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.

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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”.

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).

The Rise of the Prosuming Machines

The Decline of the Prosumer and the Rise of Smart Prosuming Machines

The concepts of prosumption (the interrelated process of consumption and production) and the prosumer were introduced by Alvin Toffler over three decades ago. However, it took years for scholars in various fields to begin to understand the importance of these phenomena. Now that increasing attention is being devoted to them, they are already beginning to be supplemented, even superseded, by smart prosuming machines. Just as we have discovered the importance of human prosumers, they are declining in importance in the face of the rise of these prosuming machines. While many of these technologies are, or will be, very familiar, what is unique is viewing them through the lens of prosumption. Their increasing importance adds to the view that we have in been error in focusing on either production or consumption, or to in dealing with them separately. All processes that we usually think of in these ways are better thought of as prosumption.

Of course, much of prosumption, or at least some aspects of it, has long been automated and been involved with at least rudimentary smart machines. For example, while a human actor is needed to set a smart machine such as an ATM in motion, once the process begins it proceeds automatically. Similarly, a person is required to order a product on Amazon.com, but much of the rest of the process occurs automatically. A wave of the foot under the rear bumper causes the rear hatch of the Ford Escape to open. Various companies and agencies are registering and accumulating online keystrokes. Prosumers are producing those keystrokes perhaps with the goal of prosuming something such as an Amazon.com product or a Facebook page. However, once those keys have been struck, the electrical impulses are likely to flow into all sorts of data bases to be used automatically on the basis of various algorithms. In other words, a series of automated processes are unknowingly begun by agential prosumers who quickly lose control over them as well as of the data they provide unconsciously. These and many other types of prosumption involve smart technology, but they require agents consciously choosing to set the process in motion.

Of primary interest here is the emergence of smart prosuming machines that increasingly operate on their own without human intervention. The following is a preliminary list of such machines:

One’s smartphone is, unbeknownst to most, collecting (consuming) data on one’s location and transmitting (producing) that data, at least anonymously, to computers that collect it all as an element of “big data”. Google Glass and other wearable technologies (e.g., smartwatches) have the potential to prosume an enormous variety of information.

Foursquare is one of several smartphone apps that will produce an alert for one’s “friends” on one’s location, as well as indicate information on that location to those friends who are able to consume it. In this sense, Foursquare, as well the smartphone on which it is downloaded, are prosuming machines that perform the tasks of finding one’s location, narrowcasting it, and finding the locations of others without any overt actions (other than downloading the app and carrying the smartphone) by the human prosumer.

Instead of producing money to the pay the toll needed to consume more miles on a toll road, e-tolls allow people to glide by or through toll-taking areas and have the charge debited electronically to their accounts. This is made possible by advanced technology at toll areas and transponders in cars. On some roads no humans work in toll-taking areas. Thus, drivers who do not have the correct change will automatically be ticketed. Transponders also allow cars, as well as types of vehicles subject to different charges, to be identified automatically.

The automatic payment of tolls may soon involve cars that drive themselves. Google is developing and testing such automobiles. In today’s cars, the human driver constantly consumes all sorts of relevant information (speed, road conditions, nearby cars) and uses that information to produce a variety of actions (slow down, veer around other cars). Those actions lead to additional acts of consumption leading, in turn, to yet other acts of production. In fact, there are already sensing devices in many of today’s automobiles (e.g. hybrids) that consume some of that information and automatically cause the automobile to make various adjustments. In that sense, today’s cars are, at least in part, prosuming machines. However, in order to drive themselves and avoid mishaps, tomorrow’s automobiles must, of necessity, become much more complex and effective prosuming machines.

Universal product codes (UPCs) make the work of supermarket checkout personnel and shelf stockers easier, but they have the potential to dramatically alter the nature of prosumption. For example, instead of unloading products to be scanned at the checkout counter, the UPCs associated with those products can be read directly by the computer as one checks out. Alternatively, the shopping cart can be equipped with a transponder that reads the UPCs during the process of shopping. The final bill can be tabulated automatically and be ready for shoppers as they leave the store or it can be e-mailed to them.

