Chances are, you work for Facebook.
You probably don’t have an office or an ID card. And you almost certainly don’t get paid. But if you’re one of the 239 million Americans who use the platform each month, your work is as valuable as a coder’s. Maybe more. Your clicks, likes, and posts keep content circulating, users scrolling, and data streaming into algorithms used to serve you ads. Leave, and the platform crumbles.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has driven away some users — mostly those troubled by how Facebook harvests personal information. But don’t forget that Facebook takes something else from you, too: your labor.
You do two jobs for Facebook. You generate data and produce content. Facebook is essentially an advertising company, and every bit of information you disclose is data advertisers can use to influence how and what you buy. Sometimes it’s fairly benign (maybe you do want that Blue Apron subscription). Other times it’s not. Data is a powerful tool for anyone who wants to shape your behavior, and as Cambridge Analytica shows, it can be dangerous.
Your job is to drive people to the platform and keep them there
You also create most of what’s on Facebook. You write posts, share photos, and capture live video of speeches, protests, and police shootings. The time and effort you sink into crafting a poetic confession, an impassioned rant, a thoughtful reflection on the day’s news — think of it as work you do for Facebook. You’re working to keep the site humming and vibrant, and you’re creating reasons for others to keep scrolling. Your job is to drive people to the platform and keep them there.
And you spend a lot of time doing it. In 2016, users spent an average of 50 minutes a day using Facebook products, including Instagram and Messenger. That number has declined recently, but let’s say you spend, say, 35 minutes a day on the site. That’s 26 eight-hour days a year — “more than any other leisure activity surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of watching television programs and movies,” according to the New York Times. “It’s more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes).”
Time Well Spent?
Leisure is labor on Facebook. People use the app voluntarily, and yet, as more and more social activities relocate to the internet, it’s increasingly work people feel they have to do to live meaningful, connected lives. Facebook is a News Feed, photo album, personal archive, community forum, and more. Think, for a second, about deleting Facebook. What will happen to your photos? Where will you get your news? Will anyone remember your birthday?
Like all social media companies, Facebook makes money from the basic labors of life: our need to maintain friendships and family ties, keep up with news, form and share beliefs about the world. “What appears, at first glance, to be a free activity of communication,” researchers at the University Lüneburg and University of Essex wrote in a recent paper, “is in fact a form of ‘free labor.'”
It’s valuable labor, too. The company earned nearly $16 billion in profit in 2017, according to its annual earnings report. Most of that was from ad revenue, which jumped nearly 50 percent.
Free labor has always made the U.S. economy hum. Slavery got the country on its feet, and unpaid house work — cooking, cleaning and child care, still done mostly by women — has for over two centuries made it possible for people to wake up every morning and go to work. The effort we put into caring for others is labor, and women still do most of that, too. While employers mostly benefit from this unpaid work indirectly, social media companies go right to the source. They extract value directly from the work we do to stay connected to the world.
This kind of extraction isn’t unique to Facebook, or even to social media. The idea of a “prosumer” — a consumer who also produces — dates back to the 1980s. Sites like Yelp rely on users to generate reviews; Spotify asks listeners to fill in missing album data; Medium makes money from amateur writers looking to publish. Like Facebook, these sites often frame your work as an opportunity to “connect” or “share.” Not paying for this work is called “crowdsourcing.”
Critics of this model say it’s exploitation. Eric Posner, a legal theorist at the University of Chicago, has called Twitter users a “slave labor force,” and small-time YouTube celebrities have objected to the platform’s efforts to make it harder for YouTubers to monetize videos.
Whatever else it is, social media is work
Whatever else it is, social media is work. People who create content for a living understand this better than most. If you’re a photographer, you have to be on Instagram. And if you’re a journalist, you have to be on Twitter. It’s where you find breaking news, promote work, and get gigs — often on your own time. Ditching Twitter “would be a disaster” for writers and the companies they work for, Ethan Klapper, HuffPost’s global social media editor, told the New Republic in 2017.
The nonstop churn of social media skews what kind of work has monetary value. Amateur reporters break news before professionals, so media companies expect writers to churn out reports off the clock. And when the internet is awash in content, no one wants to shell out for words and images they can get for free.
Yes, a few social media users have figured out how to turn their work into cash. Modern celebrities like PewDiePie and the #vanlife couple have used social platforms to launch lucrative careers. It’s easy to envy these people; after all, they rake in cash doing what everyone else does for free. But the fact that some people get paid is evidence of the value of every user’s labor.
Maybe we all deserve a little something. After all, we don’t really use Facebook; we make it.
Casey Williams is a writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He covers issues from labor rights to environmental politics. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and other national and local outlets.