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Jennifer Pybus, Affect and Subjectivity: A Case Study of Neopets.com

One of the most popular websites targeting the tween (kids between 8-12) demographic is a virtual pet game called Neopets.com. In June 2005, Viacom purchased the site for $160 million, an acquisition they hoped would become a lucrative new revenue stream. In part, this would come from Neopet’s unique and groundbreaking marketing strategy known as “immersive advertising”—a form of seamless, interactive on-line product placement. This would also come from the information that is continuously being gathered from users and being “shared” with various “third parties” (Neopets). And so, with over 30 million users and generating more than four billion hits a month, Viacom is using Neopets as a platform to construct new networked relations between youth and marketers. While it is not unique for a corporation to seek new sites to expand its market, what differentiates this particular website is the way in which affect has been built into its structure. In short, Neopets is much more then a virtual space to play video games, it is a community of users who are emotionally invested in caring for their pets alongside the network of economic and social relations that they operate within.

One of the primary goals of this paper will be to explore the way in which affect is being taken up within a steadily-growing body of contemporary work written by Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Juan Martin Prada. I am equally interested in how affect can be understood as a modality of biopower when it is mobilized to produce new subjectivities of consumption. To accomplish this, I will position this concept as a strategic mode of extension within capitalist market relations. Next I will highlight how affect has been taken up within a new advertising practice known as ‘Lovemarks’— a strategy aimed at building long-term, affective relations with consumers—as my contention is that this marketing practice is extremely complimentary to the concepts and theoretical trajectory I will describe. Finally, I will conclude my paper by returning to Neopets.com as a case study.

Affect

On the surface, studying affect within the context of capitalist market relations may appear somewhat trite. One may be asking what value there is in studying emotions or cringe at the possibility of this discursive frame falling too deeply into an intangible. Yet if economic relations are always also social relations, then perhaps the concept of affect can help us better understand how these relational dynamics get constituted.

To gain at a clearer understanding of what is meant by affect, Brian Massumi offers a good starting point. For him, affect is not simply an emotion as used in the every day sense; rather, it can be employed as it was by Spinoza, denoting the process by which we experience the world around us. This process is active and can interrupt the way in which meaning gets both constructed and understood (Massumi 212). Ultimately, this raises interesting questions around agency and more specifically about the political possibilities of mobilizing a more engaged subject. Equally, however, this activation is deployed by advertisers competing to expand their market share by forging strong relationships with consumers through the production of dynamic subjectivities. Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi argues that “study after study has proven that if the emotional centers of our brain are damaged in some way we don’t just lose the ability to laugh or cry, we lose the ability to make decisions.” (Roberts 42). What’s more he argues, quoting Donald Calne, the former Director of the Neurodegenerative Disorders Centre at the University of British Columbia, “the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions” (Calne qtd. in Roberts 42). Thus to return to Spinoza, affect is an active process by which meaning gets produced and understood.

On-line, interactive websites such as Neopets.com can become ‘ideal’ virtual spaces for the production of affect as users come into contact with one another. Within these networked relations, cultural meaning gets produced and circulated by users. Corporations are eager to capitalize on this flow of intangibles, setting up their websites to function like a database—intensely mining the immaterial data of its users. This immaterial extraction of information has been called immaterial labour, a concept developed by the autonomist theorist Maurizio Lazzarato and made prominent by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire. Briefly, it describes the labour that utilizes information (i.e. knowledge workers) and which produces the cultural content of commodities. It also signifies the affective component of labour—ranging from the caring and well-being, traditionally the realm of ‘women’s work’, to the social relations which are the focus of my paper. Within this context, affect can be interpreted as a constitutive element of immaterial labour (Coté and Pybus), referring not directly to the production of emotion but rather to that which manipulates the “feeling of ease, well being, satisfaction, excitement or passion” (Hardt and Negri 108). In other words, there is an interrelationship between affective and immaterial labour which in part, propels affinities with particular subjectivities, mobilizing action and interaction between the subject and the object if its interpolation.

