Social media platforms can be deem as an open book: on their versatile interfaces which is changing all the time, people can perceive a huge number of amazing communication acts, “from mundane gestures to revolutionary ones, from intimate exchange to the rise of new global public spheres”(Langlois & Elmer, 2013, p. 1). As Facebook, Twitter and other web 2.0 platforms grew, they made efforts for enhancing our connection to the world, giving individuals the chance to make voice and be heard when offering entertainment at the same time(Braun & Gillespie, 2011). However, as Mosco(2009) pointed out, “new media are now develope opportunities to commodify content because they are fundamentally grounded in the process of digitization, which refers specifically to the transformation of communication”(p. 135). In this essay, regarding individuals’ understanding, interaction, interpretation and perception, no matter written or spoken, as the public discourse on the social media platforms, the commodification of this media discourse has bring three kinds of consequences as follows: firstly, users’ privacy is being violated with nearly no compensation when their private information is commercialized into a product and sold to the third parties; secondly, the inequality of power between users and platforms is intensified as the civic discourse can be manipulated by power groups through the commodification procedure; thirdly, for the sake ok economic profits, platforms may use improper strategies to boost click numbers of their media content, such as fake news or exaggerating articles with clickbait headlines, in order to attract advertisers, which in turn do harm to the long-term development of social media platforms, even the media society.
‘Discourse’ has becoming a common and familiar term in social research fields for decades, with its fundamental insights brought by Michel Foucault. Although there is no universal and deterministic definition of discourse yet(Temnikova & Vorobeva, 2016), scholars are still trying to further define and explain it within different contexts. Jorgensen and Phillips (2002) put forward a preliminary concept of discourse as “a particular way of talking about and understanding the world (or an aspect of the world), and a form of social action that plays a part in producing the social world-including knowledge, identities and social relations” (p. 9). Dabirimehr and Fatmi (2014) have the similar argument, claimed that “people’s view, social identities and relations are the products of discourse” (p. 1283), besides, our representations of the world are also products of discourse(Burr, 1995; Gergen, 1985). By and large, in many cases, the word ‘discourse’ is the general idea about people’s interpretation and perception when they understand the reality and aspects of the world(Rear, 2013; Van Brussel et al., 2019), and discourse “is not restricted to spoken or written language, but is extended to a wider set of social practices”(Torfing, 2005, p. 6). Moreover, based on Foucault’s elementary analysis of discourse, items such as ‘power’, ‘ideology’ and ‘knowledge’ cannot be ignored when it comes to discourse, they are linked and implied with each other(Foucault & Gordon, 1980; Daudp, 1983; Escobar, 1984; Jorgensen & Phillips, 2002; Torfing, 2005).
In this digital age, with the development of technological information, social media platforms have brought great convenience to people’s daily life. Unlike the case of traditional media (such as newspapers and television), users can now give feedback immediately to what they see, hear or read on social media platforms, and interact with others at the same time, which means they are not merely passive recipients anymore(O’Keeffe, 2010). Meanwhile, during that interactive procedure, comments and other usage behaviors are serving as a democratic function to “provide a forum for civic discourse” (Allan, 2009, p.281), and those public discourse be accurately recorded by the unthinkable huge database of social media platforms, whether spoken or written. As O’Keeffe (2010, p.441) concluded, “media discourse is a public, manufactured, on-record, form of interaction.” Here ‘public’ also has its special significance, it means “both a quality of information and an amorphous social aggregate whose members share a community of interest (Gerbner, 1985, p.14).” Such public discourse on social media platforms contains a certain item of knowledge, giving chances to individuals for sharing collective feelings with each other. As a result, “the platform has become the substrate of our social interactions, the means by which human relationships are formed and maintained”(Abdo, 2018).
With such powerful and meaningful functions as mentioned above, the truth that social media platforms and the public discourses they converge are playing a salient role in people’s life is self-evident. However, social media platforms may transform public discourse in ways users are not completely aware of, sometimes fostering public discourse means “moderating and silencing the voices of individuals”(Braun & Gillespie, 2011, p.394), while sometimes the communications are harnessed by these platforms in order to monetize it (Langlois & Elmer, 2013), which is reflected by the procedure of commodification. When talking about commodification, Canadian scholar Mosco(2009) usefully defined it as “the process of transforming things valued for their use into marketable products that are valued for what can bring in exchange ” (p. 127), and new media are expanding opportunities “to commodify content(including data, words, images, motion pictures and sound)” (p. 135). It is undeniable that driven by the market economy, commercialization and commodification might, to a certain extent, accelerate the development as well as expansion of social media platforms, nevertheless, increasingly widespread or even excessive commodification of public discourse could have an adverse impact on not only social media platform itself but also the whole society, as Jorgensen and Philips(2002) pointed out: “ struggles at the discursive level take part in changing, as well as in reproducing, the social reality” (p. 15).
