgang Hofkirchner (Professor, Vienna University of Technology, Austria)
Erich Möchel (Journalist, ORF, Austria)

In June 2013, Edward Snowden, with the collaboration of The Guardian, The Washington Post and Der Spiegel, revealed – and most importantly attested – the extent of the American and British intelligence agencies surveillance activities. These activities include mass online surveillance but also mass mobile and landline telephone surveillance, covering nearly all-possible communicative transactions. Such efforts of individual whistle-blowers and organisations towards transparency and public accountability have been met with vigorous oppression; Chelsea Manning (previously known as Bradley Manning) was recently sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment for leaking US classified information, while others, such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald have been chased and prosecuted by the US and British governments, in an effort to curtail disclosures and prevent others from proceeding to similar activities. Moreover, in a concerted intimidation effort, the British government recently asked the Guardian newspaper to appear before a parliamentary committee under the accusation that the newspaper has threatened national security.

Meanwhile, we have been experiencing a general increase in media and journalism censorship in Europe, where freedom of information is under pressure. In the crisis hit country of Greece for instance, journalists are often threatened and prosecuted by public and private institutions and organisations. One notorious case was that of the Greek Public Service Broadcaster, ERT, which was brutally shut down by the Greek government, laying off around 2,600 employees and causing an international public outcry. Another case was that of the investigative journalist, Kostas Vaxevanis, who was prosecuted for publishing the so-called “Lagarde’s List”, which contained over 2,000 names of Greeks, alleged to have bank accounts in Switzerland.

The right of access to information can promote citizens civic and political participation by raising their levels of trust to political and policy making institutions, while it can fight phenomena such as lobbying and corruption. Open access to public knowledge and scholarly research is also crucial for the continuous education of the broader public and professionals, the promotion of cultural diversity and the preservation of the historic and collective memory. Libraries and archives can and should play an important role in this debate. However, the potentials created by access to information and public knowledge are hampered by various, complex, technical and legal barriers and their success is heavily dependent on governments’ willingness to adopt laws for transparency and access to information but also on citizens’ ability to claim such conditions of access and to demand accountability.

In this context, the conference aims to explore the following urgent questions: What is the state of media and journalism freedom currently in Europe? What are the differences and the similarities between European countries? What is the relationship between security policies and press freedom? What do we know about electronic surveillance and why does it threatens democracy? What is the relationship between security, privacy, data protection and surveillance? How can we take advantage of the new information and communication technologies, without giving away fundamentals freedoms, such as the right to privacy? How can the rights of creators be secured without hampering cultural and scientific progress and interchange? What is the role of researchers, publishers, libraries and archives in the promotion of a free culture of information and knowledge? What role can commons-based peer production play in reforming current copyrights laws? What has to be done in order for decision-making processes and their results in policy and administration to be more transparent? What are the challenges for policy makers, NGOs and advocates of digital rights, privacy, freedom of information and open access? What are the technological, legal, educational and political strategies for resistance to the spread of societies of censorship, surveillance and control?

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(Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media

(Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media
Christian Fuchs

By Fekner (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Immanuel Kant defined the liberal concept of freedom in the context of the autonomy of the human will that he saw as “the supreme principle of morality” (Kant 1785, 109). He conceptualised freedom as humans’ understanding of how to make “public use of man’s reason” for “addressing the entire reading public” (Kant 1784, 4), whereby enlightenment would become possible as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant 1784, 7). Jürgen Habermas (2011, 14) has pointed out that Kant’s concept of freedom and his categorical imperative that is grounded on it form the foundation of the liberal principles of human rights. The principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all “human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (§1) reflects Kant’s philosophy.

Karl Marx and Max Horkheimer criticised the individualism characteristic for Kant’s concept of freedom. Marx wrote: “Kant was satisfied with ‘good Will’ alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond” (Marx and Engels 1845, 208). Horkheimer (1933, 24) pointed out that Kant’s philosophy has an “idealist trait, according to which all would be right in the world so long as all were right in Spirit”.

On a practical and political level, the legitimation of the individualistic concept of freedom that proclaims unlimited freedom of private property expresses itself in an antagonism between the freedom of private property on the one hand and social freedom as well as social justice on the other hand. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this circumstance manifests itself as an antagonism between §17 (Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others) and §22 (Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security). The increase of distributive injustice at national and global level in the context of 35 years of continuous neoliberal regulation of capitalism shows this foundational antagonism between liberal ideology and capitalist reality (Therborn 2013).

