Rise of Facebook in the USA and WeChat in China: Commodification of Users

Rise of Facebook in the USA and WeChat in China: Commodification of Users

Naziat Choudhury (Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1041-4.ch014

Abstract

The owners of Facebook and WeChat repeatedly promote their media as the preferred platform for people to connect. Improving social relationships was marketed as the reason for their innovation. But users' urge to unite on these OSN services alone cannot explain the success of these media in the US and China. There is a different or rather new business approach underpinning these OSN services that contribute to their success. The author argues that there is an implication of owners' profit-based interest in ensuring the popularity of their online platforms. Audience commodity analysis as discussed by Dallas W. Smythe and Christian Fuchs is employed in the contexts of the US and China to comprehend the complex factors related to online social media owners' interest and their negotiation with the government in online media's prosperity. Through archival research including examination of newspapers, policy documents from OSN-based companies, and survey results from 2015 to mid-2018, this chapter demonstrates the political economy of Facebook and WeChat.
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Background

Audience commodity analysis as discussed by Dallas W. Smythe (1981) and Christian Fuchs (2016) is employed in the contexts of the US and China to comprehend the complex factors related to online social media owners’ interest as well as their negotiation with the government in online media’s prosperity. It is important to focus on the influence of government regulation and surveillance of OSN services. These companies function within laws and regulations set by the government of a country. Governments design and create a market economy which structures the way a company will run. Examples of these can be the structure of taxation and private data ownership and control in the case of OSN-based companies.

The limited inquiry on the political economy perspective of OSN services in China (in the English language) was evident while conducting this research. The central focus of the majority of research papers was censorship or use practices. The Chinese Internet scenario poses unique characteristics that separate it from others; namely, the obvious state control over the Internet activities. In the case of OSN services, Benney (2014) argues that the Internet in China was another tool for state control. He further argued that the Internet interfaces were designed in a way that the users were unconsciously led to use the technology in a certain manner conformed to the Chinese state and market. This, he showed, was congruent with Sina Weibo (Benney, 2014).

This article demonstrates how the companies of OSN services are monetising and commodifying the “attention economy” of media users (Goldhaber, 1997, para. 3; Christophers, 2010; Trottier, 2016). The greater the number of users of an online platform, the greater the potential for possible revenue. Following the work of Dallas Smythe (1981) on the audience commodity, this paper explores the way advertising has driven the development of OSN features. In turn, the advertising market is the basis for financial success with OSN services across China and the US. Christian Fuchs (2016) demonstrates that online social platforms have two forms of economies: the advertising economy and the finance economy. In the advertising economy, owners earn revenues from advertisement sales. In the finance economy, these owners of OSN services raise stock prices by “sell[ing] shares to investors” (Fuchs, 2016, p. 35).

Key Terms in this Chapter

User Data: All information and content collected and stored about a social media user by the government and/or companies of social media.

Political Economy: The interdisciplinary study of the relationship between economy and politics.

Government surveillance: A situation where the government observes the activities of an individual and group to collect information on them and in some cases it may affect their privacy.

Online Social Networking Services: Social platforms on the Internet that are created by building online profiles with valid email address. These are used to communicate and share contents with others.

Attention Economy: A concept where media, in a modern competitive market, tries to gain and keep the attention of the audience to its channel, newspaper or online service.

Audience Commodification: A political economy concept related to media. Audiences contribute to media companies’ profit-making process both as worker and buyer. But they gain no financial profit.

Social Media Policies: Policies created and followed by the social media companies to conduct their activities and business.

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