When we think about internet usage and online “exploration,” whether it be in the form of lurking through different forums, writing our own content or creating unique, online art, the notion of freedom comes to mind. Sure we are being monitored by the NSA, but for the most part, we are still the masters of our own internet experience. On Twitter we can say anything we want (as long as it fits into 140 characters). On Instagram we can take photos of people, places and events at our own volition. Sites like Reddit allow us to post, view and comment on information, whether it be in the form of a link to another site, or our own, original hypothesis. Sure most websites are businesses, but we are simply consumers who can engage with this content legally (and sometimes illegally) on our own volition. Right?
If we take a look beyond the surface functions of these sites and apps themselves, we find that we are not simply users, nor are we customers. No, we are these sites’ products. Take Facebook for example. Every time you search something, like a page, share or click a link, you are telling Facebook and the host of advertisers it sells you to just exactly how to customize your web experience with their wonderful, colorful advertisements. I’m sure many people know this and are just like “whatever,” but it kind of freaks me out. Sure the monetary cost is nothing, but we pay in different ways. If we aren’t surfing “incognito” or using our trusty TOR browsers, we are living in a personalized, ad-filled online experience.
If you are at all concerned, or even the least bit curious, I recommend installing an extension for your web browser of choice called “Ghostery.” Ghostery is great in that when you access a web page, it immediately tells you how many advertising companies are tracking your data. If you click on it (a little blue ghost) you can then see which specific companies are following you. You can then manually switch off each company, freeing yourself from the seemingly ever present eye of corporate America, …man. The app does warn you that switching off certain things may affect your web experience, but I’m super paranoid and do it anyway. Sometimes.
This notion of us as the “product” extends far beyond the realm of social media sites. I acknowledge this sense of exploitation of online commercial capital through the form of blogs, social media platforms and fan sites, yet still feel a sense of passivity and ambivalence towards my role in the process. Sure I, just like everyone in my generation, am angered by unpaid internships, the lengthy, yet unavoidable stepping-stone process that leads into a flimsy career trajectory. Yet when it comes to creating content, writing blogs, posting comments on news sites, I passively contribute content that feels necessary, fun, fulfilling and yet completely independent of digital labor. I know this is not the case, but thinking of creating content as a profitable commodity for these online businesses and constructs still falls secondary to this notion that I am creating, improving and building upon an online “community.”
The content we proliferate, the cults we follow and the things we love have all been intrinsically linked to the digital markets that further proliferate said content. When we create fan-videos, fan-art, fan-fiction, they further promote the object or entity we love. We do not think of objects of fandom as commodities, despite the fact that that is exactly what they are. When we produce this content, we destroy our own agency. We are reduced to what seem to be grassroot marketing campaigns for the objects we love. If I write a blog about the New York Mets, I am either a source of information that encourages fans to follow the team, my blog (and subsequently the ads that may surround said blog), or in the case of more prominent content writers, myself. Still, in this sense, my name too becomes a brand. I am both the producer and the product. The commodification of the self manifests itself most prominently online.
We market ourselves along side of the products we propagate and advertise for the purpose of a further proliferation of these products and an advancement in the professional field. Online, we are trapped in a vicious cycle that reduces our name to a brand in the best case scenario. While we acknowledge the necessity of this, we also downplay the reality that the ever-accelerating circuits of images, impulses, fragments and feelings that we are reduced to online have been commodified in themselves. No matter our most personal and earnest intentions, we are feeding this mass digital marketplace that exploits our pleasure, creativity and ambition.