How do the conditions and possibilities of freedom look like in the age of so-called “social media“ such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Weibo or Wikipedia (see Fuchs 2014b)? Tabloid media, populist politics and one-dimensional academia often argue that social media caused Twitter and Facebook revolutions in the Arab Spring, result in more democracy, freedom of expression and a diversity of opinion, as well as an increase of general wealth. These liberal promises of freedom are however confronted with an antagonistic reality of unfreedom and control on the Internet.

Apple promises the users of iPads, iPhones and MacBooks “wireless freedom“, whereas this “freedom“ is grounded in the actual material unfreedom of hardware assemblers in Chinese Foxconn factories, where they manufacture Apple and other technologies under inhumane working conditions, including long working hours, poor pay and military controls (Fuchs 2014a). Facebook says that it gives users “the power to share and to make the world more open and connected”. Google praises itself by claiming that it makes “money without doing evil”. At the same time both companies have outsourced their financial structures to tax havens so that in 2011 they respectively paid only 1.5% (Google) and 0.1% (Fabeook) of their annual British revenues in corporation tax, although the corporation tax rate was 26%. Neoliberal states reacted to the global crisis of capitalism by ”socialism“ for banks and the rich that used working people’s taxes for bailouts to rehabilitate the financial system. States’ main reaction to the resulting budget holes have been austerity measures that hit the poorest and weakest, whereas global Internet companies (and other corporations) hardly pay taxes and legitimate this circumstance with the argument that they do not operate within nation states, but in the placeless space of the Internet.

Right-wing politicians demand on the one hand privacy and secrecy for military and secret service operations, in which civilians and journalists are killed and millions of citizens are being spied on, and criminalise those who strive to make such circumstances public with the help of the Internet (WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, The Guardian). On the other hand they treat privacy with a class moral that wants to restrict its protection for those in power, whereas the personal data of millions of Internet users are controlled by a military-industrial surveillance complex (Prism), in which secret services collaborate with private security companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and communication corporations such as AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Paltalk, Skype and Yahoo!. Facebook, Twitter and Google exploit users’ digital labour by commodifying their personal data as part of new capital accumulation models that use targeted advertising.

Whereas the Internet’s dominant ideology promises freedom, the reality is that capitalist and state actors are in the online world “freer“ than others, which shows this space’s actual unfreedom. But we can also hear the protest voices of actors such as Anonymous, hacker organisations, the movement for free software and open access, investigative journalists, consumer protection organisations, media reform movements such as Free Press or the Media Reform Coalition, human rights organisation, pirate parties, watchdog organisations and WikiLeaks. They call for more Internet freedom and privacy.

These actors illustrate the negative reality of the dialectic of Enlightenment and liberalism’s limits: the practices of data commodification, capitalist media control, corporate and state surveillance limit the liberal freedoms of freedoms of thought, speech, press and assembly as well as the security of the people’s persons, houses, papers and effects. When the Internet and “social“ media are, as Horkheimer and Adorno (2002, 73f) say, “harnessed to the dominant mode of production”, the enlightenment that these modes of communication promise, “nullifies itself”.

So when for example the Anonymous movement questioned how police violence limited Occupy activists’ freedom of opinion and assembly, it strictly affirmed liberal values, but showed at the same time how state institutions violate liberal values in the land of unlimited “freedom”. A liberal critique of the unfreedom implied by the control systems that liberalism has created is however insufficient. A comprehensive system of participatory democracy is needed to overcome the limits of freedom cause by capitalist and state control of the media, the attention economy, power, reputation structures and the public.

Profitable global corprorations control the Internet and social media. Whereas in Europe there is a tradition of public service broadcasting and of acknowledging public service’s importance for the flourishing of democracy, we are so accustomed to Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft’s control of the Internet and digital media that the idea of a public service Internet seems completely alien to us. At the same time Prism and the continuous public criticisms of Google and Facebook show the need for alternatives. There are just 2 alternative models among the 100 most accessed web platforms in the world: the BBC’s website and the non-commercial online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

It is about time that we start thinking about re-inventing the Internet, decolonising it and transforming it into a true public sphere. Based on Mahatma Gandhi, who when asked what he thinks about Western civilisation answered “I think it would be a good idea”, we can today say: Social media would be a good idea if it were truly free and public. Social media is possible, but for the time being remains a Blochian not-yet.

