Michel Bauwens in Al Jazeera:
This is not a new debate. It resurfaces regularly in the blogosphere and academic circles, ever since Tiziana Terranova coined the term “Free Labour” to indicate a new form of capitalist exploitation of unpaid labour – firstly referring to the viewers of classic broadcast media, and now to the new generation of social media participants on sites such as Facebook. The argument can be summarised very succinctly by the catch phrase: “If it's free, then you are the product being sold.”
This term was recently relaunched in an article by University of Essex academics Christopher Land and Steffen Böhm, entitled “They are exploiting us! Why we all work for Facebook for free“. In this mini-essay, they make a very strong claim that “we can certainly position the users of Facebook as labourers. If labour is understood as 'value producing activity', then updating your status, liking a website, or 'friending' someone, creates Facebook's basic commodity.”
This line of argument is misleading, however, because it conflates two types of value creation that were already recognised as distinct by 18th century political economists. The distinction is between use value and exchange value. For thousands of years, under conditions of non-capitalist production, the majority of the working population directly produced “use value” – either for themselves as subsistence farmers, or as tributes to the managerial class of the day. It is only under capitalism that a majority of the working population produces “exchange value” by selling their labour to firms. The difference between what we are paid and what the market pays for the products we are making is the “surplus value”.
But Facebook users are not workers producing commodities for a wage, and Facebook is not selling these commodities on a market to create surplus value.