The Selfie as a Form of Prosumption

As is the case with most recent forms of prosumption, the selfie is made possible by a series of technological innovations including cellphones, their front-facing cameras, the computer and the internet on which photos are posted, and most recently selfie-sticks. While it has long been possible to photograph oneself, that process is now infinitely easier and the photos can be disseminated more quickly and easily. Taking selfies is clearly an example of prosumption in that the producer of the photo is almost always its first, and frequently only, consumer. As a recent newspaper article points out, at the production end of the prosumption-as-consumption continuum, those who take selfies “have become their own Hollywood directors” (Kate Murphy, “What Selfie Sticks Really Tell Us About Ourselves”, New York Times- Sunday Review, August 9, 2015: 5). After the subjects have viewed (consumed) the photos of themselves, they can then engage in a range of additional acts of production such as using “body-slimming, skin-smoothing and age-defying apps” in order to improve their appearance.
Furthermore, the viewer of other’s selfies is not merely a consumer of the photos, but is also a producer in the sense, according to an art historian, that “`the viewer of the selfie is free to interpret the work not governed by the intent of the person who took it’”. While making clear the productive role played by the consumer (viewer), this is a surprising statement since such interpretation is, and has always been, the case not only in all photographs, but in art, movies, theater, symphonies, operas, and the like. The viewer of these, and of most other things, is always free to interpret them and in fact they must interpret them in order for them to be meaningful. Meaning does not come only from the prosumer-as-producer, but also from the prosumer-as-consumer as well as from the interaction between them and their interpretations.
What do we gain by thinking of selfies as a form of prosumption? For one thing, it underscores once again the utility of that concept in our technologically advanced age. For another, it allows us to compare selfies to other contemporary forms of prosumption such as blogs and writing on Facebook walls. The more examples of prosumption we have, the better we will be able to get a broader sense of the phenomenon and of the similarities and differences among its increasing, and increasingly varied and important, manifestations. We cannot truly understand the nature and significance of prosumption unless we view various contemporary manifestations through that lens. It remains the case that few can grasp the increasing importance of prosumption because they continue to operate with a dichotomous production-consumption lens rather than the far more appropriate integrative lens of prosumption.

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The “Sharing” Economy, Uber, and the Triumph of Neo-Liberalism

Ride-sharing is a form of prosumption- those who are using (consuming) their cars provide (produce) rides for those in need of them. Ride-sharing can also be seen as part of the sharing (of cars in this case) economy, a collaborative system (the collaboration of those with rides to offer and those who need them), and a peer-to-peer (p2p) systems (drivers providing rides mainly to other drivers who happen to be without their cars). These ideas and systems associated with the sharing economy (another is airbnb) were, in principle, not based on a profit-making model, but were generally more communal and altruistic in nature. However, they all have, at least in part, been transformed by the entry of profit-making businesses that in the pursuit of profit are altering these systems, especially their more romantic characteristics.
Many drivers can, and do, engage in ride-sharing free of charge for altruistic and communal reasons. However, the rise of profit-making companies like Uber and Lyft that charge drivers a portion (roughly 20%) of every transaction for use of their online platforms has transformed ride-sharing into a job (at least part-time) and a profitable business. Unlike most forms of prosumption- using ATMs, scanning one’s groceries, using self-check-in kiosks at airports and hotels- the “producers” (the companies and the drivers) earn a money from the process.
These ride-sharing businesses been proliferating despite the fact that they have encountered opposition nationally, and to some degree globally, from taxicab companies and local governments. This is because their app-based system accessible via smartphone is highly attractive, especially to younger people, who can summon a car more quickly without standing on corners and hailing, sometimes fruitlessly, taxicabs. The latter characteristics make the taxicab seem old-fashioned to younger people. Thus, they are likely to continue to shift in the direction of ride-sharing, while the older generation will likely remain wedded, at least for a time to the taxi industry. However, while the taxi industry will not disappear, this generational difference suggests a long-term shift away from taxi industry and in the direction of the ride-sharing industry. While the traditional taxicab industry is being threatened, it is difficult to defend it because it has tended to be monopolistic and has successfully resisted unionization efforts. For their part, drivers are not well-paid and must deal with difficult (sometimes dangerous) work, with little in the way of job protection and benefits.
Yet, ride-sharing through Uber and similar companies is not without its problems. Uber drivers would seem to be even more powerless and difficult to unionize than traditional taxi drivers. Among other things, they work on their own, are widely dispersed and have little opportunity to come into contact with one another. This gives Uber great power to release them and to alter the percentage they earn from each ride. The income of Uber drivers is limited because unlike taxi drivers, they are not supposed to accept tips. While the income is attractive for those who now do this in their spare time, it might be less satisfactory for those who try to do it on a full-time basis
Another point worth mentioning is that unlike in paid jobs, those working for the ride-sharing business provide many of their own “means of production”. Uber does provide the crucial (and expensive) online system that supports and drives ride-sharing, but the drivers provide and maintain their own cars as well as the smartphones that connect them to the online system.
This a near-perfect neo-liberal system in which capitalist organizations earn profits while giving those who work for them relatively little and leaving them largely on their own to fend for themselves.