Christian Fuchs is professor of social media at the
University of Westminster and author of the book “Social Media: A Critical Introduction“. The topic of Internet freedom, social media and the public sphere will be subject of his inauguration lecture “Social Media and the Public Sphere“ on February 19, 2014, and his keynote talk at the conference Freedom of Information under Pressure: Control – Crisis – Culture (Vienna, February 28-March 1, 2014).

Fuchs, Christian. 2014a. Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.

Fuchs, Christian. 2014b. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage.

Habermas, Jürgen. 2011. Zur Verfassung Europas. Ein Essay. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Horkheimer, Max. 1933. Materialism and Morality. In Between Philosophy and Social Science, 15-47 . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? In The Idea of the Public Sphere. A Reader, ed. Jostein Gripsrud, Hallvard Moe, Anders Molander and Graham Murdock, 3-8. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kant, Immanuel. 1785. Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals. A German-English Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1845. The German Ideology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Therborn, Göran. 2013. The Killing Fields of Inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Inauguration Lecture: Social Media and the Public Sphere

Christian Fuchs: Social Media and the Public Sphere
Inauguration lecture

February, 19, 2014. 18:00-21:00
University of Westminster. London W1B 2HW
309 Regent Street
The Old Cinema
Register here

Social media has become a key term in Media and Communication Studies and public discourse for characterising platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, WordPress, Blogspot, Weibo, Pinterest, Foursquare and Tumblr. This lecture will discuss the implications of social media for power structures in society, the economy and politics. The lecture will first discuss the question “What is social about social media?”. Providing answers requires a social theory understanding of what it means to be social. The lecture will explore different concepts of the social and relate them to the realm of the media.Social media are an expression of the tendency that in contemporary society boundaries become liquid. The distinctions between the private and the public, play and labour (playbour, digital labour), work and leisure, production and consumption (prosumption), individual and collective action, online and offline, networking and autonomy, spatial distance and co-presence, anonymity and knowledge, presence and absence, appearance and disappearance, and visibility and invisibility, are blurring. This lecture will discuss what risks and opportunities these changes imply for society. Many political and academic discussions about the implications of social media for society are concentrated on the question of whether social media enhance or endanger various dimensions of the public sphere. Whereas some say that social media make the economy more democratic and have been used as tools of revolutions and democratisation (‘revolution 2.0’, ‘Twitter/Facebook revolution’), others hold that social media are first and foremost instruments of control and commerce. The lecture will engage with Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and discuss social media’s variety of implications for the structural transformation of the public sphere.Whereas we are accustomed to the idea of public service broadcasting, an understanding of how a public service internet could look and be advanced is largely missing. This lecture wants to contribute to the public discussion of how the social dimension of the internet and the media can serve the public interest, the concept of a public service internet and how ideas for specific organisation, policy and funding models could look like.


More about Prof. Christian Fuchs:

Christian Fuchs joined the University of Westminster as Professor of Social Media in February 2013. He was previously Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. His research focuses on digital media and society, media andsociety and information society studies. He is Chair of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 18 – Sociology of Communications and Media Research, editor of tripleC – Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, and co-founder of the ICTs and Society-Network. He is Vice-Chair of the EU COST Network, ‘Dynamics of Virtual Work’.

Christian Fuchs published more than 200 academic works, including the books Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age (Routledge 2008); Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies (Routledge 2011); and Social Media: A Critical Introduction (Sage 2014), Digital Labour and Karl Marx (Routledge 2014). He is co-editor of Internet and Surveillance: The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media (Routledge 2012);Critique, Social Media & the Information Society (Routledge 2013, with Marisol Sandoval); and Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Routledge 2014, with Daniel Trottier).

Register here

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“Castells and Jenkins: … these approaches are terribly flawed”: An interview with Christian Fuchs

Conducted by Pasko Bilic
First published on the Sociologija Media Blog

An interview covering topics such as critical media and communication studies, media sociology, interdisciplinarity, Karl Marx, social theory, the digital labour theory of value, social media, the Internet, Manuel Castells, Henry Jenkins, PRISM and global surveillance, Occupy and media reforms.