Patients can be released from the hospital with wearable monitoring devices that consume information on vital signs and notify hospital computers and/or personnel that something is awry. Thus instead of patients prosuming this information (by, for example, taking their own blood pressure) it is prosumed by the monitoring device. We can expect many innovations in this area in the future. For example, Google is working on contact lenses that monitor the glucose levels of diabetics. Soon-to-be released versions of iPhones (and iPads) are said to include a new app, Healthbook, which will gather health-related data, and could collect and report data on heart rate and blood pressure. With additional sensors it could do the same for blood sugar levels and the like.
While drugstore computers are already handling the process of refills automatically (eliminating or reducing the need for actions by prosumers), it is also likely that we will see pill bottles equipped with sensors that sense that medication refills are needed and transmit (produce) the order for refills to the drugstore.

3-D printers consume information (for example, blueprints), as well as raw materials (for example, plastics), and use them to produce automatically an increasingly wide variety of end-products.

Robots already prosume and, in the future, will possess a much greater capacity to prosume. One that is already in existence is the Los Angeles Times’ quakebot, an algorithm that springs into action when the U.S. Geological Survey sends out an alert. It extracts (consumes) relevant data and plugs (produces) the data into an extant template. A human editor is still required to determine whether or not to publish the information.

This list can already be extended significantly and many more examples will be added in relatively short order. While they will individually and collectively get great attention for a variety of reasons, it is important to see them as involved in prosumption and not, as they are likely to be seen, as examples of production or consumption. More importantly, they are part of a larger trend away from a world thought as being dominated by production and/or consumption to one that is increasingly dominated by prosumption.

Are You a Digital Drone?

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

Are You a Digital Drone?

Most people, especially young people, view the Internet as a “playground” and much of what they do their as fun; as an enjoyable leisure-time activity. There is, however, an alternative perspective on this. While you might not see yourself in this way, there are those in sociology and other fields who are coming to look at much of the Internet as a “factory” and what you do there as a form of labor or work (Scholz, 2013). From the latter perspective, you are seen as spending hours every day slaving away on such tasks as updating your Facebook page and checking recent additions to other’s pages or detailing your most recent fashion choices on Pinterest. To some observers, you seem to resmble worker-bees tirelessly toiling away at a never-ending series of tasks.

In addition to thinking about what you do on the Internet as a fun, leisure-time activity, you might also see it as a series of tasks that you perform largely for yourself. They therefore seem to stand in contrast to traditional occupational activities in which you are working for others and in the process enhancing their interests while gaining little for yourself except for the pay involved. However, many critics now view what you do on the computer as very much like such work since you are often working for others and in the process making them wealthier. However, one important difference is that you are not working for a wage; on the internet you are usually engaging in “free labor”; you are working for nothing (Terranova, 2013).

For example, when you write product reviews for Amazon.com you are enhancing the value of that site and the company; you are working for them and you are not being paid for that work. Similarly, you work for Facebook, again for nothing, when you indicate your various likes and dislikes, especially for commercial products. More troubling is the much greater amount of such work that you do even though you are unaware of doing it. Google, for example, uses various data-mining techniques (web crawlers, personalized algorithmns) to track all of many things that you click on (Ross, 2013). The results are used to determine the kinds of advertisements that appear on your computer screen. Google earns money, lots of money, from those advertisers.

To put it baldly, the value of these computer-based businesses is based largely on the “work”- those clicks and likes- that you do for them free of charge. In a capitalist world you ought to be paid by all of them, but of course you are not paid. From the perspective of the critics of capitalism, you are being exploited by firms such as Google and Facebook (Fuchs, 2013). In fact, you are being exploited more than the paid workers in the capitalist system. Most of them are being paid relatively little, but you are paid nothing at all. Low paid work often yields great profits, but work that is unpaid leads to an even higher rate of profit. As a result, Google earns huge profits with a comparatively small workforce and while Facebook is not yet nearly as profitable, it has a market value of $100 billion even though it only has about two thousand paid employees.

While you might regard sites such as Facebook and Pinterest as playgrounds, you might feel a bit different about them, and perhaps behave differently, if you also thought about them as modern-day factories and yourself as unpaid drones slaving away on those sites for the benefit of their corporate owners.

References

Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 211-224.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 13-32.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor”. In Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 33-57.

Makers: The Promise of “Something” Rather than “Nothing”

In the Globalization of Nothing2 I have distinguished between nothing and something. Nothing is any social form, in this case a product (such as a Big Mac or an IKEA book case), that is centrally conceived, centrally controlled and lacking in distinctive content. Something is a form (such as a meal cooked at home from scratch) that is locally conceived, locally controlled, and rich in distinctive content. While our world is increasingly dominated by nothing, the increasing number and importance of the makers makes likely a significant increase in products that can be characterized as something.

