New Publication: Crisis of Command: Theorizing Value in New Media

Communication_TheoryMy latest contribution to theorizing value in new media is now available online from Communication Theory.


Theorists of free labor have argued that users produce value directly for capital through unwaged participation in online social media platforms. I argue that this interpretation of value is misguided. I begin with a brief overview of the labor theory of value as it has been developed by political economists in the context of new media. I then use Marxian crisis theory to demonstrate the limitations of the concept of free labor. I also elaborate how value is created within media markets through a complex set of interactions among media firms, market researchers, advertisers, finance capital, and unwaged content producers. I conclude with a discussion of the consequences of free labor theory for Marxian politics.

Alternate Routes: upcoming issue on precarious labor



Precarious Work and the Struggle for Living Wages will feature orginal articles by Wayne Lewchuck, Stephanie Luce, Ian Cunningham, Patricia MacDermott, John Bellamy Foster, Jamil Jonna, Tanner Mirlees, Stephen McBride, Jacob Muirhead, John Shields, David Livingston, Don Wells, Charlie Post, Christian Fuchs, Brett Caraway, Jeff Noonan and many others.Forthcoming January 2016!

New publication: OUR Walmart: a case study of connective action

OUR Walmart: a case study of connective action, by Brett Caraway
This article analyzes communication practices within networked social movements by exploring the network structure of an organization responsible for numerous labor actions and campaigns targeting the retail giant Walmart. This case study of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) represents an initial attempt to map the network structure of an emergent form of labor organization. To better understand the relationship between communication and collective action, I utilize Bennett and Segerberg’s [(2012). The logic of connective action: Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 29] model of connective action to examine the organizational structure of OUR Walmart. I conducted semi-structured interviews with a dozen union representatives, OUR Walmart members, and current and former Walmart employees. My intention is to (1) delineate the network structure of a new and significant organizational form of class struggle and (2) consider the utility and validity of the logic of connective action. I conclude with a consideration of the limitations and affordances of the network structure of OUR Walmart for workers engaged in struggles for better working conditions and higher wages. This research finds support for Bennett and Segerberg’s model of large-scale action networks. Moreover, this research suggests that organizationally enabled networks are an effective means of coordinating class struggle.

Full article available HERE

Social Media & Society 2014

SMS_LOGO_mediumI will be presenting some of my current research on networked social movements at the 2014 International Conference of Social Media & Society at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto. This particular research examines the utilization of social media platforms by a number of Canadian labor unions for purposes of recruitment and labor action coordination.

Participation or Exploitation?

Wages For Facebook, 2014. Poster design by Eric Nylund and Laurel Ptak.

Wages For Facebook, 2014. Poster design by Eric Nylund and Laurel Ptak.

I’ll be leading two sessions in this wonderful reading group put together by my intrepid ICCIT comrade Nicole Cohen and Christine Shaw of Blackwood Gallery. I’ll be discussing the economics of advertising in social media and the rise of networked social movements. Be sure to check out the full schedule and suggested readings at the following link: Blackwood Gallery

2015 UDC Conference at the University of Toronto

UDC 2015 Conference

2015 UDC Conference

The Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (ICCIT) will host the 2015 Union for Democratic Communications conference May 1st-3rd at the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. The call for papers is available on the conference website:

We look forward to seeing you in Toronto!

Radical Labor History in San Francisco

I spent this week at the Union for Democratic Communications conference in beautiful San Francisco where I gave another presentation about my work on the UFCW and the Walmart strikes. In addition to catching up with old friends at the conference I managed to carve out a little time to learn more about the city’s amazing history of class struggle. Click the photos below for larger versions.

Vesuvio Cafe and Jack Kerouac—where beat poetry was invented.

Continue reading

CCA and 40th Anniversary of SFU School of Communication

First Peoples Building, University of Victoria

I have had the pleasure of spending the last week here in British Columbia. My first stop was the beautiful city of Victoria and the annual conference of the Canadian Communication Association. The University of Victoria campus was stunning and I very much enjoyed the festive atmosphere of the congress. This was my first time to publicly present the work that I have been doing on the Walmart workers who have recently stood up to the firm and demanded better pay and working conditions. I am excited about this research and I love drawing attention to the efforts of the UFCW and Walmart employees. Their courage and determination are inspiring.

I then left CCA and made the short journey over to Vancouver where I attended an international conference in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. This was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. The conference featured such notables from our field as Jack Qiu, Mark Andrejevic, Dan Schiller, and Richard Maxwell. I was reminded why I was so desperate to come to Canada in the first place. Here was a collection of the world’s best and brightest looking toward the coming collapse and giving careful consideration to the potentials of the post-capitalist age.

Douglas-fir trees with people for scale

For my part I was invited to revisit an old and familiar topic. There was not one but two panels on the audience commodity theory. And though I don’t place any value in the theory I do value the debate and the opportunity to critique the theory in the home department of Dallas Smythe. As I hear so much about the so-called rationalization of audience behavior in the context of new media, I also see an overabundance of shady social media management firms and compromised automated data analytic services. I have developed a deeper economic critique of the notion of demand management as it pertains to user activity and I appreciate the opportunity to give it a test-run at SFU.