Dr. Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the Communication and Media Research Institute and the Centre for Social Media Research, University of Westminster, London, UK. He is the author of “Internet and society: Social theory in the information age” (Routledge 2008), “Foundations of critical media and information studies” (Routledge 2011) and the forthcoming monographs “Digital labor and Karl Marx” (Routledge 2014), “Social media: A critical introduction” (Sage 2014) and “OccupyMedia! The Occupy movement and social media in crisis capitalism” (Zero Books 2014). He has co-edited the collected volume “Internet and surveillance: The challenges of web 2.0 and social media” (Routledge 2012) and the forthcoming volumes “Critique, social media and the information society” (Routledge 2014) and “Social media, politics and the state. Protests, revolutions, riots, crime and policing in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube” (Routledge 2014). He is editor of “tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique”, Chair of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 18 – Sociology of Communications and Media Research, co-founder of the ICTs and Society network and Vice-Chair of the European Union COST Action “Dynamics of Virtual Work”. We met up with Christian in October in Athens, Greece during the COST action meeting and conference.

1) What first got you interested in media and communication studies?

My background is social informatics and I was interested in computing. On the other hand, I come from Austria where we have a far-right party – the FPÖ– that has been very strong for many decades and they were using media for spreading right-wing extremist ideologies. Jörg Haider was not just a right-wing extremist political and ideological phenomenon, but also a media spectacle. So I was interested in how the media are used for disseminating these ideologies. Austria has one of the highest media concentrations in the press sector and a tabloid called KronenZeitung which has often supported these extremists and their racist propaganda. So my interests were on the one hand computing and its implications for society and on the other hand media and ideology. Also, my academic background is very interdisciplinary because besides my PhD in informatics I did my habilitation in ICTs and Society within the Faculty of Cultural and Social Sciences at the University of Salzburg. Most of my life I have worked in interdisciplinary departments. Of course media and communication is in itself interdisciplinary. For example, I recently looked at the special issue of the Journal of Communication from 1983 called “Ferment in the Field” where scholars discussed whether Media and Communication Studies was a discipline, a field, or even isolated ˝frog ponds˝ which was actually one of the views expressed by the Swedish scholar Karl Erik Rosengren. What makes up the interdisciplinarity of Media and Communication Studies were for example media economics, critical communication studies, political communication, media psychology, etc.

2) How did your interests change over the years and how do you see the field of media and communication studies today?

My interest in computing and media ideology did not change. Of course the media landscape changes, and the context in which the media are situated changes. There are differences between how the World Wide Web looked like in the nineties with the first hypertext systems and what it looks like now. Now there are “social media” which are in reality not that new although the appearance has changed. We are now also in a big economic and societal crisis. But the field in general has always been rather administrative, serving dominant interests. On the other hand there has always been some basis in the critical thinking of the Frankfurt school, British cultural studies, and Marxist political economy. This special issue of the Journal of Communication I mentioned earlier was also divided in this way. However, later issues showed that critical voices were less present. In the 1980s mainstream publications such as the Journal of Communication were still putting out some critical articles but now it is completely administrative and this is, I think, not how the media and communication studies should look like. Since the global crisis unfolded in 2008 critical scholarship has started flourishing again, especially among PhD students and early stage scholars who are fed up with the neoliberal restructuring of the academic field, with precarious employment and so on. Young academics have all the reasons to be angry, and naturally anger gets to a certain extent expressed in critical thinking. There is a general turn towards critical thinking, radical theory, anti-capitalist and Marxist theory nowadays.

3) In your work you rely heavily on the writings of Karl Marx. Where do you see the relevance of this 19th century theorist in the 21st century?

I do not terribly like the way you phrased this question because somehow it gives the perception of Marx as being outdated, old, that society is new and has completely changed through neoliberalism and so on. This was the point made by Baudrillard who said that we cannot explain postmodern society through Marx because Marx is a 19th century theorist and he did not talk about the media and so on. I would however have suggested to Baudrillard that he should have read Marx more carefully because there is a lot in Marx that helps us understand the media within the context of society. Quite obviously there is a huge crisis of capitalism, of the state, imperialism and ideology. It is not only a financial crisis because it goes beyond the financial sector. In volume three of Capital Marx very thoroughly discussed the mechanisms of financialization. He also very closely analysed class and class relations and inequalities. Nobody can claim today that we are not living in a class society. The ruling class enforces austerity measures and we have deepening inequalities. So these are all social issues. If we look at the media side and the ICTs in this context the question is can Marx somehow help us? I think that Baudrillard and similarly minded people were and are very superficial readers of Marx because Marx even anticipated the information society in his claims about the development of technological productive forces, and that knowledge in production would become increasingly important. Some also say that Marx did not understand the networked media, but then again Marx for example analyses the telegraph and its importance for society and how technology impacts society in the context of the globalization of the economy and communication. I even claim in my forthcoming book “Social Media: A Critical Introduction” that Marx invented the Internet in a striking passage of the Grundrisse. He described in a very anticipatory manner that in the global information system people inform themselves about others and are creating connections to each other. So the idea of social networking is there and the idea of networked information and a hypertext of global information are already there. So actually the World Wide Web was not invented by Tim Berners-Lee but by Karl Marx in 1857. Of course the technological foundations did not exist and also the computer did not exist as technology. But I think that, conceptually, Marx did invent the internet.

