The Ethics of the Sociable Web and the Shifting Roles of Media Theorists

For those of you who have been enjoying our Gender and Fan Culture conversations on the blog, I thought I'd direct your attention to another very interesting scholarly dialogue taking place in the blogosphere -- an exchange between Mark Deuze and Trebor Scholz on "The Ethics of the Sociable Web." Both have been active participants in our Media in Transition conferences. Indeed, Scholz shared his critique of social networking sites as part of our plenary session on Collaboration and Collective Intelligence (Check out the podcast here). And Deuze spoke at the Media in Transition 4 conference about content and connectivity in contemporary storytelling practice. (You can check out the text of his remarks here.) You are going to be hearing more about both gentlemen in the months to come because they both have important new books coming out that speak to convergence and participatory culture. Scholz is co-editor with Geert Lovink of The Art of Online Collaboration and Deuze is the author of Media Work. Full disclosure dictates that I mention that Deuze and I are co-editing a special "Convergence Culture" issue of the journal, Convergence.

The long and the short of it is that these are two wickedly smart guys who have important things to say about the contemporary media landscape and its social/economic/political/cultural impact. Of the two, Scholz is more skeptical and Deuze more optimistic about the state of media today -- though both of them would balk at having their ideas reduced to such a simple ideological binary. In the course of this discussion, they touch on media literacy (as an essential social skill of the digital age), NewsCorps and MySpace, the "Facebook Rebellion," and various forms of online activism. Their discussion/debate cuts to the heart of our current rhetoric about Web 2.0, asking the questions we should be raising about the kinds of cultural labor which is being masked by the lofty rhetoric about "user-generated content."

Scholz's first question already points to what is at stake here:

Given all the efforts to make use of the affective labor of millions of users, do you think that we could reach a point where networked publics feel exploited (or at least used)? Today, there is little indication of that as people get much out of their online sociality; they gain friendships, dates, information, skills, and more. At the same time media giants rake in billions....Which ethical guidelines do you propose in the context of the social web?

Indeed, if 2006 was the year which marked the rise of "web 2.0," then 2007 has so far turned out to be the year where a series of controversies and disputes have forced us to reconsider the emerging relationship between media producers and consumers in this brave new world. As I read this, I find Scholz articulating my fears and Deuze my hopes about what happens next in the new media landscape.

Scholz emphasizes the power and concentrated wealth of the established players in the media industry, while Deuze responds by stressing the new power which consumers, individually and collectively, have gained in the emerging media landscape:

The key to understanding the currently emerging relationships between media consumers and producers, or between media owners and media workers (whether paid or voluntarist) for that matter, is their complexity, their reciprocity as well as animosity: their liquidity. Such relationships are seldom stable, generally temporary, and at the very least unpredictable. Yochai Benkler and others articulate in this context a hybrid or new mixed media ecology, typified by a global digital culture that can be understood in terms of what Lev Manovich calls a culture of remix and remixability, where user-generated content exists both within and outside of commercial contexts, and supports as well as subverts corporate control. So while one can indeed see the End User Licensing Agreements and Terms of Service of the major user-created content sites (including but not limited to game modding platforms, corporate citizen journalism initiatives, and viral marketing sites) as informal labor contracts, it would be a mistake to presume that the collective intelligence of the user community thus is "controlled" by the corporation (or vice versa). For example, as part of my research I talk with professionals throughout the news and entertainment industries (both in the U.S. and elsewhere), and many if not most of them express openly the fear that they have lost control over their own brands and properties as they get taken up and deployed by consumers and users in diverse, disorganized, decentralized, but very public ways.

Both of them soon circle around the issue of media literacy education -- what to consumers need to know in an era of shifting rules and unstable roles? As they do so, they seem to embrace a model of media literacy which emphasizes skeptical and informed consumption and which is framed primarily around the economic and legal relations between media companies and users. What steps do consumers need to take to insure that they understand the sometimes obscure terms of service they are signing with these media companies and can exert an appropriate level of control over their personal data? How do the users who generate the content protect their own rights as creative artists? Do we need a "labor union" for unpaid culture workers, as Deuze suggests half seriously at one point? Do we have the right to demand "transparency" in our relations to these powerful corporations, as both scholars argue at various points during the conversation? What are the limits of individual responsibility given the powerful players involved in framing these relations? Can people simply and easily "opt out" of social networks when such a large portion of their community belongs to one or another of the online services or is there now a social obligation of sorts to be listed through Facebook if you are a student or faculty member at a leading university? (It would be very interesting to read this discussion of obligatory membership alongside danah boyd's discussion of class and social networks that I referenced here last week.)

As I read through the exchange, I found that the two participants implicitly and sometimes explicitly embrace very different ideas about the role of the theorist during a period of media transformation. Scholz, on the one hand, adopts the role of a traditional cultural critic (i.e. "speaking truth to power," "questioning the dominant paradigm," and challenging the vested interests of media companies). Deuze embraces a newer and more unfamiliar role: the academic as someone who mediates between competing and contradictory interests at a moment when all sides are trying to make sense of the changes which are occurring. We can see these very different stances towards the value of theory in these two passages from the exchange:

TS: Education for participatory cultures is, no doubt, a key issue. Knowing how to navigate the corporate lawn is important. That does not, however, cancel out peer-to-peer alternatives and public, independent media.

MD: Indeed, my argument calls for a "not only, but also" perspective on the emerging media ecosystem. Within such a system there are constant struggles, between top down and bottom up, between independence and control, between professionals and amateurs, where opportunities to tell all stories in all ways are plentiful. I think it is our job to identify the necessary conditions under which such meaningful and open exchange can truly take place, while at the same time enabling culture creators to earn a decent living.

TS: While I concur that we should support cultural producers in finding novel ways of earning a living, it is important to recognize that the sociable web today echoes real existing capitalism. Most attention and influence is concentrated at the core where corporate entities are situated. Toward the periphery we find the artists, educators, non-profits, and hard-blogging citizens. There are exemptions but let's not mistake them for the myth of the garage entrepreneur or the American Dream gone wired.

The cost/benefit constellation of affective labor is, without question, complex, but that does not mean that we have to become corporate apologists. The question of ethics of participatory context-providing giants (companies that facilitate the social networked life of hundreds of millions of users) is related to transparency, privacy, and ownership of uploaded content.

At a moment when everything about the mediascape seems up for grabs, when companies and consumers are both being asked to rethink their historic roles and relationships, it makes sense that we as academic theorists must also re-examine our own roles and our relationships to the forces of change which we are analyzing. This is part of what I am trying to do with this blog -- move theory out of a purely academic environment, experiment with different contexts within which theoretical work can be done, provide a shared space where academic and vernacular theorists of all kinds can interact, and seeing if we can't create a dialog between all of those who are being impacted by this moment of profound and prolonged media in transition. Academics have an obligation to become engaged in public communication as we fulfill both the roles identified here -- as we ask hard and uncomfortable questions about the current configurations of wealth and power and as we seek to bridge between competing interests and try to understand what's at stake for all parties involved.

As we do so, the best way to get at the complexity of some of the issues we are raising and to break through old divisions among theoretical perspectives may be to embrace this dialogic format. Too often, we use blogs to hurl insults at each other across ideological and theoretical divides. Yet, where we can find a shared space for conversation and where we can listen and learn from each other, we can develop theories which are sophisticated enough to remain on top of the changes that are occurring around us. I applaud what Deuze and Scholz are trying to accomplish in this exchange.