In an article entitled “Value and Affect,” Negri explores the relationship between immaterial labour and affect. Here he identifies the emerging ‘attention economy’ and focuses on the role interactivity plays in the production of subjectivity. Within this framework, Negri argues that there is an “apparent paradox” between value and labour power, stating:

The more the measure of value becomes ineffectual, the more the value of labour-power becomes determining in production; the more political economy silences the value of the labour force, the more the value of the labour force is extended and affects the global and biopolitical plane. On this paradoxical rhythm labour becomes affect or rather, labour finds its value in affect, in so far as the latter is defined as ‘power to act’ (Spinoza) (Negri).

Affect, in the context that Negri defines, becomes a new driver for the production of surplus value, influencing both use and exchange value. Thus, in Negri’s reinterpretation of Marx’s ‘Theory of Value’, he is less interested in the material relations that increase the value of the commodity, but rather, puts more emphasis on the intangible affects that get both produced and circulated. In turn, the “more the value of the labour force is extended and affects the global and biopolitical plane” the more corporations seek to reproduce ontological affinities between the consumer and the object of its desire, to ensure that profits are maximized.   

Michael Hardt echoes the importance that Negri places on the production of affect in his article entitled “Affective Labour.” With a special emphasis on the information economy, Hardt focuses on the role postmodernization plays in transforming the modern industrial factory. Thus in the neoliberal epoch, “the factory is, with the indispensable aid of information technologies, disseminated into society, deterritorializing, dispersing, and decentralizing its operations to constitute what some autonomists term the diffuse factory or the factory without walls” (Negri qtd. In Dyer-Witheford 80). Wage labour then becomes decentralized, both temporally and spatially, and in some instances becomes indistinguishable from unpaid labour.

The shift in labouring practices points to the beginnings of a new capitalist paradigm that Marx called real subsumption. For Hardt, this process occurs when “capital suffuses the entire form of life. [Thus] to be socialized, is be made productive and to become a subject, is to made a s
ub
ject of value” (Hardt). In part, it is
this quantitative shift in employment which has facilitated “the migration [of jobs] from industry to services” (Hardt). As a result, in place of the factory lies vast networks of culture and communication which produce not just commodities but subjectivities. And so, Hardt argues, “all forms of production exist within the networks of the world market and under the domination of the informational production of services” (Hardt). Affect then becomes central and gets taken up in relation to both immaterial labour and biopower.   

In describing immaterial labour in relation to affect, both Hardt and Negri point to ‘caring labour’. On the one hand, this only begins to give voice to the vast array of feminist literature that exists on the topic, on the other; it speaks to the production of social networks, community and biopower. This articulation suggests that the traditional divide between economic and cultural production of human relations is breaking down—bringing together affect and immaterial labour to form an immanently productive relationship. Thus it is through biopower that the “potential of affect” is fully realized (Hardt).

Enter Foucault here and his paradigm of biopower, which is eminently suited to the kind of immaterial and affective labour we have been discussing. Biopower is not simply that which targets and manages populations, nor is it just “a form of power that regulates social life from its interior” but one that actively produces and reproduces life (Hardt and Negri 23-24). Indeed, as Maurizio Lazzarato points out, “biopolitics is a strategic relation; it is not the pure and simple capacity to legislate or legitimize sovereignty… [it] coordinates and targets a power that does not properly belong to it, that comes from the outside” (Lazzarato). Thus biopower continuously seeks to frame or ‘manage’ life by reconfiguring the dynamic forces it targets. Within this context, one could then argue that affect is a modality of biopower—the binding glue that produces sociality, meaning and life, and thus extends the dynamics of this power. Affect, at least in the way I wish to engage this concept, in accordance with Hardt is ontological—that is, it produces reality by cohering relations. The desire to actively produce meaning through affective relations is not new to marketers. One way in which this immaterial production has been taken up is through what Saatchi and Saatchi (advertising agency) call the Lovemark.