4) Karl Marx was largely focused on labour as a basic human activity. How does his labour theory relate to contemporary media and communication processes? Where do you see the border between labour and play in contemporary social media environments?

There is an anthropological element that Marx stresses. How humans have differentiated themselves from animals and how society has become differentiated has to do with purposeful human activity and self-conscious thinking. What distinguishes a bee from an architect is that the architect always imagines the result of what he produces before he produces it. This anticipatory thinking is at the heart of all human work processes. Work takes its organisational forms through social relations within specific societal formations – for example in the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist mode of the organisation of society. Then the labour theory of value comes in. Some say this is vital for social media, some say we do not need this theory because it is completely outdated. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the labour theory of value. When I read articles about this topic I always look at the basic concepts used besides value and labour. A lot of people use the terms money and profit, not understanding that labour theory of value is a theory of time in society and the capitalist economy. The crucial thing about how Marx conceptualizes value is that there is a substance of value and a measure of value. Human labour power is the substance of value whereas labour time in specific spaces is the measure of value. The labour value is the average time it takes to produce a commodity. How does this relate to what is called social media? The claim that the labour theory of value is no longer valid implies that time plays no role in the contemporary capitalist economy. Attention and reputation can be accumulated and getting attention for social media does not happen simply by putting the information there – it requires the work of creating the attention. The groups on Facebook and Twitter with the largest number of followers and likes are the ones of entertainers and companies who employ people such as social media strategists to take care of their social media presence. So we need to conceptualize value with a theory of time. Therefore, I am interested in establishing theories of time in society, time in economy and media theory.

5) In his recent work Manuel Castells stated that the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape the human mind. This may be easier to comprehend in the mass media environment where media content is shaped with a specific purpose to control and direct human behaviour, for example through advertising or political campaigns. However, with social media the users produce the content themselves. Where do you see this type of power exercised in the social media environment and how is it different from the mass media environment?

I will try to answer this question in the context of two dominant theories of how social media are being conceptualized: Castells´ theory of media and the network society and Henry Jenkins´ theory of participatory culture. I think both of these approaches are terribly flawed. Jenkins celebrates corporatist capitalist culture and how it is monetized. The concept of power from Castells is based on the Weber´s definition of power as a coercive force that exists everywhere. However there is also altruistic behaviour in our lives at home, with friends and elsewhere. There is life beyond domination. Of course we live in dominative societies but I believe in a sort of Enlightenment ideal of emancipation of society and that people can rule themselves. For me power means the ability of people to shape and control the structures of society. So power can be distributed in different forms. There are also different forms of power: economic power, decision-making power in politics, cultural power. The problem is that these forms of power are unequally distributed. Now here comes Jenkins who claims that culture has become participatory and we today all create culture in a democratic process. Of course, there are changes you cannot deny since it is easy to shoot a video on your mobile phone and put it on the internet. But does this mean that society becomes immediately democratized? I doubt it. Both Jenkins and Castells are technological determinists. Jenkins does not even realize where the concept of participation comes from in a theoretical sense and does not mention earlier forms and attempts of creating more participation such as the student movement’s vision of participatory democracy in the 1960s. Structures of control in the economy today and in the political system are based on power asymmetries. Although we produce information ourselves this does not mean that all people benefit from it to the same extent.

6) Recent surveillance scandals exposed by Edward Snowden have shown that the companies are not the only ones taking advantage of citizens´ digital footprints online. Do you see any alternatives to these events? How can we achieve a truly open and participatory internet taking all these risks into account?