E-Games and Prosumption

People have long played e- (or virtual) games, especially those involving many players. They have traditionally consumed multi-player games by buying them and by observing the actions of others playing them. Of course, they also produced them by creating the action that is the game. That is, people have always prosumed of e-games. These games are an example of playbor, a phenomenon with much in common with prosumption, because those involved labor as they play.
Many throughout the world continue to play e-games; in fact, the numbers involved are growing rapidly. However, the games are rapidly becoming mass spectator sports with millions of online viewers, thousands of others viewing the games in person at sports arenas, and millions of dollars in prize money. A major on-line site for these games is Twitch. The coming of age of these games was heralded by Amazon.com’s recent $1.1 billion purchase of Twitch, which had 55 million visitors in July, 2014 (Wingfield, 2014a).
While gamers were always prosumers, the consumption aspect of the process was dominant at first as they purchased computers, internet time, games and products associated with many games. While that is still true for gamers, some are now more involved in producing games, often as members of teams and for prize money. Others consume these games either online at home or in a stadium with thousands of other fans. The most successful of these gamers are earning large sums of money.
Prosumption is key to the profitability of these games and why Amazon.com was willing to pay over a billion dollars for Twitch. The secret of Twitch’s success is “because it supplies its own content and audience, comparable to an oven that produces its own food” (Carr, 2014: B5). In other words, the consumers (audience) of these games are also their producers.This is made clear by the creator of Minecraft: “’No fake doors that don’t lead anywhere, no trees you can’t cut down, and no made-up story being told to the player to motivate them…Instead, the player would make their own story, and interact with the game world, decide for themselves what they want to do’.” (Wingfield, 2014b)
It is clearly the most avid of the consumers who eventually become producers of these games for others to consume. Furthermore, even the most successful producers of today’s games must continually consume the actions taken by competitors in a game and, more generally, the entire gaming environment.
As in many cases of prosumption, it is the prosumers who do the vast majority of the work involved in production and consumption while owners of sites such as Twitch reap most of the economic benefit. Twitch succeeded because it invested the money needed to provide the infrastructure and huge bandwidth needed by those involved in multiplayer games, the major competitions, and the commentators on them. The audience flocks on its own to the site to provide the content. The vast majority of those who do so earn little or nothing for their efforts.

Carr, David. “Amazon’s Bet on Content, In a Hub for Gamers.” New York Times September 1, 2014: B1, B5.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014a: 1, 13.

Wingfield, Nick. “In Games Like Minecraft, Tech Giants See More Than Fun.” New York Times September 11, 2014: A1, B2.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014: 1, 13.

Customer Service or Disservice?

