Creating Technology for Social Change

Recap of Intro to Civic Media, Week 6: Free Cultural Labor

This post was co-written with the help of Loki. Thanks to the rest of the class for helping us keep good notes!

We start off this week’s class with a quick recap of our blog posts from the previous class, discussing our various models of social change. Joanna describes her Magic School Bus-inspired story, tying it back into her project proposal of analyzing different commenting systems. She and Sasha discussed different domain areas of online commenting as civic media, such as systematic commenting and linkspamming. The model of change described in the story involves a chain of linked tweets and a YouTube comment cascading into a greater petition. The wider debate underlying the story, of course, involves clicktivism—do things like mass emails and online petitions really make a difference? Sasha says that there are hierarchies of value and weighting systems that determine when an elected official will actually pay attention to a particular issue.

Shidash summarized his post on the whistleblowing cycle of change: whistleblowing is geared towards bringing about change, whether it be policy change or atittude change. As he points out, the two often work in parallel. His final project for the class is going to be an analysis of how whistleblowers proceed, and the effectiveness. Sasha poses an open question about the relationship between investigative journalism and whistleblowing, which Shidash will explore further as he works on his project.

Aditi discussed processes, especially by larger groups, that are designed to encorporate public input. Change starts with a group of people—state actors are always thinking about ways to engage these constituents. Aditi wants to look at these community projects and programs, particularly where that input goes. Does it actually contribute to long-term social change, or must there actually be a more involved organized movement?

Sasha draws parallels to how people can pause and talk about relationships, and make adjustments. He believes that change processes are highly contextual; one of the important functions of social movements is to put people in places of power, within the state or corporation. This could look like getting more women on a board of directors, or electing the first African-American president. The question is, once you have a seat at the table—once you’re inside the machinery—how do you gather input from the community you’re from and actually put the intended changes into effect? Aditi tells us about Rachel Stern, NY’s first chief digital officer and wonders what kinds of outcomes are actually coming out of that position. Is it an issue of branding, or is she actually engaging with citizens?

Becky brings up the mayor’s office of new urban mechanics (City of Boston), which seeks to engage more people in civic action and civic life by gathering their opinions and input. Aditi contrasts the office with Stern’s role, as they focus on more tangible, app-based solutions as opposed to these other municipal programs. Catherine jokes that some look more like art projects. Aditi wonders how much that office thinks about the digital divide—Sasha acknowledges they do. He says that community organizations are often skeptical of these participatory mapping programs, because their outcomes are not always apparent, and especially when many of these organizations have been working in these communities for decades. Moreover, some of these communities may not have internet access and energy may be better directed towards face-to-face efforts.

With that, we move onto the topic of this week’s discussion: free cultural labor. We kick off by briefly discussing Andrew Lowenthal’s essay “Free Beer vs. Free Media.” Sasha prefaces this by talking a little bit about Andrew, and the kinds of projects he’s involved with. Notably, he worked with EngageMedia, one of the groups that put together a network called “transmission”, which met to discuss how to use free and open software. This was an article put together for the Geneva Society, a sort of overview of Free Beer vs. Free Media. Loki says that people have always done free cultural labor, and capitalism has always exploited that fact. Naturally, it was impossible to keep capitalism out of the internet; thus, we are seeing these same patterns today in the online space.

But what is free labor? Rogelio keeps it short and simple—unpaid labor. Should all labor be paid or not? It’s a key point of contention. Consider housework (homework), which is unwaged. “But how do you define labor?” asks Hesmondhalgh in his paper “User generated content, free labour, and the cultural industries“. Everything we do during waking hours is part of our culture. Taking this to the extreme, shouldn’t we paid to sleep, since it’s essential to labor? One of the arguments made by those doing free cultural labor is that they should be paid for their work. According to Hesmondhalgh, historically, cultural production has largely been unpaid (eg. music, football), which is a complicated issue because it overlaps with leisure activities. Another argument is the idea that when you do free cultural labor, you’re building up the skills and audiences needed to transition into paid cultural labor.

Catherine poses a question about what counts as “cultural labor.” Loki walks us through her day, explaining where she produces “free cultural labor” — when she wakes up and her interactions with her alarm clock contribute to an art project, cooking with people or alone, creating fan fiction, talking with people. Rogelio advocates for a broader definition of capital, including rapport and recognition, intrinsic benefits beyond mere monetary rewards. This ties into the idea of social forms of capital, such as visibility. Aditi brings up examples from urban planning—when tenants improve their living spaces, it is the landlords who benefit from this free labor. Marco describes how sharing and storing the products of your free cultural labor (ie. videos on youtube) may be unwaged for you, but can be capitalized on by the digital service providers. In fact, when you upload your own work, you often pass on ownership of that work, giving these sites the exclusive rights to replay and distribute it globally.

