Digital Labor


For almost any given game, movie, TV series, or book, you will find a corresponding internet-based circle of fans creating fanart, fanfiction, and a multitude of other fan-originated product about it. This kind of Internet fandom provides companies with valu­able advertising—nearly all of which is uncompensated. When Arianna Huff­ington sold the Huffington Post site to AOL for $315 million, the writers, who contributed to the site without pay, were ignored in the deal. What is unique about these two examples—what ultimately binds them together—is how the border between the freelancer’s labor and the hobbyist’s craft has blurred and how the internet and the rise of new forms of digital labor have made this possible.

Fan labor and freelancer exploitation are also similar in that they serve as primary examples of the possible dark side of “digital labor,” a concept explored by a recent scholarly work of the same name. Digital Labor brings together a number of scholars with Marxist leanings to analyze the char­acteristics and consequences of this social phenomenon. The collection of essays examines the nature of online labor, exploring how it may carry over exploitative economic properties, as well as analyzing the degree of control individual participants maintain over the products they create.

The volume presents a number of useful critiques of digital labor. Bring­ing a Marxist analysis of labor to the digital world does help to point out how the processes of exploitation and alien­ation—in the Marxist sense—are pres­ent online. One of the contributors to the volume, Tiziana Terranova, observes that the mingling of labor and leisure creates a confusion of production and consumption—perhaps most notice­ably in the case of fan-created works. Fan involvement in free platforms—of games, social network sites, or content hosts—becomes the very “labor” that produces the sustained availability of those services through their web traffic.

Yet these insights do not do enough to rescue the book from its analytical shortcomings. The analysis is weakest where the contributors apply a Marxist framework to digital labor in ways that deny the uniqueness of online interac­tions. To view what happens online—be that social networking or product creation—as basically the same thing as non-digital labor doesn’t add much to the discussion. On the whole, the book fails to capitalize on the intrigu­ing contrasts it sets up between this strange convergent point between the work of the freelancer and the work of the hobbyist. The Net requires copious amounts of volunteer work to make it run (see Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, DeviantArt, etc.). Yet in many cases, those unpaid hours of “labor” would hardly be viewed as labor. Only the lucky few gain monetary benefits from their efforts: eSports athletes, high traffic bloggers, and some video or app makers.

So what does this gradual collapse of leisure into labor and consump­tion into production mean, and why does it matter? Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer once warned that mass commercialization would in­exorably lead to businesses cashing in on mass-marketing our basest de­sires. While somewhat severe, their as­sessment (oddly left out of the Digital Labor) highlights how our consump­tive wants can be manipulated by the market. As the marketing branches of major online service providers have learned, they don’t create those wants, but they can respond to and channel them. Yet, if consumption and produc­tion are becoming more tightly bound together, the vicious cycle that Adorno and Horkheimer envisioned may not be that far-fetched.

From a Christian perspective, these developments create an additional challenge. A Christian voice has been largely absent from the formation of online communities, and the new trends discussed in Digital Labor may make that absence even worse. As pro­duction and consumption, leisure and labor, become more intertwined, and the distinction between these pairs becomes vaguer, the circles drawn around individual interests will grow tighter, keeping in the few things valued by each and keeping ev­erything else out. The church’s ability to speak into those narrow worlds of interest would then diminish beyond its already reduced state.

It remains unclear whether the church has good answers to these is­sues or what it even means to have good answers. While there is the pos­sibility of creating of an online sub-culture—or parallel culture—akin to how Christian cultures have flourished in the United States, that would merely reify the separation. But the problem can’t just be ignored. Increasing num­bers of people will have little cognitive space for any interest in the church and her claims when they are busy ex­periencing and recreating their own sources of fun and enjoyment.

Cole Carnesecca

Cole Carnesecca is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.