Dr. Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the Communication and Media Research Institute and the Centre for Social Media Research, University of Westminster, London, UK. He is the author of “Internet and society: Social theory in the information age” (Routledge 2008), “Foundations of critical media and information studies” (Routledge 2011) and the forthcoming monographs “Digital labor and Karl Marx” (Routledge 2014), “Social media: A critical introduction” (Sage 2014) and “OccupyMedia! The Occupy movement and social media in crisis capitalism” (Zero Books 2014). He has co-edited the collected volume “Internet and surveillance: The challenges of web 2.0 and social media” (Routledge 2012) and the forthcoming volumes “Critique, social media and the information society” (Routledge 2014) and “Social media, politics and the state. Protests, revolutions, riots, crime and policing in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube” (Routledge 2014). He is editor of “tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique”, Chair of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 18 – Sociology of Communications and Media Research, co-founder of the ICTs and Society network and Vice-Chair of the European Union COST Action “Dynamics of Virtual Work”. We met up with Christian in October in Athens, Greece during the COST action meeting and conference.
1) What first got you interested in media and communication studies?
My background is social informatics and I was interested in computing. On the other hand, I come from Austria where we have a far-right party – the FPÖ– that has been very strong for many decades and they were using media for spreading right-wing extremist ideologies. Jörg Haider was not just a right-wing extremist political and ideological phenomenon, but also a media spectacle. So I was interested in how the media are used for disseminating these ideologies. Austria has one of the highest media concentrations in the press sector and a tabloid called KronenZeitung which has often supported these extremists and their racist propaganda. So my interests were on the one hand computing and its implications for society and on the other hand media and ideology. Also, my academic background is very interdisciplinary because besides my PhD in informatics I did my habilitation in ICTs and Society within the Faculty of Cultural and Social Sciences at the University of Salzburg. Most of my life I have worked in interdisciplinary departments. Of course media and communication is in itself interdisciplinary. For example, I recently looked at the special issue of the Journal of Communication from 1983 called “Ferment in the Field” where scholars discussed whether Media and Communication Studies was a discipline, a field, or even isolated ˝frog ponds˝ which was actually one of the views expressed by the Swedish scholar Karl Erik Rosengren. What makes up the interdisciplinarity of Media and Communication Studies were for example media economics, critical communication studies, political communication, media psychology, etc.
2) How did your interests change over the years and how do you see the field of media and communication studies today?
My interest in computing and media ideology did not change. Of course the media landscape changes, and the context in which the media are situated changes. There are differences between how the World Wide Web looked like in the nineties with the first hypertext systems and what it looks like now. Now there are “social media” which are in reality not that new although the appearance has changed. We are now also in a big economic and societal crisis. But the field in general has always been rather administrative, serving dominant interests. On the other hand there has always been some basis in the critical thinking of the Frankfurt school, British cultural studies, and Marxist political economy. This special issue of the Journal of Communication I mentioned earlier was also divided in this way. However, later issues showed that critical voices were less present. In the 1980s mainstream publications such as the Journal of Communication were still putting out some critical articles but now it is completely administrative and this is, I think, not how the media and communication studies should look like. Since the global crisis unfolded in 2008 critical scholarship has started flourishing again, especially among PhD students and early stage scholars who are fed up with the neoliberal restructuring of the academic field, with precarious employment and so on. Young academics have all the reasons to be angry, and naturally anger gets to a certain extent expressed in critical thinking. There is a general turn towards critical thinking, radical theory, anti-capitalist and Marxist theory nowadays.
3) In your work you rely heavily on the writings of Karl Marx. Where do you see the relevance of this 19th century theorist in the 21st century?
I do not terribly like the way you phrased this question because somehow it gives the perception of Marx as being outdated, old, that society is new and has completely changed through neoliberalism and so on. This was the point made by Baudrillard who said that we cannot explain postmodern society through Marx because Marx is a 19th century theorist and he did not talk about the media and so on. I would however have suggested to Baudrillard that he should have read Marx more carefully because there is a lot in Marx that helps us understand the media within the context of society. Quite obviously there is a huge crisis of capitalism, of the state, imperialism and ideology. It is not only a financial crisis because it goes beyond the financial sector. In volume three of Capital Marx very thoroughly discussed the mechanisms of financialization. He also very closely analysed class and class relations and inequalities. Nobody can claim today that we are not living in a class society. The ruling class enforces austerity measures and we have deepening inequalities. So these are all social issues. If we look at the media side and the ICTs in this context the question is can Marx somehow help us? I think that Baudrillard and similarly minded people were and are very superficial readers of Marx because Marx even anticipated the information society in his claims about the development of technological productive forces, and that knowledge in production would become increasingly important. Some also say that Marx did not understand the networked media, but then again Marx for example analyses the telegraph and its importance for society and how technology impacts society in the context of the globalization of the economy and communication. I even claim in my forthcoming book “Social Media: A Critical Introduction” that Marx invented the Internet in a striking passage of the Grundrisse. He described in a very anticipatory manner that in the global information system people inform themselves about others and are creating connections to each other. So the idea of social networking is there and the idea of networked information and a hypertext of global information are already there. So actually the World Wide Web was not invented by Tim Berners-Lee but by Karl Marx in 1857. Of course the technological foundations did not exist and also the computer did not exist as technology. But I think that, conceptually, Marx did invent the internet.
