Facebook: Cottage Industry of the Twenty-First Century

Progressive social policies are not intrinsic to Facebook’s architecture. Designed like all successful corporations, Facebook’s primary function is to maximize profit. To secure these objectives, Facebook has revived the labor policies of the eighteenth-century Cottage Industry: long hours, skimpy wages, physical isolation, and a systemic channeling of spontaneous creativity; all of which combine to effect a massive generation of profit. The only thing new under this virtual sun is a psychoanalytic wizardry that makes exploitation feel like fun.

During the eighteenth century the population of England doubled. As a result, the demand for textiles soared, and most of the desired textiles required cotton to manufacture. To satisfy these increasing demands, merchants would deliver raw cotton to a private home, where the inhabitants—grandparents and young children alike, proceeded to clean and spin the cotton into yarn. A few days later the merchant would return to pick up the yarn, and unload more cotton to be cleaned and spun. The merchant would then deliver the yarn to another home where it would be woven into cloth. Whatever meager wages passed between the merchant and the workers were routinely offset by the extravagantly priced sewing equipment and thread. This is how the original cottage industry functioned, and how a small number of merchants amassed colossal fortunes.

Today, Facebook functions according to a similar logic, though the means of production are now light and nimble, and the final product has receded into pure abstraction. Instead of spinning jenny’s, Facebook workers purchase lap-tops and smart phones to complete their tasks. The advantage of these mobile work-stations is that the production process can continue when the worker leaves home. On the train, in class, while indulging in a pedicure on the calm white sands of Malaysia, a worker can still generate profits for Facebook. At the same time, the neo-Cottage Industry Facebook has introduced requires sensory isolation. The primary connection established by Facebook, allowing for all further connections to occur, is the linkage of human senses to the screen. The eye connects to the image. The fingers connect to the keyboard. It is only after the human-machine interface is complete that the virtual connections between other humans can begin. And these subsequent connections are limited in scope by the original matrix: the relationship between ‘friends’ is, by necessity, mediated by visual images. We are what can be exposed to vision. Thus, the Facebook worker labors intensively to create an idealized image that can be visually consumed. By the same token, the idealized image presented to other Facebook workers is a self that gains social esteem through creative displays of consumption.

So long as the worker is signed-in, Facebook capitalizes. In a world mediated by images, the act of looking is sufficient to generate profits: the gaze multiplies the value of the image at which it is directed, increasing the ‘number of views,’ which, by peer-pressured logic, results in yet more views, until advertisements assert supremacy over the page. Time is money, to look is to labor:

I sign in at 7:00, after my day job. One friend request this evening, a stranger named Carla. I scan Carla’s bio for signals of clan affiliation—Dexter, Death Cab for Cutie, and Wong Kar Wai. I confirm Carla’s request. I then press a link Carla posted for a documentary about a giant blow-up bubble-gum machine. I press like, so does Youtube. A short while later I post a recent photo of myself eating tarantulas in Cambodia to confirm my capricious originality. Four friends like this, so does Lonely Planet. It is now 8:15. A hot pink phone throbbing seductively along the margin captures my gaze; Motorola’s stock lurches ahead, and Mark Zuckerburg purchases another jet.

What about my stock after two more hours of diligent labor?

Virtual connections made possible by Facebook can and do multiply and manifest on the physical plane. Yet, at the crossroads of identity creation and capital accumulation, the lewd genius of Facebook is revealed: The wages for three hours of advertising is the pleasure of abstract communion with ‘friends’ who are often complete strangers, a renewable license for voyeuristic intrusions, and the continued access to a created, fantasy image of myself. Meanwhile, three hours of finite life-force are converted into tangible profits for corporations both seen and unseen. The yarn is spun, the merchant is knocking, and… wait, I’ve just been tagged in a photo looking slouched and wrinkled. My suave Imago is under siege. Back to work!

J. Peter Wilson is a Pedagogical Reformer in Hong Kong. He can be reached at: jpwxiix@gmail.com. Read other articles by J. Peter.