For the public discourse of social media platform, one of the direct consequences of this kind of commodification is that users’ privacy is being violated. Most of the web 2.0 applications (such as Facebook, Twitter, Weibo) rely heavily on user-generated content as individuals upload their information to form the media discourse in that open platform(Kang & McAllister, 2011), however, after collecting member data, media platforms then package and commodify those valuable information into a marketable product which can be sold to the third parties to achieve their economic goals, and users are usually uninformed during this process(Cohen & Shade, 2008; Mosco, 2009). As Fuchs(2011) claimed:
The privately generated user data and the individual user behavior become commodified on Facebook. This data is sold to advertising companies so that targeted advertising is presented to users and Facebook accumulates profit. […] It is nontransparent for most users what kind of information about them is used for advertising purposes, and that users are not paid for the value creation they engage in when using commercial web 2.0 platforms and uploading data. p.160
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Through this way, comments, feedback, interactive information, usage behavior, personal data and user-generated content, all these media discourses are being commodified, violating users’ privacy with nearly no compensation. As Kang and McAllister(2011) concluded, in fact, the essence of new media technology’s interactivity is giving rise to a huge loss of privacy among users.
Based on the invasion of users’ private information, another consequence of such commodification of public discourse on social media platform is that, by manipulating the social discourse, the inequality of power between users and platforms might be intensified. Social media platforms are supposed to be the place where individuals can perceive the world and make their voices freely, but as mentioned before, public discourse can be harnessed, as Escobar(1984) claimed: “The production of discourse is controlled, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures” (p. 379). During those procedures, the “power groups” might manipulate public discourse due to political influence, economic interests or other reasons, thus individuals are receiving the ‘filtered’ or incomplete information(van Dijk, 2006), without even noticing it, and it is commodification which lays the foundation for such manipulation since the discourses can be sold as a “product”. Through the whole process, individuals have less power of initiative to know what ,why and how the certain kind of information is shown on their pages. Take one of the biggest and most popular social media platforms in China, ‘Sina Weibo’, as an example. On Weibo user’s “main page”(through which they get access to the activities, posts and comments from their Weibo friends), there is a row of tabs at the bottom, and the button in the middle is called “Discover”, users can click this button to see the trending hashtag of Weibo, which is updated every ten minutes. At the very beginning, the existence of the trending topics was to make it more convenient for users to explore what is happening around the world and make instant interactions with each other. However, nowadays, that list of hot search topics has become a commercial product that can be bought and manipulated, and the price is depending on the ranking order of the topic list. In order to promote their products or services, many companies and organizations pay a large amount of money to buy the trending hashtag, so that users can see these topics at first glance when they browse the web page, the more people click that topic, the higher it ranks in the list, at the same time, companies can also pay money to online supporters for creating more content to the hashtag. When the hits reach to a certain number, there will be a label “Blow up news” attached to the topic, having the most attractive effect on Weibo to individuals. What is more, when some breaking news happen and become the real trending topic on Weibo, if it is negative to someone(such as celebrity) or certain group(such as company or organization), the comments and reposts can also be deleted or blocked from the topic lists by spending money to the platform. In this way, the trending hashtag, as well as all the comment under that tag, has lose its meaning as a form of public discourse and become a commercial product instead. Those who have money or power to manipulate the trending topic can thus maximize their economic interests and further expand it with the data they gathered, and control or block negative public opinions on the Internet when something bad happens. When the online discussion is bought by companies to publicize their merchandize or service, users may have to face a lot of unconcerned information when they are surfing the internet, and when the real trending hashtag is deleted by companies to control the public comments, users further lose their power to make their voices for what they really care. Temnikova and Vorobeva(2016) once claimed that “individual’s participation is important since the perception of the media materials affect particular culture of the society” (p. 2), that perception and interactive participation cultivate civic notions of what is significant and what is right(Gerbner, 1985), but when that media materials are serving as a product and can be manipulated by the person or group who has more power, how could individuals distinguish what is important, how could they represent for themselves by forming their discourse and how could their perception become neutral and useful for bringing beneficial changes to the whole society? In the meantime, power has responsibility for constructing the social world as well as the ways in which the world is created and can be discussed(Jorgensen & Phillips, 2002), but when that power is unequal and assembled by certain groups, it might be difficult to form a benign social world.
