Many of the most well known internet platforms and apps such as Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, etc. are fundamentally dependent on user generated content. Without it, they have nothing to offer to attract or retain users. On the face of it, this would suggest that the balance of power between the companies running the platforms/apps and the users should skew towards the users.
Experience over the last couple of years during which these services have grown however suggests a strong power imbalance in the other direction. ‘Terms and Conditions’ of these services routinely specify wide ranging rights for the platform/app provider to the use of the provided content, many changes to the service or service conditions have been pushed through regardless of protest from the users, and many of the platform/app providers have accumulated a great deal of wealth through commercial dealing, e.g. advertising deals, that use the information that was provided by their users. The users in the meanwhile have had to content themselves with the (monetarily-)free usage of the platform/app where that they are contributing their content to, also for free.
Observations concerning this power imbalance, and a sense injustice concerning the way in which contributed content is managed and monetized, have for a long time lead to continuous grumblings by users, with periodic call for some kind of action, e.g. calls for mass-exodus from Facebook. While Facebook or other platform/app providers may occasionally adjust some of its minor decision based on public demands, on the whole these call for action have in the past had mostly little or no effect. Within this context, the news that a ‘strike’ by Reddit volunteer moderators had forced the exit of the Reddit company’s CEO was received with much surprise. Could this be a sign of things to come? Will there be a labour unions for content providing social media users?
While there are indeed efforts under way to establish such an ‘Immaterial Labour Union‘, it is important to note that the position, and therefore the power, of the Reddit volunteer moderators is significantly different from that of most user content providers on social networks. Compared to the user base of social network sites, the moderators of Reddit are a substantially smaller number of people acting as gate keepers. Their, relatively, small number makes organizing of protests easier since far fewer people have to be coordinated. At the same time their gate-keeper position means that any strike action by them has a multiplied effect on the usage of the site. Does this mean that strike action by content providing users of other social media sites is impossible to succeed? Probably not, but it will be a lot harder to achieve.