Productivity of social media

Brendan Koerner has a short Wired piece about how social media enhances productivity. I’ve been banging the immaterial labor drum so hard that it hadn’t really occurred to me that some people would view Twitter and Facebook as time wasters. My view is that participation on social networks is a kind of harvestable work that doesn’t feel like work to the people doing it, perhaps because they don’t get cash payment for it. Instead they get a fuzzier kind of satisfaction from feeling relevant, for being in “real time.” But apparently managers at actual workplaces (not in the “social factory”) see social networking as time stolen from the company. It makes sense — employees are producing value for somebody else on the company’s dime.

Koerner suggests that the social-media time works to replenish professional “creatives”:

Your random tweets about Android apps and last night’s Glee are stifling the economic recovery. At least, that’s the buzz among efficiency mavens, who seem to spend all their time adding up microblogging’s fiscal toll. Last year, Nucleus Research warned that Facebook shaves 1.5 percent off total office productivity; a Morse survey estimated that on-the-job social networking costs British companies $2.2 billion a year.

But for knowledge workers charged with transforming ideas into products — whether gadgets, code, or even Wired articles — goofing off isn’t the enemy. In fact, regularly stepping back from the project at hand can be essential to success. And social networks are particularly well suited to stoking the creative mind.

That makes sense too — they go to the well of processed information in social networks and suck out what stuff is useful for the enterprise project they are working on. Koerner points to the unplanned serendipity that can result as well: “According to Don Ambrose, a Rider University professor who studies creative intelligence, incubation is most effective when it involves exposing the mind to entirely novel information rather than just relieving mental pressure. This encourages creative association, the mashing together of seemingly unrelated concepts — a key step in the creative process.”

The point here is that social media is a resource, not a distraction. The social relations and associations captured in the various networks and platforms and media are a productive force of their own, a commons. The Italian neo-Marxists talk about this in terms of the general intellect. This is the key line from Marx’s Grundrisse (my bolding): “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.” That’s a pretty abstract formulation and allows for a pretty broad range of interpretations. (And it doesn’t really matter what Marx happened to write, if you think about it.) But I read that as suggesting the ways in which capitalism captures the work we do to maintain our friendships as a kind of productivity. It used to be a more ephemeral, immaterial thing (hence the associated term “immaterial labor”) referring mainly to ways in which people learn to collaborate in workplaces. But networking technology has made it possible to archive the product of this social work and find more capitalist applications for it. Social relations are produced socially; their shape is determined to a degree by social needs, or in other words, the general intellect. The sorts of friendships we have with people are partly dictated by social context; they are not autonomous, or dependent on the unique bond we may believe we are forming. With social networks increasingly becoming the medium of friendship, the purpose of friendship has likewise been affected — friendship takes the form of all this concrete data-processing labor online, which goes by the benign enough name of “sharing.”

The productivity of social networking seems like the cutting-edge manifestation of a tendency Paolo Virno describes, by which the benefits of the “general intellect” — more free time, for instance — ultimately get reappropriated by capital:

Marx claims that in a communist society, rather than an amputated worker, the whole individual will produce. That is the individual who has changed as a result of a large amount of free time, cultural consumption and a sort of ‘power to enjoy’. Most of us will recognize that the Post-Fordist laboring process actually takes advantage in its way of this very transformation albeit depriving it of all emancipatory qualities. What is learned, carried out and consumed in the time outside of labor is then utilized in the production of commodities, becomes a part of the use value of labor power and is computed as profitable resource. Even the greater ‘power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into laboring task.

This is why it is worth complaining about social networks being private for-profit entities. The general intellect loses its autonomy, its capacity to function as a Habermasian public sphere. Instead, it’s just another Mechanical Turk.