Since publishing an article (also a post with the argument condensed) in which I suggested that the digital tracking of exercise may be considered to be labour I have had some interesting comments and critiques which have all been extremely erudite. Some people have suggested that it might be a bit “tin foil hat” conspiratorial. This is certainly not my intention. I do not suggest that anyone involved in developing self-tracking devices or software is intentionally trying to deviously extract the labour of amateur athletes. Rather, I proposed that the generation of commercially useful data is so ingrained in the culture of the digital marketplace that this is almost their default position.
I would also accept that while we know exercise data are being shared it is not currently clear what commercial value is instilled in them. However, online companies do not, in most cases, actually need to clearly demonstrate that their product can make money now or even very soon. In fact many aspects of the online industry is largely a futures market.
An influential programmer and commentator on digital media and technology Maciej Cegłowski articulated, in a lecturer earlier this year, that one of the key ways in which even quite well established companies make money is through “investor story time”. He explained it like this:
Investor storytime is when someone pays you to tell them how rich they’ll get when you finally put ads on your site.
Pinterest is a site that runs on investor storytime. Most startups run on investor storytime.
Investor storytime is not exactly advertising, but it is related to advertising. Think of it as an advertising future, or perhaps the world’s most targeted ad.
Both business models involve persuasion. In one of them, you’re asking millions of listeners to hand over a little bit of money. In the other, you’re persuading one or two listeners to hand over millions of money.
As Ethan Zuckerman, a programmer and part of the team who invented the “pop-up” ad, explains:
We’re addicted to ‘big data’ not because it’s effective now, but because we need it to tell better stories.” So we build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior.
So, it does not really matter whether the data which is being generated and collected has an obvious use value at this stage the fact that data is being generated at all is in itself valuable because it helps to tell a good story to investors. But dotcom businesses are particularly hungry for new kinds of data as they need a distinctive product (or story) to sell to investors. In particular they need to demonstrate that their data is better than Facebook’s.
As Zuckerman and Felix Stalder demonstrate it has been estimated that Facebook makes just $0.60 profit per quarter, per user and with the average user spending 40 minutes per day, or 60 hours per quarter, on the site that works out at around $0.01 per hour. At least for the time being this is ok for Facebook because of their massive active user base but for other smaller businesses, Zuckerman suggests, the real challenge is to show that you have more targeted, more useful data than Facebook.
Self-tracking probably generates more focused data than Facebook which encompasses data on almost every aspect of people’s lives mostly without direct connection to purchase-able items. Users of self-tracking devices, for exercise purposes at least, are probably currently a fairly limited but relatively well-defined group. Regardless, the profitability of self-tracking as a large scale enterprise is bolstered by a techno-determinist and techno-optimistic ideology which Christian Fuchs (2014: loc 2192) has suggested has been used to support the “social media capital accumulation model”. Fundamentally, that money is extracted from investors on the promise of returns and control over the future.
Fuchs, C. (2014) Digital Labor and Karl Marx [ebook]. London: Routledge.