Reviewing the Audience Commodity Debate to Begin Anew: Audience Labor from the Audience Commodity to Digital Labor

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Audience labor is a concept that remains undeveloped in the political economy of communication despite the significant attention paid to digital labor in twenty-first century scholarship. This article traces the place of audience labor in political economy from Smythe’s theory of the audience commodity to recent theories of digital labor, demonstrating that the concept received only minimal attention after it was introduced by Smythe in 1977 and is absent from theories of digital labor. The undeveloped state of the concept of audience labor is shown to have been a source of error in theories of the relationship between communication and capital accumulation in previous scholarship, including recent work on digital labor. Audience labor is argued to be a key to understanding the way in which communication processes are treated as processes of capital accumulation in ongoing developments and in the long history of communication as capital. This article argues for renewed attention to audience labor, including as a specific kind of digital labor.

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