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'Unwaged' work for social media sites a labour of love, new prof says

Despite the fact that social media web sites like Flickr are worth millions of dollars, the users who generate nearly all the content for them are surprisingly comfortable with their labour being “unwaged,” according to a new communications professor.

“The thought of someone else making money off their work doesn’t hold much sway with Flickr members,” said Brian A. Brown, an assistant professor who joined the department of Communication, Media and Film this fall.

Several days before getting hired here, Brown successfully defended his PhD thesis at Western University, which was based on qualitative interviews with 26 users of Flickr members, a social media photo sharing web site.

“Almost all of the labour that gets devoted to a web site like that is unwaged, yet the site was sold to Yahoo! in 2005 for about $35 million,” he said. “All of this ‘heavy lifting’ goes unwaged, yet these people are still producing and contributing to something that is very valuable. The same goes for Facebook, Tumblr and all the other web 2.0 services.”

Brown – who earned a master’s degree in communication and social justice from the University of Windsor in 2005 – isn’t advocating that users ought to be paid for generating content, but suggests that exploitation isn’t too harsh of a term to describe the situation.

“By definition, exploitation is extraction of surplus value from the labour of another,” he said. “But users don’t experience it as exploitative, even though they may be able to objectively view it as such. It’s a labour of love for most of these people and they do get valuable social relationships and meaningful forms of interaction from it.”

He hopes to continue his research on the bio-politics of unwaged immaterial labour, but for now, is devoting time to his teaching duties, which include four courses this semester: New Media Studies, Digital Technologies and Everyday Life, a grad level class called Communication and Social Movement, and a course called Advanced Cultural Studies, which examines the issues and questions surrounding graffiti and street art.

“Is it art, or is it a crime?” he asks. “Does it matter if it’s done legally? Is it part of culture, or is it a commodity? Does bringing it off the street and into the gallery subvert its message? There are a lot of paradoxes about it that can’t be easily resolved, and the commodification of some its end products really speaks to the further commodification of our every aspect of our lives. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a great class and the students are really taking to it.”

Brown said he and his partner are comfortably settling into their east Windsor home. He’s a big music fan who likes to get to Detroit for shows as much as possible.