Consumer Reports (September, 2014) offered a revealing analysis of the accelerating trend toward customer self-service, or one aspect of what, in my terms, is “prosumption as consumption”. Customers who engage in self-service are, by definition, producing as they consume. To its credit, Consumer Reports makes no bones about why self-service has been embraced so enthusiastically. The reason? “To save money”. For example, if customers themselves place an online order, the cost to the company is pennies, while ordering from a live agent could cost between $2 and $10. In most cases, the corporations involved do not pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower prices. When multiplied by thousands, if not millions, of transactions, such savings mean much greater corporate profits. While such cost savings and profits have long been possible, they have been greatly increased in recent years by new digital technologies and by consumers who are not only familiar with them, but greatly prefer using them to interacting with paid employees.
Why do consumers do this work without pay or economic gain of any kind? Among the reasons offered by Consumer Reports are consumers’ feelings of empowerment, the ability to handle transactions more quickly, and the possibility of avoiding contact with employees who are increasingly likely to be less than stellar in their work. In fact, because corporations much prefer self-service customers, they are likely to hire fewer workers of lesser ability, to offer little training, and to accept marginal performance of the job. While many customers are cognizant of the incapacities of service workers, they generally seem unaware of many of the costs of self-service such as the loss of human contact, the paid jobs that are lost because they are willing to work for no pay, and the dehumanization of their relationships with corporations.
Because of the increasing acceptance of self-service by consumers, some corporations have taken the outrageous step- with nary a peep from consumers- of charging them fees for handling tasks the corporations used to perform without charge. Among the examples are airlines charging customers $50 for a paper ticket, $25 for having the audacity to make a reservation by phone, $20 for asking for a receipt for an e-ticket, and a $10 fee for having a boarding pass printed out by an agent. Fees such as these are likely to increase in price and to proliferate in number and variety in the coming years thereby further increasing the costs to consumers and profits for the companies.
Profit-making organizations have discovered that they can increase their profits by cutting personnel costs and by exploiting consumers to an ever-greater degree. There are many more customers than employees to exploit, they accept their exploitation meekly and, indeed, they often embrace it eagerly. This system greatly reduces the possibility of class consciousness among the declining number of employees who are ever-more fearful of losing their jobs. Worse, the system can operate without fear of the development of class consciousness among consumers who are too diverse and self-interested to think of themselves as a class, to become a class, and to act as a class. As much as one might like to hear it, we are not likely to hear consumers utter the clarion call- “Consumers of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your iPad”.

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

In its key U.S. market, McDonald’s sales and customer visits were down in the first half of 2014 and they were flat globally. That, in itself, is not terribly worrying to the company since such declines have occurred before and McDonald’s has always roared back. However, a recent survey in ConsumerReports (August, 2014) makes those declines much more worrisome for the company. A survey of the dining experiences of over 32,000 subscribers to the magazine showed that of 21ranked burger chains, McDonald’s was tied for last with Burger King. McDonald’s, like Burger King, had a score of 71. This compared very unfavorably to the top-ranked chain, In-N-Out Burger, with a score of 88. While McDonald’s customers were satisfied, they were not nearly as satisfied as the customers of all the other burger chains (except Burger King). McDonald’s also ranked last when customers were asked to rate burgers on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the least delicious burgers they have ever eaten and 10 being the most delicious. McDonald’s burgers got a score of 5.8 (the next lowest was 6.6 for Jack in the Box) compared to the best score (8.3) at The Habit Burger (In-N-Out Burger was 2nd with a 8.0 score). Overall, the mass burger chains, those that are the most McDonaldized, tended to rank toward the bottom in both ratings. The same can be said other kinds of chains. Of the chicken chains KFC was at the bottom in terms of the taste of its chicken and the same was true among the Mexican chains of Taco Bell and the taste of its burritos.
McDonald’s (as well as the other mass chains) is in no immediate danger, but these data should lead us to wonder about its long-term future. Other retail giants have fallen in the past (e.g., Woolworth’s, Montgomery Wards) and still others are presently in danger of collapse (e.g. Sears). There will come day when McDonald’s falls, but given its global power and its public relations skill, such a collapse will not occur any time soon. Similarly, these developments do not spell the end of the process of McDonaldization. However, it may well be that McDonald’s position as the paradigm of that process is being undermined leaving us with the possibility of a new paradigm (In-N-Out Burger?). In that case, the lack of fit between the paradigm and process would be awkward, but whatever the new paradigm, it would still be highly McDonaldized.
One of In-N-Out Burger’s great advantages is the higher quality associated with using fresh hamburgers rather than the frozen burgers of McDonald’s and other large chains. The calculability dimension of McDonaldization points to the tendency to emphasize quantity rather than quality. More frozen burgers can easily be stored, shipped, cooked and served than fresh burgers. However these quantitative gains come at the cost of lower quality. In the end, a high degree of McDonaldization brings with it the tendency toward mediocrity. Thus, McDonald’s may be done in by the very process that bears its name, but that is not to say that chains like In-N-Out Burger (as well as others like Chipotle) are not McDonaldized. They are simply less McDonaldized in some ways and on some dimensions that give them various advantages over the most McDonaldized systems. The success of these somewhat less McDonaldized chains promises to reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the irrationalities of rationality (e.g., the tendency toward mediocrity) associated with McDonaldization.