Loving the Lovemark

The Lovemark is presented as the affective solution to the brand crisis. In a marketplace that has become increasingly competitive and cluttered, corporations must work extremely hard for the attention of customers. Furthermore, consumers have become more savvy and aware of the strategies behind brand management, as demonstrated in the “anti-brand sentimentality” popularized by “Naomi Klein and the anti-global gang” (Roberts 35). One marketer smitten by the Lovemark argues it is time to “stop racing after every new fad and focus on making consistent, emotional connections with consumers” (36), thereby, seeking new ways to utilize affect to “build loyalty beyond reason” (65). The logic behind this goal is well articulated by Maurice Levy, Chairman of Publicis Groupe (now owner of Saatchi and Saatchi) who argues:

Consumers who make decisions based purely on facts represent a very small minority of the world’s population. They are people without feelings, or perhaps people who put their heart and emotions in the fridge when they are leaving home in the morning, and only take them out again when they go back home in the evening. Although even for these people, there is always some product or service they buy based on impulse or emotion (42).

To mobilize an affective response, marketers such as those at Saatchi and Saatchi turn to a surprisingly dense body of scientific research to understand how it actively enables subjectivities to both produce meaning and make sense of their everyday life. For example, in formulating the Lovemark, the marketing firm has turned to the work of Dr. Dylan Evans, an independent scholar and ‘emotion researcher’.   

Evans’ work focuses on the production of emotional responses. Thus he breaks these down into two categories: primary and secondary emotions. Joy, sorrow, anger, fear, surprise and disgust are all situated within the former. They represent emotions that are “brief, intense and cannot be controlled” (44). More importantly, they are the least interesting from a marketing perspective because they generally occur without the provocation of another body, making them more difficult to contrive. On the other hand, secondary emotions such love, guilt, shame, pride, envy, or jealousy are social and almost always require the intervention of someone or something to illicit a response. Evans’ research then suggests that these are what “make up the volatile mix [of responses] from which human relationships are formed” (44-45). Arguably, this empirical approach which ultimately instrumentalizes love through the Lovemark, is somewhat contradictory. However, one should not underestimate the long term, caring, and responsive relationships that Saatchi and Saatchi are building for their clients through the various subject positions that are both produced and then consumed alongside the commodities they come to represent.

As a result, Saatchi and Saatchi have made it a corporate strategy to learn everything they possible can about love. The goal of this research is to unlock the secret that accounts for the blind and passionate devotions we have towards people, places or objects. Thus the ephemeral quality of brands has been replaced by an active attempt to build lifelong relationships that continuously promise to extend one’s lifestyle and more importantly oneself. How? Roberts argues that this can only be achieved via a show of respect, as well as “by infusing the brand with mystery, sensuality and intimacy so that it can be recognized immediately as having some kind of iconic place in your heart” (Roberts Interview). In marketing, this involves celebrating the customer’s loyalty by remaining consistent, by generating great stories that are continuously retold, and by accepting responsibility (73). After all, “lovemarks are not owned by the manufacturers, the producers, or the businesses, they are owned by the people who love them” (74). Here once again we are reminded of how affect can ontologize, demonstrating how love builds new subjectivities within a biopolitical terrain. Yet with so much emphasis on the immaterial production of intangible commodities, there is very little discussion about how this gets taken up by the consumer through the new subjectivities being constructed. If we are to take the Lovemark seriously, we must remember that its goal is to make us want to consume more loyally while simultaneously becoming good biopolitical subjects.

Effecting the Affect

Hardt and Negri are extremely thorough in describing the profound shift in Western labouring practices—both inside the factory and out. Yet how does that labour get taken up and mobilized? While one should not negate the important impact that new communicative apparatuses have had on labouring practices, I would argue that attention still needs to be afforded to the effect of the affect. That is, the social component of the economic relations. In practical terms, going back to the Lovemark, one may ask how a heart on a Cheerios box can lead to an increase in the average sale volume of 4.1 percent or $75 million dollars (Roberts 220). Or how “I’m loving it” has taken McDonalds from the verge of economic ruin, to a 17 percent increase in their profit margin, including stocks that are nearing a seven year high (Marketwatch). Affinities with these commodities are being realized on a profound level as people are actively identifying with, and partici

pating within these economic relations
. In short, they are “falling in love”! In order to understand this phenomenon I turn now to the research of Juan Martín Prada.