It has been both a fun and productive week but I am tired and looking forward to a good night’s rest in my own bed.

Assault on the academy

This post is directed to my comrades in the academy. MOOCs, sub-poverty wages, adjunct jobs, and underemployment are all part of the larger program of class decomposition. Faculty, staff, students, and citizens should do everything in their power to resist these developments. This week I sat in on a tech demonstration where a sales rep showed me how his product could render a near perfect 3D image of my head and place it in a virtual environment alongside hundreds—even thousands—of student avatars. Capitalists will use technology just as much as austerity in their assault on the autonomy of the university. Those committee meetings are arenas of class struggle too my friends. Please don’t forget it. See the link below for a great piece on the neoliberal assault on higher education.

The neoliberal assault on higher education

Some passing thoughts on the materialist conception of history

I like the way the snow crunches under my feet in the night. There is no echo but the sound is anything but dead. I also like the way the old buildings of the St. George campus peer down at me in the dark. They feel Old World though they fall far short of the mark. I am on my way to teach a grad seminar. However, I am lost—on purpose. I still get a thrill ambling around this campus. I wonder to myself, how did this happen? How did I end up here? Why do I feel so different? The crisp air bites at my cheeks and I relish the sensation.

I have been revisiting Marx’s The German Ideology these past few weeks. Written sometime around 1845, Marx and Engels failed to find a publisher for their manuscript. In fact, it would not appear for public consumption until the 1930s, having been abandoned “to the gnawing criticism of the mice…” Continue reading

Free labor and unpaid internships

I am more than a little late with this excellent piece by Enda Brophy, Nicole Cohen, and Greig de Peuter on the exploitation of student labor. I’ve been busy with end-of-semester activities but I wanted to highlight this article before I head out the door for the holidays. It’s an important and sometimes invisible topic. As a professor I am very uneasy about unpaid internships. I want to do all I can to help my students as they prepare to enter the job market but I am leery of internship “opportunities.” There is a perfect storm of high levels of student debt, dwindling employment opportunities, and a surplus of graduates being dumped on the labor market by universities. Yet while jobs may be drying up there seems to be an unending wellspring of unpaid internships. Many of these internships entail crass exploitation of student labor and the concomitant elimination of low wage jobs. Despite the hackneyed adage that internships are a great way for employers to give much needed experience to future job seekers it cannot be denied that this is a particularly vulnerable subset of workers. As the authors assert, “Once an intern, it is difficult to take a stand against one’s exploitation. Internships effectively have gag orders built into them. No matter how distasteful their quasi-job, few interns would jeopardize the bait (graduating to full-time, a glowing reference) or annihilate their reputation for being “agreeable” by speaking out.” So hats off to Nicole, Greig, and Enda. Read the full article at:

Interns unite! (You have nothing to lose – literally)

Walmart petitions NLRB to prohibit picketing ahead of Black Friday Strike

The giant retailer accused the UFCW of creating ”an uncomfortable environment” and of placing “undue stress on Wal-Mart’s customers, including families with children.” No word yet from Walmart’s general counsel on the uncomfortable environment caused by the gutting of small town businesses, poverty wages, and their attempts to deny collective bargaining for the 1.4 million U.S. workers responsible for the company’s enormous financial success. This is a desperate attempt by the retailer to deny workers the rights of free speech and public demonstration and has little support in the law. For more see the link below.

Walmart takes legal action in labor battle

NCA in Florida

My last vacation to Florida was an excruciating and miserable affair. Moreover, the last couple of times I have done this conference I have come away underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of good stuff going on at NCA. It’s just that it’s a huge conference and my panels and presentations have been weak in the past. This time around I am on a really great panel with some awesome people. So hopefully things will be better this time. I am presenting on the labor of distribution in the context of online gift economies. My general assertion is that by relying on the formalist framing of rational economic actors, many critical scholars and neoclassical economists have missed the social dimensions of this particular mode of exchange. On the other hand, if we understand economics as a cultural category, rather than a behavioral category, we begin to see the ways in which transactions are recursively conditioned by a host of social structures having little to do with individual rationality or conservation. This is especially true with regard to the online pooling of informational and cultural goods. Continue reading

Black Friday worker action against Walmart

Walmart is the world’s largest private employer and is absolutely vicious in its hostility toward labor. Resistance to abysmally low pay and poor working conditions has been fomenting for months as workers have spontaneously gone on strike at several Walmart locations. Now workers are attempting to harness the potential of online social media to facilitate a much larger mobilization of labor. Organizers are calling for a US nationwide strike this Black Friday (the Friday after Thanksgiving which is one of the most popular shopping days of the year). This Black Friday support the 2 million plus workers who have made Walmart one of the most financially successful companies in history as they fight for their fair share of the value which they produce. To learn more and find out what you can do to support these workers see below.

Making Change At Walmart
Making Change at Walmart Facebook page