Infinite Ways to Make Profit: Digital Labour and Surveillance on Social Networking Sites

Rianka Roy, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India


Social Networking Sites involve users’ exploitation as digital labourers whose online activities generate a huge amount of data that are sold to various advertisers. The paper discusses the various patterns of exploitation of digital labour in the system of digital capitalism and argues that digital surveillance, following the omniopticon model in SNSs sustains this new kind of capitalist economy, based on the creation and distribution of digital data.

[Keywords: digital labour, digital capitalism, informationalism, exploitation, panopticon, omniopticon, surveillance, prosumers, social networking sites, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin.]

Introduction: Prosumers and Digital Labour in Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites (SNSs) make enormous monetary profit, as seen in various news reports.[1] Sites like Facebook and Twitter have been churning billion dollar revenues. Dan Schiller claims that the Internet and its technology of easy global connectivity have broadened the scope of globally-spread capitalism, as “networks are directly generalizing the social and cultural range of the capitalist economy as never before”.[2] He calls this “digital capitalism”.[3] Manuel Castells identifies this trait as a “new brand of capitalism”[4] and ‘informationalism’[5], which “depends on innovation as the source of productivity growth, on computer-networked global financial markets, whose criteria for valuation are influenced by information turbulences, on the networking of production and management, internally and externally, locally and globally, and on labor that is flexible and adaptable in all cases.”[6] SNSs have particularly increased the impact of digital networks on economy as they have thrown the gates of digital access wide open to a large number of individual users.

Media researchers like Christian Fuchs find that SNS users have a particular role in the labour that sustains the new type of capitalist economy. They voluntarily put in ‘digital labour’, as they upload data—in the form of messages, images, videos, audio files; consume as well as circulate the data in SNSs.[7] Without the data, the networks would merely have been empty structures. Following Raymond Williams’s concept, the means of digital communication thus become the means of production,[8] as users double as producers, and use the networks of communication to produce data commodities. On the one hand, these users consume the facilities of communication that are provided by the SNSs; on the other hand, they generate data and produce “data commodities”[9] required for targeted advertising. The “distinction between production and consumption” is blurred[10] as users turn into “prosumers”.[11] Fuchs claims that users churn data that facilitate targeted advertising; but the users themselves, too, perhaps are sold to prospective advertisers for targeted advertising. The prosumers, thus, are also commodities themselves as the popularity of a site is determined by the online activities and the log-in time of the users.

Users’ tripartite role of users—as prosumers, website users, and as commodities—sold to capitalist sponsors of SNSs, minimises the temporal gap between production and consumption, by producing merchandise through the process of consumption of the same and thus unifying two different processes. This conflates two kinds of consumption—the consumption of consumers or Marx’s individual consumption, and what Marx identifies as the labourers’ consumption or productive consumption, which indicates the consumption of labour and material conditions of production through the process of production.[12]
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[1] Mark McSherry, ‘Facebook revenue up 63 per cent thanks to massive increase in mobile advertising’, The Independent, January 29, 2014 [Retrieved from on February 3, 2014 at 3:27 pm], and Hannah Kuchler, ‘Twitter still playing catch-up with Facebook’,, February 2, 2014 [Retrieved from on February 3, 2014 at 3:32 pm]

[2] Dan Schiller, ‘Introduction: The Enchanted Network’, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System, (Cambridge, Massachusettes: MIT Press, 1999), p.1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Manuel Castells, ‘Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint’, The Network Society: A Cross Cultural Perspective, edited by Manuel Castells, (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2004), p.29.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Manuel Castells, ‘Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint’, The Network Society: A Cross Cultural Perspective, edited by Manuel Castells, (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2004), p.29.

[7] Christian Fuchs and Sebastian Sevignani,‘What is Digital Labour? What is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And why do these Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?’, Triple C, 11(2), 2013. pp.237-293. [Retrieved from on October 24, 2013 at 5 p.m.]

[8] Raymond Williams, ‘Means of Communication as Means of Production’, Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays, London: Verso, 2005 (Originally published in 1978). Also see William Henning James Hebblewhite, ‘”Means of Communication as Means of Production” Revisited’, TripleC, 10(2), 2012, pp.203-213 [Retrieved from on December 26, 2014 at 7:50 am]

[9] Ibid, p.259.

[10] Tiziana Terranova, ‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for Digital Economy’ [Retrieved from on December 9, 2014 at 1:44pm]

[11] Jamie Skye Bianco, ‘Social Networking and Cloud Computing: Precarious Affordances for the “Prosumer”’, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 37: Issues 1 & 2. pp. 303-312, p.306 (Spring/Summer 2009). [Retrieved from on April 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm.]

[12] “Labour uses up its material factors, its subject and its instruments, consumes them, and is therefore a process of consumption. Such productive consumption is distinguished from individual consumption by this, that the latter uses up products, as means of subsistence for the living individual; the former, as means whereby alone, labour, the labour-power of the living individual, is enabled to act. The product, therefore, of individual consumption, is the consumer himself; the result of productive consumption, is a product distinct from the consumer.”—Karl Marx, ‘The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value’, Capital Vol1: Part III: The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value, 1867.[Retrieved from on 7 August, 2011 at 12:35 pm.]

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