4) Karl Marx was largely focused on labour as a basic human activity. How does his labour theory relate to contemporary media and communication processes? Where do you see the border between labour and play in contemporary social media environments?
There is an anthropological element that Marx stresses. How humans have differentiated themselves from animals and how society has become differentiated has to do with purposeful human activity and self-conscious thinking. What distinguishes a bee from an architect is that the architect always imagines the result of what he produces before he produces it. This anticipatory thinking is at the heart of all human work processes. Work takes its organisational forms through social relations within specific societal formations – for example in the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist mode of the organisation of society. Then the labour theory of value comes in. Some say this is vital for social media, some say we do not need this theory because it is completely outdated. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the labour theory of value. When I read articles about this topic I always look at the basic concepts used besides value and labour. A lot of people use the terms money and profit, not understanding that labour theory of value is a theory of time in society and the capitalist economy. The crucial thing about how Marx conceptualizes value is that there is a substance of value and a measure of value. Human labour power is the substance of value whereas labour time in specific spaces is the measure of value. The labour value is the average time it takes to produce a commodity. How does this relate to what is called social media? The claim that the labour theory of value is no longer valid implies that time plays no role in the contemporary capitalist economy. Attention and reputation can be accumulated and getting attention for social media does not happen simply by putting the information there – it requires the work of creating the attention. The groups on Facebook and Twitter with the largest number of followers and likes are the ones of entertainers and companies who employ people such as social media strategists to take care of their social media presence. So we need to conceptualize value with a theory of time. Therefore, I am interested in establishing theories of time in society, time in economy and media theory.
5) In his recent work Manuel Castells stated that the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape the human mind. This may be easier to comprehend in the mass media environment where media content is shaped with a specific purpose to control and direct human behaviour, for example through advertising or political campaigns. However, with social media the users produce the content themselves. Where do you see this type of power exercised in the social media environment and how is it different from the mass media environment?
I will try to answer this question in the context of two dominant theories of how social media are being conceptualized: Castells´ theory of media and the network society and Henry Jenkins´ theory of participatory culture. I think both of these approaches are terribly flawed. Jenkins celebrates corporatist capitalist culture and how it is monetized. The concept of power from Castells is based on the Weber´s definition of power as a coercive force that exists everywhere. However there is also altruistic behaviour in our lives at home, with friends and elsewhere. There is life beyond domination. Of course we live in dominative societies but I believe in a sort of Enlightenment ideal of emancipation of society and that people can rule themselves. For me power means the ability of people to shape and control the structures of society. So power can be distributed in different forms. There are also different forms of power: economic power, decision-making power in politics, cultural power. The problem is that these forms of power are unequally distributed. Now here comes Jenkins who claims that culture has become participatory and we today all create culture in a democratic process. Of course, there are changes you cannot deny since it is easy to shoot a video on your mobile phone and put it on the internet. But does this mean that society becomes immediately democratized? I doubt it. Both Jenkins and Castells are technological determinists. Jenkins does not even realize where the concept of participation comes from in a theoretical sense and does not mention earlier forms and attempts of creating more participation such as the student movement’s vision of participatory democracy in the 1960s. Structures of control in the economy today and in the political system are based on power asymmetries. Although we produce information ourselves this does not mean that all people benefit from it to the same extent.
6) Recent surveillance scandals exposed by Edward Snowden have shown that the companies are not the only ones taking advantage of citizens´ digital footprints online. Do you see any alternatives to these events? How can we achieve a truly open and participatory internet taking all these risks into account?