Prosuming Machines and the Internet of Things

Many prosuming machines interconnect, and will do so more and more, on what has been termed the Internet of Things (IoT). A recent Pew Research Center Report sees IoT as encompassing a wide range of interconnected sensor-laden devices and parts of the environment that feed back to one another. However, discussion and conceptualization of the IoT has failed to see that smart prosuming machines constitute a large part of what is, and will be, interconnected on the internet. The IoT will include smart prosuming machines that communicate with, and get responses from, other smart machines. In fact, IoT is a machine-to-machine (M2M) system. For example, in the health area there are contact lenses that measure and report glucose levels to doctors’ computers, bands that report heart rates to hospitals’ computers, and pills that are ingested and let caregivers’ computers know whether the patient has taken proper dosage.
While many prosuming machines will communicate with one another, many others will communicate with humans (e.g., bracelets that let users know where they stand in a particular exercise program). Since in this case humans retain agency, even power (they can ignore feedback from their bracelets), this is a less worrisome scenario than one in which prosuming machines communicate directly with one another and action is taken as a result of that communication (e.g. a quakebot that bypasses a human editor and causes an erroneous alert that panics the population).
An ever-expanding web of interconnected prosuming machines will be infinitely more powerful than any single machine or small subset of these machines. We are in the process of creating a system where the human prosumer will have less and less of a role to play in the prosumption process. The machines will produce and consume (both really forms of prosumption) in a seemingly endless loop.
There is no question that interconnected prosuming machines on the internet will bring with them an endless array of advantages (e.g. heart monitors that indicate an imminent heart attack and that elicit an automatic response from another smart machine inducing an electric shock or administering a dose of intravenous nitroglycerin). However, from the perspective of a critical sociology, these interconnected prosuming machines on the IoT bring to mind a dystopian image of a reified world in which they communicate with one another, are self-organizing, and operate largely autonomously without human intervention. As a result, humans will be increasingly dependent on, if not controlled by, smart prosuming machines that communicate with other machines of this type. This promises to create an extreme post-human and post-social world similar in many ways to the one dominated by the fictional Skynet system in the Terminator movies.

The Resilience of Capitalism and the Demise of the Sharing Economy?

Many observers, especially Alvin Toffler and, more recently, Jeremy Rifkin, have seen the rise of the prosumer and of the sharing economy (or the “collaborative commons”) as harbingers of a hoped for amelioration of the excesses of capitalism, if not as an alternative to that economic system. However, it is difficult to ignore the power, resilience and adaptability of capitalism. Two recent examples demonstrate that it may be the alternatives to it, rather than capitalism itself, which are in jeopardy.