Anderson makes this clear in arguing that the makers are producing, and will produce, things that cannot be purchased at the world’s leading purveyor of nothing- Wal-Mart. Furthermore, they are things that can’t be mass-produced in China or other low-wage countries. Indeed, Anderson sees hope for the American economy in the future in the makers and their production, in my terms, of something.

Anderson argues that the makers will serve a “mass market for niche products” (77). Large numbers of makers will produce niche products in relatively small numbers, at least in comparison to those that are mass produced. Because so many people will be involved in this as prosumers, it will constitute a mass market, albeit one that is quite different from today’s mass markets. The best current example of what Anderson has in mind is Etsy.com which specializes in offering handmade items, or “real stuff from real people, not packaged culture from companies” (182).

In a world increasingly awash in nothing, makers promise at least a modest increase in something.

Using Games to Motivate Makers

Allowing and even using games to motivate paid workers has a long tradition (see Donald Roy’s [1960] famous paper on “banana time”). Such games are used to motivate poorly paid workers to continue to work in monotonous jobs. Makers generally do not perform what they consider to be monotonous work and they are not poorly paid- in the main they are paid nothing at all. While most seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from what they do, the capitalist organizations for which they labor as part of the long tail of talent still feel the need to motivate them in various ways, including through the use of games. It is important that organizations keep makers, with their gift of free labor, happy.

For example, Quirky is a web-based company that uses the crowd of makers to “develop better products” (179) and based on these contributions it puts two new products a week into production. Each new Quirky product involves inputs from hundreds of makers. Unlike many other similar systems, the inventor might earn thousands of dollars. Furthermore, everyone involved gets paid although in most cases “it’s just pennies” (180). The process involves a variety of steps- submitting ideas, voting and commenting on those ideas and later the designs, having a say in product names, etc.. Countdown clocks and competitions are employed throughout the process with the result that the entire process “feels like a game” (180).

Similarly, Kickstarter is a web-based system of crowdfunding that is “fun” and has “made a game out of raising money” (174). Deadlines are set, minimum funding levels are defined and if they are not met the project is canceled, various thank-you gifts are offered at different levels of giving, etc. For their efforts and money, investors do not expect a financial return, but rather the new product promised by the project or even just “the emotional reward of knowing that they had something to do with bringing that product into existence” (173).

As in the case of earlier factory workers, fun and games are used to keep the noses of the makers to the grindstone.

Exploiting the Makers

The increase in the number of makers is enabled by the fact that many people have an array of largely untapped skills; they are part of what Anderson calls the “long tail of talent” (127). New technologies both allow for the greater utilization of those talents and create a larger audience for their products. This stands in contrast to the past, and to some degree the present, model where organizations draw only on the talents of those employed in them. No matter how well an organization recruits its employees, nowhere near all of the very best people are likely to be employed in any given organization, nor are they ever likely to be.

Open-sourcing the long tail of talent opens up a whole new arena for the exploitation of makers who exist outside the confines of the organization. In Anderson’s view, this “can create an unbeatable economics for companies whose products are developed in this way” (109). All sorts of tasks- research and development, marketing, and support- can all be done free (a long-term concern of Anderson’s, see Free: The Future of a Radical Price) of charge by the makers who are part of a company’s long-tail. Of course, the free work that they perform was likely performed at one time by paid workers and the replacement of the latter creates increased unemployment. More important in this context is the fact that the makers are paid nothing, or perhaps a pittance, for their contributions. How are companies able to find, and to retain, the makers? Largely by offering them “social incentives” (109) such as elevating the best “volunteers” to “moderator status” or giving them a “`noob ninja’ badge”. Such rewards cost the company nothing, but seem to satisfy most makers. In any case, the makers are more likely to be doing what they do because they are involved in a collective effort in which they want to participate, doing things they want to do, and that will be of use to others. If that is insufficient, Anderson proposes a meager, largely, demeaning, reward hierarchy that runs from T-shirts, to coffee mugs, free hardware, a trip to a development meeting, and for a very few makers equity in the project.

