Monday, May 21, 2007

The Labor Theory of Blogging

Jodi Dean at I cite has written a wonderful post on blogging and Productive Labor.

... if we think about blogging, about cat blogging and snark and fandom and mommies and hobbiests, we can't help but be struck by the enormous amount of creative, productive labor expended. Think about the hours and hours of labor time. Creating, making..what? Contributions. Contributions to the flow of ideas, opinions, and impressions.

Marx reminds us that the more labor the worker expends, the less the value of his product. I always think of this in terms of the amount of labor in any individual item that comes off a factory assembly line. But, it's also applicable, in a way, to blog posts. The more collective creative labor power goes in to each one, the less the value of each.

Yet, maybe this is the wrong way to put the question. Perhaps what is at stake is a different account of value. Capitalists are working to commodify and monetize blogging--more than it is already for those of us who pay for hosting, high speed internet access, and the hardware. Some get ad revenue. Some try to get subscribers. Some treat blogging as advertising, a way to generate interest in and increase the consumption of a commodity or service. Some are associating blogging with a kind of self-production and marketing. How exactly this can be monetized, other than by selling books about how to blog or how to market oneself by blogging, is still a mystery--kind of like a treasure or the gold the fantasy around which a rush builds. But, maybe all this is mistaken precisely because the value at work is different.

Blogging requires the expenditure of definite quantities of labor-time. Bloggers themselves are well aware of this fact, and of the many hours they sink into blogging rather than other pursuits. Taken as a whole, the blogosphere represents an enormous investment of labor-time, almost all of it unpaid labor with no monetary wage attached. In fact, most bloggers must pay for the privilege of laboring in the blogosphere by purchasing their own computers and internet access, and running the gauntlet of online advertisements. But what is produced by all this labor? Dean speculates that "Contributions" are produced. "Contributions to the flow of ideas, opinions, and impressions." Capital, though, only concerns itself with the production of commodities. What, then, is the connection between the production of these online contributions and the production of commodities?

As others have pointed out in the comments to Dean's post, for Marx, the value of a commodity is in direct proportion to the amount of socially necessary labor-time it takes to produce the commodity. The more labor-time it takes to produce a commodity, the greater its value. However, it's also true that the dynamic of capitalist production always aims at cheapening commodities – at making workers more productive and decreasing the amount of labor-time needed to produce commodities and so decreasing the value of commodities.

Cooperation is one of the important methods described by Marx that capital uses to increase the productivity of labor-power. Cooperation, like the massive cooperative endeavor that is the blogosphere, makes us all more efficient producers of ideas, rants, speculations, conspiracy theories, cat blogs, fan blogs, and snark and so decreases the amount of labor involved in producing our "contributions to the flow of ideas, opinions, and impressions." For better or worse, this cooperation makes us more productive bloviators and bloggers. I am more productive because I have I cite and Limited, Inc. and thousands of other bloggers to draw upon and collaborate with in my blogging. I write faster. I write better. I am read more widely. And because of this increased productivity due to the cooperative nature of blogging, my work has less value. Not less use-value I hope! We all aspire for our writing to be beautiful, useful, entertaining, and enlightening both for ourselves and for others. But it has less value in the marxian sense that it now takes me less time to produce more, and perhaps better, writing and to distribute that writing to a larger audience than ever before. (Perhaps dozens will read this post!) Yet for all this increased productivity, what commodity is being produced?

For Marx, there are two factors every commodity must have. First, it must have a use-value. That is, it has to be useful to someone, somewhere for something. There are probably some blogs that fail this test, but they tend to be abandoned and lonely places. There are certainly some individual blog posts that fail this test – I myself have authored more than one of these. However, blogs themselves are without doubt useful things. Millions of us read them and write them every day. If they weren't useful to us, even if only as therapy or as targets for derision, then we wouldn't spend our time blogging.

Second, every commodity must have a value. That is, it must be the product of human labor. Every blog, even the bad ones, qualify on this count. Even automated spam blogs have this sort of value since somewhere there are people writing the code to create these abominations.

Finally, there is one last feature that every commodity must have according to Marx. To be a commodity, it must be produced for exchange. Simply put, most blogs aren't commodities because they aren't sold. Very few blogs are produced for exchange – whether directly for subscribers, or mediated through advertising revenue, or even indirectly as publicity and advertising for some other product, service, reputation, or brand name. Millions of blogs are not produced for exchange at all. They are produced for own consumption by the author, and are given away freely to others – despite what various copyright laws may pretend.

Blogs themselves, then, are typically not commodities. They have use-value, and value, but since they are not produced for exchange they are not commodities and so not a direct source of surplus-value for capital. The fact that blogging doesn't turn a profit won't come as a huge surprise to most bloggers.

However, there's more to this story. There is a commodity being produced here, it's just not the blogs themselves. What is still needed is a discussion of the always vexed distinction between the productive and unproductive in Marx. I will return to this tomorrow and to the second half of Dean's post.


Other posts in this series:


  1. Say, you don't know me, so I address this post from lumpf to lumpen. I'm ABD, and rapidly trying to find some way escape the university while my tenure seeking colleagues work so diligently to deflate the value of their labor.

    I've been wanting you tenured folks to address this point (as you have done several times in your blog), but it works better with blogs:

    isn't it the case that the exchange in a blog is not one of money, but of enjoyment, in the same way that the supposed exchange in the labor of watching TV is that we trade the time of working to situate ourselves as an audience for commercials for the enjoyment of the program?

    I am not adept at the marxist schema for valuation, especially understanding what constitutes commodities and how; or the difference between exchange, use, and surplus value; or how we should understand the set of secondary non-works that we each contribute to produce the spectacle.

    Maybe this pokes at your next part to this blog, but there does seem to be an exchange going on in blogging. That exchange is not understandable from the point of view of those who are blogging, but rather from the point of view of the people writing out the organizational infrastructure of things like mySpace, blogger, and so on.

    If you are writing a blog, I would imagine that you see its product much differently than the people who are collecting the real value created by that blog, in exactly the same way as a person wearing a Nike t-shirt sees the value of that clothing differently than the people who enjoy the use of the Nike trademark.


  2. Interesting post and interesting comment. I think the point that enjoyment is exchanged is a good one. Someone on my blog suggested that the currency was attention. This doesn't strike me as wrong, but I think enjoyment might be better because it gets at what makes someone read all the way through a post and perhaps even comment. It also suggests why someone might write a post at all.

    I think your point about cooperation is excellent--I usually underrate cooperation, so it made me think. It also makes me wonder about scale: the kind of cooperation your mention doesn't scale (80/20 rule is one shorthand for this problem). And, this adds to the problem of value: the more blogs that are out there, the less the total amount of labor time is present in any one post, so the less value it has. Brilliant but unknown, unread, unloved.

    But maybe this is wrong; maybe the problem of scale doesn't apply here because bloggers can always make connections with at least a few other blogs.

  3. Thank you both for your very thoughtful comments and insights.

    I'm intrigued by the concepts of enjoyment and attention as well. The link you provided in the comments on I cite about the attention economy was very helpful. I'm looking forward to reading and thinking more on that topic.

    Also, I'm intrigued by the difference between the value of a Nike t-shirt for someone wearing it versus its value for Nike's corporate office -- although that difference may still be best explained by the difference between use-value and exchange-value.

    I may have to come back to some of these ideas after tomorrow's post.