Even as social media are deployed in the service of social justice and consciousness raising, the profits generated contribute to anti-social behavior, including tax avoidance, gentrification and big bucks to anti-democratic causes.
As the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, started by Suey Park, trended on Twitter in December 2013, many of the site's Asian-American users were empowered to speak out on the internet about their experiences with racism. They tweeted against the archetype of the Asian girlfriend as a servile sex object. They wrote about the lack of Asian faces on television. Twitter user @aquietstrength posted about job stereotypes: "Not all #indians are doctors or engineers. And the rest of us do not answer phones for a living. #NotYourAsianSidekick."
In the midst of a mass media culture that is dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled male voices, Twitter is enabling disabled people, gender-nonconforming people and people of color to speak out. And #NotYourAsianSidekick and other activist hashtags don't end at Twitter.
Conversations like #NotYourAsianSidekick, #HeardWhilstDisabled (started by @pseudodeviant to list the ableist things non-disabled people say about people with disabilities) and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen (started by Mikki Kendall to call out racism in mainstream feminism) are replicated on other social media services, such as Facebook and Tumblr. The New York Times runs articles about them. They're the basis for conferences all about digital activism. Universities now offer semester-long courses about social media's roles in social change.
Many on the Left have an understanding of how the exploitation of labor produces wealth for a few at the expense of almost everyone else, and how these practices are dependent on the histories and the futures of slavery, conquest, and the liquidation of entire worlds. Why, then, are so many of us with an otherwise critical eye on the brutality of global capitalism unwilling to see social media as yet another iteration of that same form of accumulation?
Crucial analysis is being developed around the content of social media. Simultaneously, though, we must understand that Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other profit-driven companies are not neutral platforms for these conversations.
Much has been written recently about the possibilities and limits of social media (particularly around Twitter), and it's important to remember that social media have drastic effects, many of them negative, beyond the virtual world. As Robert McChesney and John Nichols have written, tech industrialists are the Rockefellers of this century, with profit, not innovation or the social good, as their primary motive. And this has effects for progressive causes, as well as for anyone who lives in areas with large tech industries, particularly in Northern California.
The Profitization of Our Online Content
While clicking the "submit" button below an online comment form might look nothing like traditional images of labor - say, workers toiling on factory lines - this is the magic of capitalism once again working us over. Most of us don't even know we are working. But every Facebook post, tweet or online article comment made on a for-profit website is a form of no-wage labor that grows the massive wealth of tech industrialists. Today, billions of us inhabit a form of volunteerism in which we work countless hours a day providing free content for social media corporations.
Many on the left have an understanding of how the exploitation of labor produces wealth for a few at the expense of almost everyone else and how these practices are dependent on the histories and the futures of slavery, conquest and the liquidation of entire worlds. Why, then, are so many of us with an otherwise critical eye on the brutality of global capitalism unwilling to see social media as yet another iteration of that same form of accumulation?
These corporations love to point to their platforms' use during the Arab Spring, as they helped to connect activists involved in bringing down authoritarian regimes in parts of the Middle East. But that was a side effect, not an intention, of technology companies that often have hidden conservative-libertarian agendas. And the more content we users provide, from Tahrir Square or anywhere else, the more ads and user data these companies can sell. Many people would be surprised to find out what those companies do with the trillions they bring in.
Some are lobbying for anti-progressive measures. The lobby group FWD.us, brought to us by founders and investors of Facebook, LinkedIn and Spotify, among others, famously supported the Keystone XL oil pipeline with millions in pro-pipeline advertising, much to the annoyance of environmental, indigenous and other groups opposed to Keystone. Peers.org, an initiative launched by "sharing economy" companies like the home-subletting site Airbnb, have resisted government regulation, even as disability advocates fear services like the "rideshare" service Uber are increasing inequality between people with and without disabilities, because the companies don't offer accessible vehicles or abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the way many taxi companies do.
For all their gargantuan profits, they're doing everything they can to avoid paying taxes. The Center for Tax Justice has called out Twitter for avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in additional taxes by maintaining much of its wealth in the form of difficult-to-tax stock options, and as the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag reported, the company avoids additional taxes by funneling money through tax havens in the Netherlands. Despite bringing in an estimated $1 billion in 2012, Facebook got a refund of more than $400 million, thanks to a stock option loophole. Meanwhile, we're meant to laud Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg for giving away $1 billion of stock options. Yet as many have noted, large gifts to foundations are a way that the extremely wealthy can ensure their money goes toward furthering their own agendas under the guise of "charity."
Inevitably, if these corporations were to pay their taxes, most of that money would go to the military, prisons, police and other unsavory purposes, so the point is not that these companies need to "pay their fair share," but rather to point out that their wealth, as in all capitalist enterprises, is built through a system that they're actively molding, all to maximize their own profits.
