In Feudal France, before the Bourgeoisie revolution of 1789, there lived a class of individuals who drew their income purely from rents on inherited property. These people formed the nobility, individuals who provided no contribution to the productive capacities of the state and instead consumed the fruits of the labour of the working classes. The French called them “Rentiers” and the Revolution was in many ways an attempt to take back the means of production from these unproductive societal parasites.
Throughout the history of the world, even to this day, there exists those who may be termed as rentiers; property owners who live off the rent that is paid to them by tenants. And yet what most of the world is yet to realise is that a far greater and far more powerful rentier class exists today, controlling the hottest real estate in the world: the Internet.
Let’s take the example of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg and his team have created a platform for social interaction and they charge us for our use of it. But how does that work? We don’t pay for Facebook. It’s free, isn’t it? Well no, it’s not. To quote an old saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Facebook sells your activity; your likes, dislikes, interests, and hobbies, to advertising agencies that then use that information to create customized ads that show you exactly what you are likely to buy. You don’t pay money; you pay for Facebook with your privacy. Now that’s really not such a bad thing if you don’t mind your personal information being out in the world and there are a sizable number of people like that.
On the face of it, there is no possible similarity between the creators of Facebook and French nobility. After all, Facebook wasn’t inherited; it was built by hard-working designers who put in a lot of effort to create a platform for people to interact. They can’t be expected to do all that for free, so they seek remuneration in the form of ads.
Well the situation becomes clearer if you see Facebook as a media generation factory. A factory owner is by all means an entrepreneur who, through hard work and dedication, has managed to build a factory. But the factory itself is completely unproductive without workers to run it. The owner may have expended the capital necessary to create the situations for production but the actual productive act is carried out by other people. The same goes for Facebook.
The team behind Facebook has put in great efforts to create a space for the generation of media content. The memes, cat videos, and photo albums that form this content are all the products of individuals who have utilized this space for the generation of media. This content is then the produce and the users who have created it are the producers, the ones who expend their energies to create a product for no real personal gain. We pay Facebook to work for them. That is the beauty of the new age version of rentier capitalism.
Facebook is just an example. Every single social media website runs on the exact same revenue model. Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Google +, every single one of these websites basically charge us to let them let us work for them. The best part is that neither we nor they really understand this and even if we do, we conveniently forget it. Because what’s the alternative? You can’t stop using Facebook! Everyone is on Facebook. It’s social survival.
It is high time someone gave real thought to the creation of socialist principles for the internet age. Industrial and agricultural production is no longer the only form of production anymore. An increasingly cybernetic world requires a new form of socialism.
So how would a Cyber Socialist solve the issue of Facebook’s rentier culture? The answer merely requires a few tweaks to one of the most powerful Marxist theories: the Theory of Surplus Value.
Users produce content. Therefore, whatever money the company does not use for the betterment of the website itself belongs to the Users. On average, Facebook makes around $30 for every profile. If $15 is invested in further research and innovation, the remaining $15 becomes the company’s “profit” or surplus value. This surplus must then be evenly distributed between the company and the Users.
A simple way to achieve this would be for Facebook to pay verified profiles and pages with more than a specific number of followers, a fixed sum for every like, share and view. This wouldn’t actually take away from the company’s revenue flow as more people would then try and get in on the action. After all, getting paid to use Facebook? That’s the dream!
This is in no way an ideal answer. Ideally, control of Facebook and the internet as a whole should be taken away from corporations and given purely to the Users. However we must after all be willing to make some sacrifices for the betterment of the world and to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. This solution, to allow Facebook to still control the means of production but requiring them to compensate the Users for the money that should rightfully come to them, is a compromise, one that the new class of Internet rentiers would do well to take up.