The Prism scandal has shown that states have access to a lot of social media. However, we have to put this phenomenon in a broader context. What has emerged is a sort of surveillance-industrial complex where you have spy agencies conducting massive surveillance in collaboration with private companies. Facebook was involved, Skype, Apple and others. Snowden was also working for a private security company – Booz Allen – and the state outsourced surveillance to this private company and other ones. Security is a very profitable sector within the economy. We must also see the ideological context of these events that goes back to the post 9-11 situation. A spiral of war and violence was developing after these events and it was claimed that there is a technological fix to terrorism and organized crime and that there are terrorist and criminals everywhere around us. The suggested highly ideologically motivated solution was to introduce more surveillance technologies to prevent organized crime and terrorism. This was very one-dimensional and short sighted. What has developed in the online sphere is corporate and state control. From a liberal perspective this threatens the basic liberties we have or that we think we have in modern society. The question is how do we get out of this situation and what changes of the Internet and society do we need? We do have things like the Pirate party struggling for freedom of information, people concerned about privacy, critical journalists concerned about press freedom, the Occupy movement and so on. They all seem, however, terribly unconnected but in the time of crisis of the whole capitalist society their reactions, if combined in a network, would be a force for defending society and making it more democratic. A united political movement that would run for governments and parliaments could try to make reforms in society. We also need to reinvent and redesign the basic structures of the internet. However, we should not do away with social media because they do enable people to maintain their networks. But people do not like the aspects of control embedded in them. We need an internet controlled by civil society. If we think of how the media can be organized there are not just capitalist media but also public service media controlled by the state and alternative media controlled by civil society. The idea of an alternative internet purely controlled by the state might be dangerous, but we need state power to make progressive changes. I would like to see a combination of both state and civil society power in reforming the Internet and the media because there are interesting civil society projects that however face the problem of a lack of resources. For example, the Occupy movement had an alternative social medium they created. This was used by a certain minority within the movement. My study “OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism” shows that the corporate platforms were also popular among activists but that they were at the same time afraid they were monitored by the state and also worried that as digital workers they were exploited by Internet companies. We can only introduce changes by using already existing structures but the history of alternative media is unfortunately a history of voluntary, self-exploited and precarious work because of the lack of sources of income. So a media reform movement should also channel resources towards alternative projects. We need to tax media corporations more, we need to tax advertising, and corporations in general. Through participatory budgeting one could channel this money towards alternative media projects that are non-profit and so we could create a form of cooperation between the state and civil society that advances media reform. Voluntary donations such as the ones on Wikipedia are also a solution but are dependent on an unstable stream of resources.
7) How do you see the increasing push towards applied and policy oriented research in Europe? How will it affect media studies and social sciences and humanities in general?
Research topics and areas in the European Union are predominantly formed in a top-down process, for example in Horizon 2020. What we need is a more critical agenda that addresses the problems in society and then thinks about the media and communication to see in which context they are operating and how we can improve democracy and the internet. The EU is framing questions about the Internet in terms of e.g. electronic participation but what it means by this is digital bureaucracy and that governments develop services for citizens and not the citizens’ development of an online public sphere. Administrative, quantitative and micro-level research is also preferred while theory, ethics, or critical theory is avoided. A critical research agenda would involve critical social theory on the one hand and critical empirical research on the other hand. Unfortunately a lot of critical theory does not use research methods. At the same time there are a lot of micro studies of social life that completely ignore theory. So a lot of empiricists do not know much about theory and a lot of theorists do not know much about research methods. The key is that we always need to have a societal context in mind so that we do not loose ourselves in studying micro phenomena.
8) Media studies are an inherently interdisciplinary field. Where do you see the role of disciplines, especially sociology, in media studies?
Philosophy is a general meta-science, while sociology is social sciences´ meta-science. Social science was on the one hand influenced by the natural sciences, which was reflected in the interest in research methods, and on the other hand by the humanities and philosophy which was reflected in the focus on social theory. Social theory is a condusing English term that can sometimes be too micro-focused. There is a difference between “social” and “societal”. I would prefer the terms theory of society as in the German term Gesellschaftstheorie. In any case, media and communication studies should always be informed by sociology. For example, there is a difference between research presented in associations such as ECREA and research presented in the European Sociological Association (ESA). ESA’s Research Network 18 (Sociology of Communications and Media Research) is more interested in critically theorizing the media within society and in the context of society that shapes the media. Media sociology has always been a more critical field than media and communication studies at a whole. I am also optimistic about the development of a critical sociology of the media because there are a lot of young scholars who are interested in studying the media within society and there are a lot of interesting things happening. We need to help in institutionalizing critical media research by running journals, organizing conferences and creating space and time for critical media sociology. The task are: creating space where critical people can meet and talk to each other, creating space where they can publish; and creating time for doing critical research together with colleagues.