And these companies are in large part responsible for the displacement of thousands of low- and mid-income people in the Bay Area. Here, a housing affordability crisis has been ramping up in the past few years, at the same time that tech interests have lobbied successfully for tax breaks from local governments. With housing prices up as much as a third in just the past year in many San Francisco neighborhoods - a problem that's spilling over into nearby cities like Berkeley and Oakland - the tech industry is facing a backlash. The private coach buses that shuttle tech workers from San Francisco to the Googleplex in Silicon Valley face weekly blockades by protesters who blame the tech megacorporations for hypergentrification in the city.
The area around Twitter's international headquarters, in the city's Mid-Market area, has been among the worst hit by gentrification, with low-income people being forcibly pushed out of the neighborhood. On the day of Twitter's November 2013 stock IPO that made millionaires of 1,600 holders of Twitter stock options, about 100 activists staged a "funeral for affordable housing" outside its doors. Along Market Street, one of the main drags for the central part of the city, the police department confiscated the equipment, chairs and tables of dozens of mostly homeless chess players who had gathered there daily for more than 30 years. Blocks away, a recycling center that offered a form of income for poor people is set to be kicked out just as two multimillion-dollar condo complexes and a Whole Foods move in across the street.
Ben Grossman, Head of Global Operations for Twitter, tweeted that Bay Area Rapid Transit workers on strike ought to be thrown to the dogs. Dobermans, specifically.
Twitter lobbied successfully for tens of millions of dollars in local tax breaks for tech just as home evictions and prices began spiking beyond their already-high rates. With monthly rents hovering around $3,000 for a market-rate apartment, it's had effects on the racial composition of the city as well: San Francisco has lost at least 40 percent of its black population since 1990, more than any other major city. The population continues to shrink, here and even across the bay in the traditionally black-majority Oakland, whose numbers likely will be overtaken by whites in the next couple of years, as lower-income black people get pushed to the outermost edges of the region. What is sometimes understood as simply an effect of gentrification must be read as one of the structuring logics of tech's antiblack vision of the future. As in other domains of capitalism, the classism and antiblack racism of the tech world has become part of its internal functioning.
At the same time, largely white and Asian tech industry "brogrammers" (an appropriate, local nickname for the techies who have recently flocked to the Bay Area, creating their own frat utopias in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like the Mission and South of Market districts) have taken to the internet to express their disdain at having to make their millions in San Francisco.
Some of the more famous examples:
Ben Grossman, head of global operations for Twitter, tweeted that Bay Area Rapid Transit workers on strike ought to be thrown to the dogs. Dobermans, specifically.
Former AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman called SF's homeless people "trash," saying, "The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests."
Co-founder of the e-commerce company AirBrite Peter Shih blogged about the city's female population, whom he dubbed "49ers," referring to "all the girls who are obviously 4's and behave like they are 9's. Just because San Francisco has the worst Female to Male ratio in the known universe doesn't give you the right to be a bitch all the time."
Technology stocks have long gotten a pass as "socially responsible" investments. Among Forbes' "10 Companies With the Best Corporate Social Responsibility Reputations," five are tech megacorps. But the fact is tech companies continue the practices of devaluation of racialized and feminized labor on a global scale. Gawker interviewed 21-year-old Amine Derkaoui, a Moroccan man who was hired to screen "improper" Facebook content, like gore and pornography. After Facebook's record $100 billion initial public stock offering in 2012, Derkaoui commented how none of those billions would trickle down to people like him. "It's humiliating. They are just exploiting the Third World," he told Gawker.
There are no easy answers. Many, including both of us writing this, participate in social media daily.
In an increasingly alienated world, it's important to imagine technological shifts without the destruction of worlds that were the precondition of the innovation. How can we find ways to connect both in the flesh and virtually to dismantle the same structures that produced the alienation in the first place?
While demanding wages for our content will not interrupt the flows of capitalism, it might be a way to begin to unravel big tech's benevolent reputation.
Another answer is for tech workers to, in tech lingo, disrupt the industry's exploitation by developing alternative tools for connecting us all. Firefox, LibreOffice, PirateBay, Wikipedia and WordPress are all widely used technology-based tools created by organizations that don't count profit as their foremost objective. Diaspora and Elgg are open-source social networking software organizations that have potential but don't have big user numbers yet. More are in the works right now.
More important, we can organize with and support the media and activists that already are doing this work, like the Bay Area's POOR Magazine. There, the editors and writers at once publicize the problem of displacement and participate in direct actions such as the above-mentioned rally against Twitter. And when change happens, it'll be the labor of people like them - tweets being just one small piece - that we'll have to thank.