The Prism scandal has shown that states have access to a lot of social media. However, we have to put this phenomenon in a broader context. What has emerged is a sort of surveillance-industrial complex where you have spy agencies conducting massive surveillance in collaboration with private companies. Facebook was involved, Skype, Apple and others. Snowden was also working for a private security company – Booz Allen – and the state outsourced surveillance to this private company and other ones. Security is a very profitable sector within the economy. We must also see the ideological context of these events that goes back to the post 9-11 situation. A spiral of war and violence was developing after these events and it was claimed that there is a technological fix to terrorism and organized crime and that there are terrorist and criminals everywhere around us. The suggested highly ideologically motivated solution was to introduce more surveillance technologies to prevent organized crime and terrorism. This was very one-dimensional and short sighted. What has developed in the online sphere is corporate and state control. From a liberal perspective this threatens the basic liberties we have or that we think we have in modern society. The question is how do we get out of this situation and what changes of the Internet and society do we need? We do have things like the Pirate party struggling for freedom of information, people concerned about privacy, critical journalists concerned about press freedom, the Occupy movement and so on. They all seem, however, terribly unconnected but in the time of crisis of the whole capitalist society their reactions, if combined in a network, would be a force for defending society and making it more democratic. A united political movement that would run for governments and parliaments could try to make reforms in society. We also need to reinvent and redesign the basic structures of the internet. However, we should not do away with social media because they do enable people to maintain their networks. But people do not like the aspects of control embedded in them. We need an internet controlled by civil society. If we think of how the media can be organized there are not just capitalist media but also public service media controlled by the state and alternative media controlled by civil society. The idea of an alternative internet purely controlled by the state might be dangerous, but we need state power to make progressive changes. I would like to see a combination of both state and civil society power in reforming the Internet and the media because there are interesting civil society projects that however face the problem of a lack of resources. For example, the Occupy movement had an alternative social medium they created. This was used by a certain minority within the movement.
My study “OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism” shows that the corporate platforms were also popular among activists but that they were at the same time afraid they were monitored by the state and also worried that as digital workers they were exploited by Internet companies. We can only introduce changes by using already existing structures but the history of alternative media is unfortunately a history of voluntary, self-exploited and precarious work because of the lack of sources of income. So a media reform movement should also channel resources towards alternative projects. We need to tax media corporations more, we need to tax advertising, and corporations in general. Through participatory budgeting one could channel this money towards alternative media projects that are non-profit and so we could create a form of cooperation between the state and civil society that advances media reform. Voluntary donations such as the ones on Wikipedia are also a solution but are dependent on an unstable stream of resources.

7) How do you see the increasing push towards applied and policy oriented research in Europe? How will it affect media studies and social sciences and humanities in general?

Research topics and areas in the European Union are predominantly formed in a top-down process, for example in Horizon 2020. What we need is a more critical agenda that addresses the problems in society and then thinks about the media and communication to see in which context they are operating and how we can improve democracy and the internet. The EU is framing questions about the Internet in terms of e.g. electronic participation but what it means by this is digital bureaucracy and that governments develop services for citizens and not the citizens’ development of an online public sphere. Administrative, quantitative and micro-level research is also preferred while theory, ethics, or critical theory is avoided. A critical research agenda would involve critical social theory on the one hand and critical empirical research on the other hand. Unfortunately a lot of critical theory does not use research methods. At the same time there are a lot of micro studies of social life that completely ignore theory. So a lot of empiricists do not know much about theory and a lot of theorists do not know much about research methods. The key is that we always need to have a societal context in mind so that we do not loose ourselves in studying micro phenomena.

8.) Media studies are an inherently interdisciplinary field. Where do you see the role of disciplines, especially sociology, in media studies?

Philosophy is a general meta-science, while sociology is social sciences´ meta-science. Social science was on the one hand influenced by the natural sciences, which was reflected in the interest in research methods, and on the other hand by the humanities and philosophy which was reflected in the focus on social theory. Social theory is a condusing English term that can sometimes be too micro-focused. There is a difference between “social” and “societal”. I would prefer the terms theory of society as in the German term Gesellschaftstheorie. In any case, media and communication studies should always be informed by sociology. For example, there is a difference between research presented in associations such as ECREA and research presented in the European Sociological Association (ESA). ESA’s Research Network 18 (Sociology of Communications and Media Research) is more interested in critically theorizing the media within society and in the context of society that shapes the media. Media sociology has always been a more critical field than media and communication studies at a whole. I am also optimistic about the development of a critical sociology of the media because there are a lot of young scholars who are interested in studying the media within society and there are a lot of interesting things happening. We need to help in institutionalizing critical media research by running journals, organizing conferences and creating space and time for critical media sociology. The task are: creating space where critical people can meet and talk to each other, creating space where they can publish; and creating time for doing critical research together with colleagues.

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