Prada is presently a lecturer at the Universidad de Cádiz in Spain. His work has slowly begun to circulate in part due to an exhibition he curated in June 2006, entitled vínculo. This project, which combined texts written by Michael Hardt (previously discussed), Franco Berardi (Bifo), as well as by himself, aimed to unpack the “problems that arise regarding the affective nature of biopolitical production, and the processes of desensitisation and automation imposed by cybertime” (Prada A). Complimentary to these written works, were artistic proposals whose aim were to “evoke a whole range of references related to the desires for personal contact and affection through networks”, thereby, intentionally blurring the “borders between care, control, and affectivity” (Prada A). In short, vínculo has tried to marry both the discursive and the iconic representations of affect in an attempt to build new networks of affinity between economic and social relations.

Prada’s article, entitled “Economies of Affect” is important, as it is one of the few pieces in this field which looks not only at how social relations are actively built into commodities but also speaks to the question of why affect is produced and consumed.   To begin, he looks at how power functions within neoliberalism by emphasizing (similar to Hardt and Negri) how it cannot be conceived of as something that operates unilaterally but rather as a “dispositif that is participative, adaptive and reversible” (Prada). This particular kind of flexibility that is built into the way power functions has already been taken up by corporations eager to expand their market share. Intuitively, Prada argues that customers wants to feel valued, noticed and appreciated through feedback loops that offer real and virtual forms of personal attention, thereby allowing the impression of being a ‘friend’ as opposed to a consumer. Thus “the individual serves and is served, by an economy based on desire, affectivity and pleasure, even in the joyful disappearance induced by the entertainment industry” (Prada). Hence there is shift in the capitalist paradigm, also echoed in Negri’s article, where interests are no longer predominantly focused on regulating the exploitation of the subject, but rather seek to manage all of the interpersonal affective qualities and dimensions (Prada).

For Prada, this new biopolitical economy—in which affect is fast becoming one of the central modalities—seeks to manage life through both narration and representation. For example, he argues that when the polarity between affection and disaffection is emphasized and the complexity of the affect is reduced, it creates a scenario that can easily facilitate active participation for reality television programming. In this sense, the characters on these shows are not simply producers of entertainment but producers of affect.   Thus “affectivity may be considered as a job in itself…a privileged point in the new economic dynamic, which invests great efforts in propitiating its intensified experience” (Prada A). What is equally happening is a subjective turn. Here Prada makes a valuable point: “The biopolitical paradigm is fast imposing the consideration of human beings more as the possessors of a life to enjoy and make the most of rather than as political subjects” (Prada A).

In short, we are own architects for the commodified subjectivities that the market produces through the provision of our own immaterial labour. In turn, this gets taken up within what is commonly referred to as the ‘emotional economy’. Thus it is up to us to not only become more reflexive and critical about how these subject positions get produced and valorized, but also to examine our own role within these processes. This is an idea which is extended in my co-written article “Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks.”

Through the example of running and updating a virtual MySpace homepage, new ways in which users are labouring immaterially are discussed. Due to the website’s privacy policy, which is identical to the one put forward by Neopets, all information that is entered can be ‘shared’ with ‘third parties’. Thus vast databases of personalized information are being accumulated that can tell marketers about one’s cultural tastes and preferences. This particular subjective goldmine now belongs to Rupert Murdoch who purchased MySpace for $580 million in 2005 (and, indirectly, to Google which purchased the rights to exclusively sell ads on MySpace for $900 million in August 2006). While some users may not be aware of this new corporate model which profits directly from the information that people input online, many that do realize are not concerned. dannah boyd proposes that this apathy is in part due to the affective dimension inscribed in every user’s profile, which grows as people build their unique public personae (boyd). This affective dimension should not be negated. It is real to the users of MySpace just as it is real to those users of Neopets.com, the original problematic to which I would now like to return.

