Selling your (digital) self

Vassilis Charitsis
Alan Bradshaw
  Royal Holloway University of London


Contemporary information capitalism is premised on the appropriation and exploitation of users’ data. To draw attention to this phenomenon, Jennifer Lyn Morone, a London based artist, decided to act in a manner of “extreme capitalism” as she became a human corporation that markets and sells her own data. But what may have seemed as extreme capitalism just a couple of years ago, is actually slowly becoming the norm as a number of platforms are emerging that not only promise to provide monetary compensation for users who agree to sell their data but promote the marketization of the digital self as an act of corporate resistance and user empowerment.

Focusing on this development, we provide a critical analysis of these emerging personal data markets. We maintain that instead of contesting it, these platforms embrace the prevailing neoliberal ethos that not only attests that all human activities should be subsumed by the market (Brown, 2015) but even more that user empowerment can only be achieved if they operate as enterprises, as entrepreneurs of themselves (Dardot and Laval, 2014). Revisiting discussions on Dallas Smythe’s notion of the audience commodity (1977) as well as discussions about how the expanding reach of platforms render our engagement into forms of evermore exploitative immaterial labour, we seek to engage with Dyer-Witheford’s (1999) concept of the cyber proletariat alongside Dean’s (2009) concept of communicative capitalism. In particular, in contrast to optimistic analyses of user platforms acting as harbingers for postcapitalism (Mason, 2015), we instead argue that our contribution to the world of big data increasingly takes on the form of exploitation, precarity, immaterial labour and dispossession all presented in discourses of consumer empowerment.

Brown, W. 2015. Undoing the Demos. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Dardot, P. and Laval, C. (2014). The new way of the world: On neoliberal society. London: Verso Books
Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies: Communicative capitalism and left politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999). Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press
Mason, P. (2015). PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Allen Lane
Smythe, Dallas W. (1977) ‘Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism’, Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1 (3): 1-27

Capitalism - Exploitation - Neoliberalism - Technology