MA Thesis Teaser: ‘Commons vs. Commodification’

Background & Rationale

The task of the my Master’s thesis in the working is to study the relation of the commons and commodification processes on social media platforms. The commons are, based on the work of political economist Elinor Ostrom, to be understood as a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas (Ostrom 1990), whereas commodification, from a critical political economy perspective, refers to the “process of transforming use values into exchange values” (Mosco 1996 141). Internet researchers often neglect to critically engage with issues of power, digital labor, and processes of commodification when engaging with so-called ‘social media’ phenomena. Furthermore, important questions revolving around ownership and the commons are frequently left out. Using a relevant case study exemplifying commodification processes of the communication commons, the thesis is striving to connect theoretical issues around power structures, political struggles, participatory democracy, and the strengthening of the commons with empirical data.

Taking a historical perspective of existing capital accumulation strategies online and further situating current developments on the interconnection of Internet and society within that frame, potential developments and futures can be identified. A discussion of often-forgotten early and non-commercial applications of the WWW (e.g.,  Usenet) will remind the reader of the initial promises of the Web. In this light, the history of the Internet and the WWW can, departing from the usual utopian discourse, be told as a story of increasing commercialization, from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to the IPO of Facebook, and  therefore as a story of struggle between commerce and the commons, where commodification is a “typical threat” to the knowledge commons (Hess & Ostrom 2011 5).  Arm in arm goes the history of consumer culture and advertising, both shaping and shaped through the emergence of the Internet.

An analysis of sites fitting into the ‘social media’ frame promises fruitful results since the strive for a co-operative society is, at least in theory, especially alive in those realms.Taking the case of social media platforms dedicated to provide alternative ways of traveling as empirical grounds, the research strives to illustrate that the current model of informational capitalism potentially endangers societally valuable projects by commercializing the ownership structures; the resulting strive for profit (and not necessarily user satisfaction) may have threatening  and negative consequences for all potential users and society at large. A discussion will add to and build upon recent work such as Sandoval (2014), questioning the social in ‘social media’, or Fuchs (2014) elaborating on issues of unpaid digital labour of Internet prosumers. Thoughts going beyond the corporate ownership of social media platforms allow a vision of what potentials could be found in ‘truly social’ media and a common-based Internet. Touching on key questions on the public sphere and public debate, the “exploitation of public discourse for corporate interests is a rather undeveloped line of possible research” (Biltereyst & Meers 2011 428), thus this thesis aims towards such a contribution by providing a theoretical discussion about the workings of power and the commons and then empirically examining current developments around social media platforms in the light of critical Internet theory.


Biltereyst, D. & Meers, P., 2011. The Political Economy of Audiences. In J. Wasko, G. Murdock, & H. Sousa, eds. The Handbook of Political Economy of Communications. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fuchs, C., 2014. Digital Labour and Karl Marx, New York: Routledge.

Hess, C. & Ostrom, E. eds., 2011. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, Boston: MIT Press.

Mosco, V., 1996. The Political Economy of Communication, London: Sage.

Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandoval, M., 2014. From Corporate to Social Media, London: Routledge.

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