Last but not least, the third consequence of commodification of public discourse on social media platform is the pervasion of exaggerated, even fake news or articles with advertisement for attracting more users since the clicks can be commodified by the company to gain benefits, and this may do harm to the credibility of social media platforms. “In a multi-channel environment, where each media user has an almost indefinite number of texts to choose from” (Bolin, 2007, p. 246), companies are trying to explore new approaches to secure their economic profits when charging media audiences for content has become more and more difficult(Bolin, 2007), under this circumstance, commodifying the discourse is no doubt a useful and popular method for them, which means they can publish brand-related information to gain the money from advertise agencies, since they have thousands even millions of potential consumers-their subscribers. To achieve this, it is crucial for media firms to try to grasp the audiences at the first time when they browse the pages, especially when the click number is relevant to the earnings: the more pageviews, the more possibility for selling the advertisement. Therefore, in order to attract the audience’s attention, more and more eye-catching content are produced to make gimmicks, even some of them are based on incomplete or even untrustworthy information(van Dijk, 2006). For instance, in China, as the biggest and the most popular social media platform, WeChat has a lot of convenient and powerful functions, one of them is public accounts. Based on personal interests, by subscribing public accounts on WeChat, users can receive newsfeed or read articles published by those accounts, and give their comments or share it with their friends. However, when companies who own the official accounts realized that they can commodify their messages, images and articles into a commercial product, things begin to change. They take the funds of advertising company and then put product placement into their articles, like Kang and McAllister pointed out:
Media companies produce content that attract audiences and encourage, trick, or seduce viewers to watch the accompanying advertisements. […] Audiences, in turn, watch “free” media content as well as advertisements delivered along with them, and some of those who are persuaded by the advertisements eventually buy the advertised products. p.144
At the very beginning, individuals may be allured to read those commercial content, but when this strategy become a commonplace phenomenon, they become vigilant, reluctant, even cancel their subscription for the official accounts. Meanwhile, with more and more official accounts’ emergence, advertising agencies at the same time have more choices to consider which public account has the most clicks in order to efficiently facilitate their advertisement, thus the competition between different public accounts on WeChat platform become more intensive, and holders of those accounts begin to develop various strategies to attract their subscribers in order to boost click numbers and then attract advertisers. Some of them use clickbait headlines which is incongruent with the details of the newsfeed, while some of them even fabricate facts to create sensational articles for attracting more pageviews, and therefore misinformation might be spread by those misleading topics and content(Chesney et al., 2017). Gradually, bombarded by the overwhelming newsfeed with worrying quality, users may find less cultural and social meaning of those media discourse. Like Allan(2009) argued, “When the public is less interested in civic news and when the quality of the news is on the decline, the basis for informed public discourse is undermined”(p. 44). Discourse is the essential constitution of producing “the subjects we are, and the objects we can know something about”(Jorgensen & Phillips, 2002, p. 19), and different discourses can reflect different perception of the world, which “lead to different social actions, and therefore the social construction of knowledge and truth has social consequences(Burr, 1995; Gerbner, 1985, p. 268-269). If the public discourse on social media platform is in low quality or is driven by economic interests, it is inevitable that people’s interaction and perception will be influenced, users may lose confidence to the social content as well as the commercial platforms, which is detrimental to the long-term development of media and communication system.
Take Michel Foucault and many other scholars’ previous research on ‘discourse’ as the theoretical foundation, this essay tried to explain a general idea about public discourse, especially in the social media domain. Based on that, as commodification of public discourse is becoming more and more common in this digital age, without denying the possible advantage of this phenomenon, this essay summarized three kinds of adverse consequences of the commodification process. Firstly, users are losing their privacy when they participate the online activities on social media platforms, the public discourse-all their comments, posts, as well as usage behaviors can be commercialized and sold to others without users’ fully agreement. Furthermore, some certain groups with more power can manipulate the civic discourse due to economic, political or other reasons, when the discourse itself can be monetized to a commercial product, and individuals are less powerful to resist or change this situation; Lastly, in order to attract more users and advertisers, more and more fake news and marketing information are published by the platforms, since they can gain economic benefits by commodifying those content. What must be acknowledged is, there may exist other consequences of commodification of public discourse by social media platforms, which this essay did not include. As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, claimed in his book that he deems “ the world will be better if you share more”(Culter, 2010), and the company is making efforts to enhance the communication between people, by indicating the possible results of the commodification phenomenon, this essay believes that, the social media platform should do help to create a better world, not a more commercial world.