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Rights + Justice
Science + Tech

Shadow Workers of the World, Revolt!

Social media made free labour of us all, and now grocers are catching on. I quit.

By Shannon Rupp 3 Feb 2012 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

I was reminded of the old term "shadow work" recently, when a pleasant woman came bustling up to me in a Saturday grocery line-up and interrupted my weekly read of trashy celeb mags. Like cheerful veal on-the-hoof, I followed her to a newly opened till, or so I thought. It turned out she was leading me to the euphemistically named "self-serve" checkouts that I've been avoiding for years.

"Let me show you how to use this," the assistant manager said enthusiastically.

"No thanks, I'm not interested in learning to be a cashier," I replied. "Well, not unless you plan to compensate me for my labour. What do you offer people as a discount for ringing-up their own groceries?"

She looked confused. So I explained my economic reasoning. This grocery store is a publicly traded corporation that over-prices its goods, which I tolerate on the understanding that they employ people at a reasonable wage. Well, that, and they have a near-monopoly status in my neighbourhood unless I want to drive to get groceries, which I emphatically do not.

So if I consent to ringing up the groceries myself, not only am I robbing someone of a job, I'm creating financial incentive for this corporation to find new ways to bully me into subsidizing them.

Personally, I plan to hold that line as long as possible.

As she rang up my groceries for me at the misnamed self-serve checkout, I contemplated how companies off-loading labour onto their customers is nothing new, but it has taken a horrifying new turn courtesy of the Internet. Philosopher Ivan Illich dubbed it shadow work in the 1970s, when the no-service gas pump was followed quickly by the no-service banking machine and a host of other dishonestly named self-serve enterprises. But no one could have anticipated our gullibility in allowing social media to turn us all into corporate slaves who labour for free, because we're somehow duped into thinking it's "fun."

Are you a technodouche?

Calling Facebook and Foursquare et al. social media is a bit of a misnomer in itself. They're databanks. Or to quote Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen, they're commercial spying operations.

It's clear Facebook and other online data collectors exist only to glean valuable and previously elusive information from people who have gone from being citizens to being products with nary a protest.

Every time we "check-in" to a restaurant or a business, as in Foursquare, we're doing their advertising for them at no benefit to ourselves -- not to mention creating a valuable record of our habits for everyone from marketers to future police states. When we upload photos and locations to Facebook, we are giving personal information to a databank that has made it clear there are no limits on how it might use that information -- and we're often invading the privacy of friends and family into the bargain.

Speaking of which, for some inexplicable reason people seem to think that publishing photos in social media without permission is now legal. It's not. And while doing it is unlikely to get you sued, there's always a chance you could get your teeth knocked in. At the very least, you'll be known as the sort of person for whom digital manners columns are springing up, along with unflattering nicknames. British writer Paul Carr dubbed those who have developed a strong sense of entitlement along with their digital gizmos the "technodouches."

I'm not sure why so many of us have bought into this Tom Sawyer-like scheme to paint fences for companies and call it a laugh riot. But the game theorists have one explanation that would no doubt meet with Mark Twain's approval: essentially, we're not very bright.

We are all informants

Apparently people are motivated online by the hope of winning a prize or achieving some dubious distinction -- like earning a badge that declares you "the mayor" of the local fast food joint. Those who study the obsessive-compulsive behaviour of video gamers tell us these meaningless little rewards tap into the same part of the brain that made children nag their parents for sugary cereals in an attempt to collect a complete set of toy prizes.

The other well-established lure is that social media gives narcissists a chance to play at being famous. Researchers have noted that many heavy Facebook users create an idealized image of their lives via photos and status updates as a way of flattering their own egos. Certainly this explains why Facebook bumf argues that telling a databank what you listen to, read, or buy somehow helps you "express yourself."

And it explains why millions are keen to "like" a brand even without the lure of freebies. Since the 1970s, young people have been taught to wear brands as a substitute for having a personality -- as if donning Juicy Couture says something meaningful about the wearer. Well, I suppose it does: just not what the wearer had hoped.

But no one mentions how the belief that social media is heavily trafficked has created a third category of user: the shadow worker. These are the people who have been forced into contributing to these sites, reluctantly, often because an employer demands it.

One of the funnier examples of a shadow worker is New York Observer writer Adrianne Jeffries, who was researching the trend of banks using Facebook pages as a way to vet loan applicants. (Their theory is that birds of a feather hang together, so your friends' credit scores will reflect your own value as a bank customer.)

Poor Jeffries had barely posed the question about the legality of such practices to Columbia law professor Eben Moglen, a privacy advocate, when the man tears a strip off her for using Facebook. She protests, feebly, that she can't stop using social media -- as a tech writer, it's her job.

Moglen points out that it's her choice to be in a situation in which she is "more heavily surveilled than the KGB or Stasi or Securitate or any other secret police ever surveilled anybody."

"Every time you tag anything or respond to anything or link to anything, you're informing on your friends. You're part of the problem," Moglen says, in a rant designed to make every last one of us feel guilty.

Moglen characterizes social media as an immense commercial spying operation in which we all rat out our pals like a bunch of deluded comrades in the Cultural Revolution. And he's not wrong. But as other media collapse, it's not clear how anyone in any of the communications businesses can avoid doing shadow work as a spy.

Facebook, the predator

At this point most of us would gladly bow out, since we've learned that the digital equivalent of fence painting is about as much fun as ringing up our own groceries.

Not to mention the growing awareness of how Facebook, particularly, is abusing its users. The mandatory new timeline highlights posts from years gone by. In a piece on how-to clean up your profile, one tech writer notes it took him four days to delete the unflattering data his naïve younger self had posted.

What he doesn't mention is that Facebook holds the data permanently -- you can't remove information like private messages once you've posted them. People worry about the public seeing their posts, but it's crucial to understand that Facebook is the real predator.

How is this shadow work fun again?

Moglen advocates a just-say-no approach, which as we all know never works. Although he's right as far as it goes: if we all stop using Twitter and Facebook, Pinterest and Foursquare, LinkedIn and Quora... there will be no reason for anyone else to use them.

I admire Moglen's views, but there's no putting this genie back in the bottle. It makes more sense to recognize that the misnamed social media companies are like any other corporate enterprise -- they're amoral predators that need stringent regulation.

In the meantime, all we can do is be less cooperative victims. Don't post your birthday; delete all personal photos; don't post information about relationships -- your real friends know who your children are, you don't need to tell Facebook. And don't report your activities, or worse, the activities of others. That's just bad manners. Or in some cases, child abuse.

In short, treat your relationship with Facebook & co. for what it really is: a commercial transaction. If you can gain a commercial advantage using social media by all means do so. But recognize that it comes at a price and commonsense should tell you that you try to get the best price you can for your labour.

Which is what I told the nice assistant manager as she finished bagging up my groceries. I must remember to thank her for reminding me of shadow work. That wait in the checkout line was so much better a use of my time than reading about Aniston's tawdry love life.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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