The Social Media Reader

Edited by Michael Mandiberg
New York: New York University Press, 2012
288 pages / $24.00 paper; ISBN: 978-0-8147-6406-0 / $75.00 cloth; ISBN: 978-0-8147-6405-3
Review by Dawn Opel, Arizona State University


Part VI explores how participatory users on social media generate content (versus industry-created content), and how this participation may or may not constitute labor in proprietary media industries. It concludes with an essay on the labor of scholars in digital scholarship.

Convergence Culture

In "Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?: Grassroots Creativity Meets the Media Industry," a chapter from his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins (2012) discussed the relationship between fans and creation of media content. While fans have been creating content around industry-created material for a long time, Jenkins argued that the Internet has made its visibility and public nature much more pronounced (p. 203). Jenkins famously termed this phenomenon "convergence culture," to mean the lack of "clear division between producers and consumers. Within convergence culture, everyone's a participant—although participants may have different degrees of status and influence" (p. 204).

Jenkins outlined the United States's cultural history from 19th-century folk culture that was participatory and grassroots-oriented to 20th-century mass media culture, and then to a 21st-century convergence culture that pushes back against mass media culture, with consumers seeking involvement in creation of cultural products with the aid of 21st century technologies (p. 206–207). Jenkins then defined media industries' response into two groups: prohibitionists (those who attempt to criminalize participatory behavior) and collaborationists (those who see fan-created content as promoting mass media content and seek to collaborate). Jenkins used the Star Wars franchise and related fan productions as a case study to discuss both responses (p. 206). He concluded by observing that while prohibitionist tendencies run deep with media industries, inroads have been made toward collaborationist goals. It remains to be seen how media industries will continue to respond as options for media sources become increasingly diverse (p. 233).

Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky (2012), in "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus," argued a connection between gin and television: social surplus. During the Industrial Revolution, society coped with the transition from rural to urban life by drinking gin, and that act of drinking constituted a social surplus that was later translated into creating public endeavors such as libraries, museums, and public education (p. 236). Shirky equated this gin drinking of the Industrial Revolution to the sitcom watching of the 20th century. Our social surplus translated into television watching, until as with the gin scenario earlier, "it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis" (p. 236). Instead of passively watching television, Shirky argued that we are creating social goods increasingly found on social media spaces, such as Wikipedia entries (p. 237). This he "raise[s] to a general principle: it's better to do something than to do nothing" (p. 239). Make image macros, Wikipedia entries, blog, and so on, but do something. Shirky concluded his essay with an anecdote about a four-year-old girl who is watching a DVD and looks behind the television. When asked, she says she is "looking for the mouse" (p. 240). He then argued, "Here's something four-year-olds know: media that is targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for" (p. 240). Shirky enthusiastically looks to participatory culture on the Internet as the space to engage our cognitive surplus.

Front-end and back-end

In a markedly less optimistic approach than Shirky's above, Felix Stalder (2012) responded directly to Shirky in this essay, "Between Democracy and Spectacle: The Front-End and Back-End of the Social Web." Here, Stalder explained that most of Shirky's optimism rests on the front-end of the social web ("where users interact") and fails to see the problematic aspects of the back-end ("to which the owners have access") (p. 242). This back-end problem he termed "the potential for Spectacle 2.0, where new forms of control and manipulation, masked by a mere simulation of involvement and participation, create the contemporary version of what Guy Debord called 'the heart of the unrealism in the real society'" (p. 242). Stalder argued that "we need to take precautions against the negative forms of strategic interventions that are leading to the creation of Spectacle 2.0" (p. 248). He seeks to illuminate the back-end of the social Web, as the front-end is what is visible to most users, despite the fact that the corporate infrastructure that controls the social Web is embedded in the back-end.

Stalder provided the examples of the blog on the front-end and the data center on the back-end, to show that "[a]ll of the trappings of conventional organizations, with their hierarchies, formal policies, and orientation toward money, which are supposed to be irrelevant on the front-end, are dominant on the back-end" (p. 248). The back-end is marked by a surveillance economy, in which user data is collected and used for economic gain. Despite Stalder's front-end/back-end discussion, he concluded by noting that this is not a binary of Shirky's utopianism and his own pessimistic view of Spectacle 2.0, but that involvement with the social web "is most likely to affect people in highly differentiated ways" (p. 254). Stalder ultimately argued for "a mixture of new legislation and granting public access to back-end data" (p. 254). These actions could protect users from an unchecked Spectacle 2.0.

Digital Scholarship

What does Web 2.0 and participatory culture mean for the future of academic scholarship and publishing? In "DIY Academy?: Cognitive Capitalism, Humanist Scholarship, and the Digital Transformation," Ashley Dawson (2012) provided a theoretical evaluation of the future of digital scholarship against the backdrop of the shifts in academic publishing more broadly. As he argued, the harsh economic realities of university presses have resulted in scholars finding it "harder to publish in general and virtually impossible to publish books that do not ride the latest wave of theory" (p. 257). While peer-reviewed, open source, online journals may seem to be the answer to these woes, Dawson's essay offered theory to instead demonstrate how the lack of theorization around digital scholarship, and a lack of resultant action, may assist in "exacerbating existing forms of inequality" in this area (p. 158).

Dawson does not wish to quell the excitement of the digital movement in academic publishing. He argued that "this emerging movement constitutes a significant reclaiming of the networked commons on the part of humanities scholars" (p. 261). That being said, he is concerned about "the institutional context within which such utopian movements gestate" (p. 261). Dawson questioned whether digital humanities scholarship can maintain immunity from "market pressures and political censure," as well as the "power law distribution problems" between well-established institutional Internet sites versus lesser-known ones (p. 264). Dawson concluded by arguing that academics in the humanities are "woefully unprepared for digital transformations," and that a much wider discussion must be had to temper the enthusiasm over digital scholarship (and teaching) with potential negative implications (p. 270–271). He offered a suggestion for a model of digital scholarship to watch in the future: the Open Humanities Press (OHP), consisting (at the time) of ten online journals and five e-books, with a prestigious editorial board. Dawson closed the essay with the warning that "there is nothing to prevent administrators from using computationalism to intensify academic capitalism except our own self-organizing efforts" (p. 272). It is up to us as scholars to continue the conversations about the future of publication, both print and digital, to prevent further exploitation of our own labor in knowledge production.

While Dawson's essay addresses a subject that is of great importance to the academy and researchers therein, it feels a bit forced to place this essay in a section with the other three. Jenkins's and Shirky's essays are vital to any study of digital culture and fundamental readings in any course involving social media, and Stalder's offers a response that offers context to them. Digital scholarship is but one example of an area of labor on the Internet, and for a scholarly audience, a fitting one to choose but perhaps too limited for the audiences that the first chapter of this book discussed.