Neopets.com

Neopets.com is in many respects an evolution of the tamagotchi. It is a virtual pet that needs to be cared for, fed, played with etc. If a Neopet is neglected, it does not actually die but rather enters a state of suspended animation until the owner comes back online and nurses it back to health through various medications that can be bought in the Neopet pharmacy or through the fairy at the Neopet springs (Neopet FAQ). In order for users to care for their pet adequately, they need to earn neopoints, which are then transformed into neodollars. These points are won through a vast number of on-line games that users can play. Once enough capital has been accumulated, they can go to one of the 63 Neopet stores and buy items for their beloved pets. Of course, with the inflation of the Neopet dollar, prices are not cheap so if you cannot afford the $1222 for an item to eat in the restaurant, then there is always the soup kitchen that gives out its chowders for free.

For those would-be entrepreneurs, there are many ways to quickly increase your neodollars. Users can invest in the Neodaq, a simulated stock market or place their savings in the neobank, which boasts high interest rates for savings and earns interest daily on your deposit. Of course, if one chooses to pay $7.99 US a month or $69.95 a year, Neopets users can become a premium account holder. These holders then receive thousands of free neopoints, as well as certain external benefits, which enables them to achieve higher scores and earn more neodollars. However, these accounts are ‘precious’ and only those who are invited by other account holders can have one. Then again, if paying a monthly premium seems like too much, one can also gamble by buying lottery tickets or scratch cards or by playing slots or poker. Users can also try their luck and become their very own entrepreneur by opening up another shop in the Neopet market place. When opening up a business, it is generally recommended to place ads in the Neopet Times, however, one is encouraged to pay for the most expensive ad or else it will appear much smaller and at the bottom of all the rest. Eventually, if a user is able to accumulate enough neodollars (at least 10,000) they can purchase a prized neohome in the posh upscale ‘Spooky Woods’.   

Yet the normative capitalist narrative that suffuses Neopia is not the primary interest of marketers. Rather, it is the site’s ‘stickiness’ factor. What this industry jargon is referring to is the amount of time that one spends both on and interacting with the sight. According to the company’s Press Package, based on a poll done by Media Matrix, the site averages about 5 hours and 24 minutes of user time p

er month, making Neopets (in 2006) t
he second-stickiest site on the Internet, finishing ahead of Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, and eBay.   Corporations such as Disney, General Mills Cereal, McDonalds, Procter and Gamble or Bell Canada (to name but a few) are extremely excited about investing in the Neopets virtual landscape. These sponsors are not just impressed by the amount of traffic and attention the site receives but by their “revolutionary” immersive approach to advertising that has allowed these corporations to instantiate themselves into the very fabric of the website.

In order to operationalize Neopets immersive strategy, Viacom has worked with different companies to design video games that develop affective relationships between the user and the corporations. Thus, one can go into the “cereal adventure” hut and play games such as “lucky charms”—a branded-version of Pac-man—or watch “webisodes” to give you clues on how to help Lucky Charms win back his rainbow power and save the leprechauns. Another example is the Disney Theatre that allows users to watch previews for upcoming films or play games that use their familiar movie characters such a racing ‘Cars’ game. There is also the McDonalds hut where users try to get as many Chicken McNuggets as possible. Then there is the Survey Shack, which promises users thousands of neopoints in exchange for valuable information that is then added to Viacom’s database. Moreover, one can even buy real merchandise in the on-line Neopet store, which includes t-shirts, trading cards, video games, etc…

In analysing Neopets, one could easily argue that it operates as big Lovemark. This is not simply because so many of its users are “addicted” (Wired Magazine) but because of the way it has been able to extend its brand into the everyday lives of its users. Thus the site has built in various discussion forums and message boards alongside an option for account holders to build their own blogs to discuss the daily existence of their pets. This translates into a complex network of information that gets exchanged, ranging from ways to cheat, to becoming famous or even to actively resist the commodified space that the site affords. This intense dialogue interests ‘third parties’, as it represents a wealth of information about Neopets.com’s lucrative demographic. There are also several mechanisms at work to manage life on Neopets.com. An example of these biopolitical machinations can be found in many of blogs, such as in one entitled: “nothingbutNeopets.com,” which tells users what is currently ‘in’. Some excerpts from the December 7, 2006 entry include:

Give your Neogarden both a festive and wintry look with the new Snow Neopets from the Garden Centre. There is a Kacheek, Blumaroo, Grarrl and Chomby.

