Book Review -- Social Media: A Critical Introduction

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Social media: a critical introduction, by Christian Fuchs, London, Sage, 2013, 293 pp., £77.00 (hardback) ISBN 978-1-4462-5730-2, £24.99 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-4462-5731-9

Christian Fuchs’s Social Media is an important contribution to the introductory literature available on the topic for its approach, which is, as the title suggests, critical from the ground up. In this sense it stands in contrast to many introductions to social media that sing the praises and potentials of social media without adequately addressing their social and political problematics and complexities; Fuchs undertakes to do just that, in a book designed to foreground issues of power and ethics in the operations of social media ecologies within contemporary culture (p. 2). Fuchs’s book is based upon the premise that an understanding of social theory and social philosophy are requisite for investigating social media’s societal impacts and indeed regulating its outcomes, stating that “we need a society and a social media that benefit not just some of us, but all of us” (p. 11), and arguing that critical theory is thus an imperative. Fuchs takes a Marxist approach, and combines of explanatory sections on relevant concepts developed by theorists including Theodor Adorno, Emile Durkheim, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou and Malcolm Gladwell, with sections that apply concepts to social media platforms, corporate agents of social media, and social media-influenced historical events. Issues of participation, surveillance and privacy and labour exploitation receive substantial attention, with various themes enfolded periodically into a larger discussion of the degree to which social media is truly social (in the sense of being representative, accessible and participatory), and to what degree its sociality is problematized by corporate interests, unethical practices and class inequalities.

Fuchs’s Introduction (chapter 1) lays a solid foundation of critical theory definitions and styles of application, with a Marxist focus. This is followed by the first section of the book, comprising chapters 2 to 4, which lays a foundation for understanding social media in the contexts of social theory generally (chapter 2), participatory culture and democracy (chapter 3), and communication power dynamics (chapter 4). The second half of the book demonstrates applications of critical theory approaches to social media issues, giving attention to a variety of philosophical and political notions of participation, privacy, surveillance, privacy, and access. Fuchs spends a chapter each discussing the major platforms Google, Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks and Wikipedia. The first three choices seem appropriate, considering their dominance of online engagement habits today; the latter two are presented as alternative platforms with comparatively more democratic potentials. Fuchs links discussions from chapter to chapter by, among other things, recent historical events including the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, critically exploring the role of social media in how such events transpire. The book is designed to be useful in the classroom; chapters are clearly organised, written in accessible language, and Fuchs has provided chapter summaries, supplementary discussion and sources and exercises following each chapter.

Repeatedly in the text, Fuchs reminds readers of the complexity of the techno-social system of the Internet, whereby human activity are both enabled and constrained and the effects of which are anything but straightforward (p. 37). Embedded within capitalism as informational productive force, the Internet is required to evolve toward the continued accumulation of capital, often through the exploitation of its users. How this plays out, Fuchs argues, is largely governed by an asymmetric dialectic of economic, political and cultural media power, whose outcomes are not as revolutionary as is often assumed by scholars and practitioners of social media (p. 79-83). Having no natural or in-built determinations on its own, the Internet is for Fuchs “embedded in the antagonisms of contemporary society”, and as such currently exist largely in support of the status quo in the form of corporate interests, with the exception of a few platforms that are community-based, democratic and not-for-profit (see chapter 10). Fuchs returns continually to touch points of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement to demonstrate the limitations of social media to deliver emancipatory futures promised by evangelists such as Henry Jenkins and Kevin Kelly in real political terms.

Fuchs takes on the subject of labour exploitation in some particularly interesting ways, delving into several aspects of the role of social media in undervaluing workers and perpetuating unethical labour practices worldwide. He discusses the often verypositively considered phenomenon of “prosumption” in Internet culture, or the blurring of line between producer and consumer that allows users to create content such as reviews, blogs, articles, and photography. Taking a Marxist approach, Fuchs discusses prosumption as “outsourcing work to users and consumers, who work without payment,” whereby “corporations reduce their investment costs and labour costs, jobs are destroyed, and consumers who work for free are exploited” (p. 106). He distinguishes corporation-controlled platforms like Facebook and Twitter from publicly controlled platforms like Diaspora and Wikipedia, that latter representing non-commodified prosumer work, with value being delivered to the public and non-profit organisations rather than corporations (p. 117). He also devotes some space to discussing underpaid ICT labour in non-Western regions, noting that

Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) reported that Chinese Foxconn workers who produce iPhones, iPads, iPods, MacBooks and other ICTs are facing the withholding of wages, forced and unpaid overtime, exposure to chemicals, harsh management, low wages, bad work safety conditions, lacks of basic facilities, etc. In 2010, 18 Foxconn employees attempted suicide, 14 of them succeeded. (p. 119)

The same chapter discusses the issue of minerals extracted from mines in areas like the Republic of Congo and other countries with slave-like conditions for use in smartphones and other electronic devices (associated with terms like “blood phones” and “blood Macs”), placing the practices and accoutrements of social media directly in relation to class politics and highly unethical practices about which many users are largely unaware or unconcerned (p. 120).

The strength of the book is Fuchs’s expression throughout of the complexity of the topic of social media. Often reduced to pop-culture instantiations, social media is perpetually at risk of being badly understood, either under- and overestimated in terms of risks and benefits, with scholarship shaped almost inevitably by tech evangelism and responsive ludditism. While at moments it seems that Fuchs may overstate his case (“Google’s directors have a vision of making the world completely knowable, controllable and predictable with the help of the Internet”, p. 134), and that he may construct straw men of certain agents of social media scholarship and industry in order to make certain points, on the whole his approach is convincing, and represents a clear alternative to the evangelistic style of many other social media textbooks. It succeeds as a primer in critical contexts for addressing social issues relative to social media, an understudied and important area of inquiry; as a critical treatment of social media, it seems likely to attract more of the same to the field.