Peer-to-peer (p2p) lending sites such as Zopa are based on prosumers lending money to one another, perhaps switching time and again between being borrowers and lenders. However, as P2P lending has grown in importance, large financial institutions have become increasingly involved. Further, their participation is not always clear to those interested in borrowing money. This institutional involvement threatens to drive out individual investors interested in lending money thereby subverting the process of prosumption that lies at the base of all P2P systems. Of course, if they know of the participation of these institutions, prosumers retain the ability to reject their offerings and to borrow only from other prosumers.

More threatening, somewhat ironically, is the rise of prosumption sites and processes which pay those involved a substantial amount of money. Examples include those who drive cars for Uber (and similar enterprises), as well as those who shop and deliver (in their own cars) groceries for Instacart. This is no longer the prosumer-dominated “sharing economy”, but rather another way of making a profit and earning a living in a capitalist economy. Instacart charges $3.99 per delivery and earns extra money by marking up the prices of grocery items by, according to one estimate, 20%. At the moment, shoppers can earn between $15 and $30 an hour depending on how quickly they deliver the food (using their own cars). As is true of Uber, the pay is good, workers don’t need college degrees, and the hours are flexible. However, there is no job security and those who do this work do so without any of the benefits of employees of companies like Peapod. Furthermore, their relatively high pay is likely to decline as more people sign up to do the work.

Indicative of the increasing incursion of capitalist interests into the sharing economy is the investment of over $1 billion in Uber and the fact that it is now valued at $17 billion. In good capitalist fashion, Uber is positioning itself to expand in various directions (e.g., global package delivery).

New Cathedral of Consumption

The last half of the twentieth century was characterized by the rise of- to use a concept I coined- “cathedrals of consumption” such as shopping malls, mega-malls, big-box stores, and the like. However, in the 21st century these consumption sites are all showing signs of distress (e.g. dead or increasingly vacant malls). There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important and most likely to increase in significance is the growth of online cathedrals of consumption led, of course, by Amazon.com. While it is not a material space like the classic cathedrals of consumption, its virtual space is, like its forerunners, spectacular, in the Guy DeBord’s sense of the term.

Amazon’s spectacle is derived from an unlimited virtual space, the seemingly endless array of products that can be offered and purchased there, its ease of use (one need not physically travel to the site), and the speed with which an order can be placed and received by express delivery. In fact, Amazon has set as its goal the same day delivery of at least some orders.

But this is in many ways a different kind of spectacle than that offered at the classic brick and mortar cathedrals of consumption.Until such time as we have computers that can grind out material products in our homes, there remains a need for material structures from which  orders can delivered. To this end Amazon.com has created huge- in one case million-square foot- warehouses already in existence in Nevada and Arizona and soon to be built in several other locations. The spectacle here, as in most cathedrals of consumption, is the sheer size of the site and the many things on offer there.

However, there is an important difference. While classic cathedrals of consumption offered spectacles to enchant themselves in order to attract droves of consumers, no customers are drawn to Amazon’s warehouses. Therefore, these warehouses do not need to conceal from consumers (since none will find their way there) what classic cathedrals of consumption had to hide- the rational, especially efficient, systems that lay at their core. The spectacle of the warehouse is not created with the consumer in mind, but with the ways it will interface with other elements of a highly integrated and efficient system that includes the website, the warehouse, express delivery companies, truckers, and most importantly airports and airplanes. In fact, as is already the case with the distribution centers for FedEx and UPS, Amazon’s warehouses could become the center of the aerotropoli of the future. These are cities built around massive airports (instead of the old system of building airports in the middle of, or near, major cities) with the focus on efficiently moving products and people around the globe.

The sheer size of a brick and mortar cathedral of consumption like Wal-Mart makes it obvious to the consumer that it is highly rationalized. However the immaterial nature of a website like that of Amazon.com, as well as the fact that no customers will ever see or visit its huge materialized warehouses, makes it easier to conceal the rational system at Amazon’s core. This, in turn, makes it seem more magical, more enchanted than material cathedrals of consumption and therefore highly attractive to consumers; an irresistible lure.