If you’re pet is looking for a challenge, the Toy Shop is stocking some new origami toys – (exact names not known yet)

If you’re not getting enough of wintertime yet, there is a new winter-themed Background you can add to your desktop.

Wish all your friends Seasons Greetings by sending them one of the new Neogreetings added today.

Going back to my original thesis, we can see via Neopets.com, how affect is being mobilized to produce new subjectivities of consumption. The interactive components of the site have been able to successfully reach out to its numerous users and keep them participating with its various components. Whether this is being executed by playing branded video games or more straightforwardly through the active consumption of items in the Neopet store or even through the downloading various backgrounders or screensavers which contain cookies that the company then uses to find out more about its pet owners. Yet this business model’s long-term success depends upon its pedagogical framework, that is, in its ability to teach its young community members how to labour immaterially. As Prada suggests, this site enables users to become the “possessors of life”. Thus the affect that is built into this interactive community is that which keeps its users coming back day after day, generating the second highest stickiness factor on the internet. The secret then to Neopets’ success is based on actively generating new biopolitical subjects through the affective relations that are built into every crevice of the website.

In conclusion, Neopets.com offers a practical example of why affect—that which propels subjects to act—should be considered as an important modality of biopower. Neopets is generating new subjectivies of consumption to expand not just Viacom’s market share but those of all their sponsors actively seeking to capitalizing on the same affective relations. Thus at the heart of this website is the way in which subjects are being rearticulated through the immaterial labour that they are (un)knowingly engaged in. And it is through this labour that, corporations such as Viacom, can become that much more adept at producing more authentic mechanism for “generating the love”.

Throughout this paper I have argued that the study of affect is worthwhile. It is an emerging field which should be studied more closely and demands pedagogical strategies to unpack the way in which new marketing practices both construct and interpolate subject positions. If indeed we are our own architects within this biopolitical landscape then it is up to us to understand how we are implicated in these networks of economic and social relations.

Works Cited

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Coté M. and Pybus J. ‘Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks’. Ephemera. Forthcoming 2007.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick. Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Foucault, Michel. The Use of Pleasure – Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality. Pantheon Books, 1985.

Hardt, M. “Affective Labour.” visited on 24 Nov. 2006 .

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Kushner, David. “The Neopets Addiction.” Wired Magazine. Visited 1 Dec. 2006. .

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “From Biopower to Biopolitics.” Plì: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy 13 (Foucault). http://www.warwick.ac.uk/philosophy/pli_journal/vol_13.html.

Massumi, B. “Navigating Movements: A Conversation with Brian Massumi.” Hope: New Philosophies for Change. Ed. M. Zournazi. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Moore, Angela. “McDonald’s sees 17% jump in profit Sales rise in September and third quarter.” Marketwatch. 12 Oct. 2006 .

Negri, Antonio. “Value and Affect.” Generation-Online, (N.D.). visited on 24 Nov. 2006 .

Neopets. “Press Kit.” visited 5 Dec. 2006 .

Neopets. “Privacy Policy” visited 24 Nov. 2006 .

Nothing But Neopets. Visited 5 Dec. 2006 .

Prada, Juan Martín. “Affective Link. Policies of affectivity, aesthetics of biopower.” Visited 24 Nov. 2006 .

Prada, Juan Martín(A). “Economies of Affectivity.” Visited 24 Nov. 2006 .

Roberts, Kevin. “Interview: Kevin Roberts.” Frontline: Persuaders. visited 1 Dec. 2006 .

Roberts, Kevin. The Future Beyond Brands: Lovemarks. New York: Powerhouse Books, 2005.

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