Anderson proudly describes a small robotics company of which he is part owner. There are about 100 contributors to the company, but only 20 are paid employees. The rest are unpaid volunteers with some of them putting in “what in some weeks amounts to full-time work” (149). Anderson’s company earns profits and grows larger mainly because of the unpaid, and therefore heavily exploited, labor of these volunteer makers.

The makers who sell their handmade goods on Esty.com enrich that organization which in April, 2012 had 300 paid employees, sold $65 million worth of goods a month, and after only six years in existence was valued at more than 2/3rds of a billion dollars. What about the makers? Most don’t make a living on what they sell on Etsy and at least some come to the realization that their hourly pay compares poorly to those who work at McDonald’s. Anderson reassures us they are likely to be satisfied by, for example, having an audience for their products. In any case, we are supposed to be relieved to learn that while Etsy is on the road to being a billion dollar company, “it’s not about the money for most of” the makers (183).

While in the past capitalists thrived on exploiting poorly paid employees, it is now creating an even more exploited class of unpaid makers. Seemingly oblivious to the exploitation built into this system, makers are happily contributing to the emergence of a new, even more exploitative, capitalist system.

Postmodern Theory and Internet

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.
There is, for example, Richard Rorty’s (1979) argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of the kinds of conversations envisioned by Rorty. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. The Internet is a world devoted to keeping the conversation going. Prime examples of this include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is “constantly under development and can never result in a final, fixed directory of online content” (Bruns 2008: 175). All are sites that involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.
Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet in general or social networking sites in particular. They are all multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. Internet sites are “networked structures [that] necessarily shift power away from the core, the tall peak, and towards the periphery” (Bruns, 2008: 274). Chris Anderson’s (2006) “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.
The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves the “contraction into each of other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapsing of the two traditional poles into one another” (Baudrillard, 1983: 57). The possibility of implosion is enormous in the digital world; the digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to imploding into one another; there are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in the that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on Web 2.0.
Then there is Baudrillard’s (1983: 4) most famous idea of simulations and his argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This ideas of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world, as Shirky ( 2008: 59) argues, of “unlimited, perfect copyability”. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.
Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point, at least until we see later developments on the Internet. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds; indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.
That means they beautifully illustrate another of Baudrillard’s ideas, hyperreality. The hyperreal is more real than real, as well as being more beautiful than beautiful, truer than true; it is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more more real than comparable sites in the material world. Amazon.com has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Baudrillard would have been astounded at the hyperreal sex available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.
Ultimately, Baudrillard (1990/1993: 6) sees us as living in the fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand in a viral or cancerous way. They have no goal other than endless proliferation. This is postmodern in the sense that the modern world was supposed to have an end or goal; the postmodern world does not. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly. description here fits the Internet perfectly, “In the end it makes everything circulate in one space, without depth, where all objects must be able to follow one after the other without slowing down or stopping the circuit” (Baudrillard, cited in Gane, 1993: 147). Everything in such a world, especially on the Internet, is available for communication, banalization, commercialization and consumption.
An interesting idea implicit in Baudrillard’s work is the “strength of the weak” (Genosko , 1992; 1994). In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are added together. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by algorithms such as those used by Google. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, via Facebook and Twitter, for example, and form a powerful revolutionary group.
Baudrillard (1983/1990: 59) is also concerned with the obscene where everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. He describes the society of his day as involving “the rampant obscenity of uninterrupted social commentary”. He also discusses “the pornography of information and communication” (Baudrillard/1990: 69) where we are “buried alive under information” (Baudrillard, 1980-1985: 90). If Baudrillard took that position three decades ago, imagine his reaction to the Internet world of the second decade of the 21st century.
Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of “taking and returning, giving and receiving…[the] cycle of gifts and countergifts” (Baudrillard, 1976/1993: 136). Many observers have described Web 2.0 in similar terms including Tapscott and Williams (2006) who discuss the culture of generosity that exists in that context. Baudrillard anticipates the world of the free (Anderson, 2009) that has been created on the Internet, especially Web 2.0. In that free domain, we do see something approaching a world dominated by symbolic exchange. Those involved offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc.- and in return they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange also has another of the characteristics Baudrillard associates with it- reciprocity on the Internet is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.
The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and Web 2.0. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, at least some of the postmodern social theorists can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and provided us a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.
Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts, but rather we should use them in interaction with the new realities to create a much broader set of concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.