The Labour of User Co-Creators: Emergent Social Network Markets?

Co-creative relations among professional media producers and consumers indicate a profound shift in which our frameworks and categories of analysis (such as the traditional labour theory of value) that worked well in the context of an industrial media economy are perhaps less helpful than before. Can this phenomenon just be explained as the exploitative extraction of surplus value from the work of users, or is something else, potentially more profound and challenging, playing out here? Does consumer co-creation contribute to the precarious conditions of professional creative workers?

The implications of networked production, not only for economic and market environments, but for the people who are labouring within the network.
– For waged labour, there is the threat of displacement by unpaid amateurs and the loss or redefinition of work.
– For amateurs there is the question of whether pursuing their passions through creative production is something to be constructed as ‘enabled’ by commercial entities or ‘exploited’ by commercial entities.

If we view networked production as an intersection of enterprise and social networks it becomes possible to identify dynamic relations that are transforming markets.  We have identified the ways in which social economies, which operate through gifting, and the rewards of social status or personal satisfaction and the intrinsic rewards of  reativity do not necessarily seamlessly meld with the processes of enterprise and market economies.
User-led production is messier and often driven by a diverse range of motivations that cannot be marshalled into the institutional forms of industrial style production. The consequences of commercial enterprises coming to rely on this form of production to varying degrees is not necessarily outright cooptation or appropriation, but the emergence of new social network market institutions and processes, in which the commercial entities are changing shape as they seek to harness the productive activities of amateurs.
We have sought to move away from the discursive construction of user-creators as unknowing and exploited people who do not recognize the conditions under which they produce value. We want to take seriously their own, often sophisticated understanding of negotiations with enterprise, and their decision-making in the directions of both
commercial and non-commercial production.  The case study has shown how these negotiations are carried out on the ground. The diverse motivations of player creators must be accounted for in any description of networked production.

In trying for a more nuanced account of labour in a networked production environment, we are not seeking to deny the uneven power relations that exist between enterprise and user creators. However, if there is to be any chance of evening up the power relations, users must be understood as having agency, and the characteristics of that agency and the forms of power it generates must be articulated in order to be mobilized. These forms differ from those of traditional labour relations in industrial-mode economic production. Rather than understanding these relations always through the lens of commercial and monetized property markets, we also want to engage with the legitimacy of social economies.

User co-production relations do not only statically reallocate resources across markets and non-markets, firms and social networks. The cultural economics at work concern dynamic, open, self-organizing networks that generate opportunities for growth, change and innovation. This is not just about user generated content as an outsourcing of labour costs and an associated displacement of paid labour; it is not simply about optimizing allocative efficiencies within the labour relations and productivity frameworks of industrial economies. More provocatively it focuses our attention on how hybrid co-creation relations introduce organizational change and market growth. The value flows here then are not just about cheap labour and content but about the integration of innovations that upset and disrupt established industrial economy business models (Cunningham, 2006: 33–8). It is the liminal, hybrid zone between social networks and established markets that defines the space through which the relations of labour and work play out.
The value of these activities remains uncertain and will be shaped and defined through these market-like processes on social networks. This approach to emergent socio-markets focuses on the dynamics of open systems as new ways of being (including labour) are created and refined rather than on static models that rely on analytic distinctions between markets and non-markets (Potts et al., forthcoming).

User-led labour, in all its uncertainty, is an agent of change that unsettles existent industrial knowledge regimes. The changes wrought by shifting the contributions of users toward the core of commercial business models may well result in open innovation structures and change our understanding of what markets are. It disrupts accepted understandings of the market by questioning what is being exchanged, and what mechanisms of coordination are being used. Who benefits and in what ways?
In terms of policy and regulation the challenge will be to identify where intervention is necessary, particularly to address matters of equity, but not to stifle the innovation processes in doing so. Understanding the changed form of the market requires that regulatory interventions change as well. In the future, we suggest that research could usefully focus on the role of non-professional creators as they navigate and shape the emerging markets. How do we describe and analyse these emerging agents and agencies? What sort of labour relations will these be and how will they articulate with or constitute the creative knowledge economy? What happens to our understanding of the labour theory of value in the context of emerging social network markets? What kinds of job, and social and cultural relations will emerge and how will the interface that creates value be managed? It may be a self-organizing emergent network, and if it is, who will it exclude and how will we balance the opportunities and social costs? In the current shake-up, the answers to these questions are not at all clear.

 From Banks, John A. and Humphreys, Sal M. (2008) The labour of user co-creation. Emerging social network markets? Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(4). pp. 401-418.


About Kyoung Jun Lee
Professor of Kyung Hee Univ.

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