Creating Technology for Social Change

Is Participation Exploitation?

Our Intro to Civic Media class has spent several weeks discussing different ways that people can participate in society using the Internet. We have discussed citizen watchdogs, community associations, public discourse, Internet pressure groups, public demonstrations, counterpublic cultures, radical magazines, and even the political value of the music versus what is achieved through elections. Although we did speak briefly about business models for the news in the first week we have thus far set aside the question of the labor that is implied by participation.

Is participation online just another name for exploitation? Our readings this week present three views on this: Tiziana Terranova argues that it Internet business thrives on free labour which is a form of self-exploitation. David Hesmondhalgh offers a more nuanced response which takes into account a broader understanding of value than compensation. Finally, Andrew Lowenthal of Indymedia argues for the possibility of the Internet to organise prosocial economic structures which alternatives to the typical venture-funded Internet company. I am going to focus on the first two.

In “Free Labor,” Terranova primarily aims to challenge utopian visions and dichotomies which prevent us from seeing participation online as potentially-exploitative labour. The popular wisdom of Internet culture, Terranova puts it, sees Internet work as liberating and fulfilling. In this view, workers can stay home and experience a flexible lifestyle, enjoying the pleasures of creative production, the opposite of the Fordist capitalist approach of highly constraining work environments. Terranova aims to burst this utopian vision by pointing out the long hours, stressful working conditions, and lack of self-realisation among many working Internet content producers. She also points out the commodification of contributed content by non-employees and the sale of online communities to large corporations as a possible form of exploitation.

Terranova’s piece, published in 2000, feels very outdated in 2011. The AOL writer of 90s Internet companies has been replaced by content farms and Mechanical Turk. Social networks now compete over access to customers’ data and the profit potential of social platforms. Startups and their boards have become more sensible about our funding and labour, as we grow our understanding of just what kind of thing a tech startup is.

Writing in Ephemera in 2010, David Hesmondhalgh offers a more nuanced and up-to-date viewpoint. Comparing Internet labour to issues of carer compensation, argues that compensation is only one part of the value that people bring to creative work online. After a well written review of previous work, he urges an accurate, detailed impression of labour conditions online in respect to specific sectors and companies, rooted in a definite understanding of exploitation.

Hesmondhalgh draws from the writings of Erik Olin Wright to argue that exploitation involves three things:

  • the material dependence of one class on another’s deprivation
  • a system which necessarily excludes workers from property and other means of production
  • the appropriation of labour to continue the above conditions

Hesmondhalgh cites Mark Andrejevic’s concern that labour freely given to participate on open source projects or youtube videos cannot be considered exploitative on these terms. He does however point out that some online cultures seem to offer a dishonestly-glamorous vision of creative lifestyle which is not only a lie but is also unachievable for most of its aspirants. I personally see this as a major problem for participation on the Internet, where we all-too-easily perform an incomplete version of ourselves, boosting our personal brands by displaying an impossibly-imaginary life. The number of people misled into dead end non-careers far outnumbers those who succeed at this lifestyle.

Hesmondhalgh says it’s not so bad. He asks, quite reasonably, “are we really meant to see people who sit at their computers modifying code or typing out responses to TV shows as ‘exploited’ in the same way as those who endure appalling conditions and pay in Indonesian sweatshops? Clearly not.” He explores the possibility in depth but concludes eventually that related issues, such as unpaid internships, constitute greater inequalities and are more worth political effort.

Things might not be so bad in general, but how can we notice when things are bad for such and such a company? Hedmondhalgh offers some suggestions:

  • Short-term jobs prevent planning
  • Short-term work prevents work from becoming “the basis of meaningful self-realisation”
  • Creative labour may not receive social respect, although this varies by community
  • Limited autonomy over what happens with workers’ own creative work
  • Autonomy which comes with wagers which are insufficient for making a living
  • Self-exploitation (working hard to reach positions which don’t exist)
  • Burnout from the need to keep up
  • The blurring of work and leisure, which may prevent actual rest

Hedmondhalgh is writing from the UK, which has a National Health System. In countries without such a system, short-term jobs often leave workers without health insurance, which is a significant life risk.

Although this is an important discussion, I don’t think that arguments about open source and content farms bear directly on the question of labour and participation. The more salient questions for participation are only briefly touched on in our readings:

  • What are the implications of carrying out public discourse in online venues owned by corporations? Do we need online versions of the public square and town hall, funded by public money?
  • If we acknowledge that we can’t expect people to run a society for free, what kind of jobs do we need to create and fund by whatever means in order to ensure the kind of society we want?