Andrew’s solution is to build alternative services that do not make money off of producers while producers make none, and/or let producers retrain rights to their own work. In fact there are open licensing agreements—e.g. Creative Commons, which allow creators to determine the terms of how their works can be used and altered. Even within this line of thinking there is debate: some believe that, if derivative works are making a profit, the original creators should get a cut; others believe that their work should be part of a public commons. At the same time, is your cute cat video really the one making all the money? Certainly, particular media objects have value, but the bulk of the value is derived from advertisements and audience data. The audience commodity debate is one that far predates the net, starting with Dallas Smythe’s work on television audiences. Are you being exploited for watching television, when your eyes are being sold to advertisers?

Hesmondhalgh argues that it’s not the audience who work, but the statisticians, who are packaging and selling the audience as consumers. Molly is skeptical—she sees the novelty of a cottage industry of selling eyeballs, but feels that he is pushing it too hard. Loki draws analogies to the financial industry repackaging existing work (buying diverse bonds and selling them with a lower risk attached). This is exactly what the Hesmondhalgh and Terranova papers are addressing—situating free cultural labor in a wider debate about unpaid labor and the appropriation of it. Both Terranova and Hesmondhalgh talk about those who are “truly” exploited—all those who have actual “jobs” in the cultural industry. Unpaid interns in the cultural industry staying up late at night, and working overtime, occupations are often offered on a short-term basis, without stability and with limited autonomy.

Aditi looks at it from the flip-side: the cultural producers who do gain enough visibility and recognition on these online platforms to transition into paid labor are not obligated to pay the websites back for their success. Sasha points out that not everyone within the pyramid of free cultural labor is in it for the money; there are other motivating factors such as sociability or enjoyment of the very process of cultural production. In this vein, Molly brings up the example of Amanda Palmer’s unpaid fan musicians, despite the fact that Palmer had already made boatloads of money on Kickstarter. Should volunteers like cellist Unwoman be paid for their work? It’s ambiguous whether this is part of connecting with the fanbase, or if it’s a form of exploitation of free labor. It is hard because people don’t ask for payment (if you were invited to play with your favorite band, what would you do?).

Certainly, there is a space for giving and generosity, but the downside is that you have to pay rent. Catherine suggests that maybe cultural production should stay as a hobby and never become a professional pursuit. There seems to be a different view of those who are once of us, and those who have “made it”. Naturally, there isn’t one formula that will produce the answer, due to the wide variety of contexts involved in the exchange over labor. “Especially since 1994, the Internet is always simultaneously a gift economy and an advanced capitalist economy” (Terranova, 51). It’s on this note of ambivalence that we end our discussion of free cultural labor.

Next, we watched the hour long documentary Good Copy, Bad Copy. The keystone case for a lot of copyright policy related to sampling is Bridgeport v. Dimension Films, regarding Dr. Dre’s sample of the three-note guitar riff from “Get Off Your Ass and Dance” in “100 Miles and Running”. While the riff was unrecognizable and appeared in a dramatically different context, the court ruled that the sample was illegal and not creative. In short, if you sample, you license. That could be a death knell for hip hop and rap.

Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album was a mix of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. While the album was distributed online for free and neither Danger Mouse nor the Beatles nor Jay-Z made any money off of it, it became the most successful music release of 2005. By the time the Beatles’ lawyers took action against Danger Mouse, The Grey Album had already been distributed all around the world.

Of course, piracy comes in many different forms, from recording blockbusters and selling DVDs and CDs (street piracy), to a more modern file sharing on the internet. Pirate Bay is one service, based that coordinates such filesharing. The movie covered the Pirate Bay raid where local Swedish authorities investigated an American crime, creating huge political unrest in Sweden. “I see the Pirate Bay as a sort of organized civil disobedience to force the change of current copyright laws and the copyright climate.” In fact, Sweden and several other European countries boast large political parties based around piracy-related issues.

There are also newer alternatives to traditional copyright; for instance, Larry Lessig introduces to us Creative Commons. He suggests reforming copyright law, which has grown so expansive and restrictive that it no longer promotes creativity. Lessig advocates extending the norms of citation and legitimate use we have in academic work to graphics, music, and video.

Nollywood, Nigeria’s version of Hollywood doesn’t have any copyright laws, but still manages to produce 1200 movies a year (compared to the 611 average of the US). They have used a variety of tactics to combat piracy, such as initial release to VCR/DVD so that the legitimate copies are on the market first (stopping the market for copyright). The Nigerian producers and government are now working hard to promote a culture of respect for copyright. Piracy of local films is rare, although piracy of foreign films is commonplace.

US record labels talk about copyright as a necessary incentive for creators, but others accuse them of not being very creative. There are many other types of business models such as an “all you can eat” business model with a flat rate for everything you can listen to in a month, without ownership. In fact, $50/year from people currently downloading DVDs is the size of the current over the counter music industry. But people don’t seem very willing to pay record companies—they don’t feel good about it like they do paying the artists.

One such business model that works can be found in Brazil: Tecno Brega artists make no money from the CD sales—they mix the CD in their studios, then pass a copy to the vendor who replicates it. Surprisingly, the artists don’t expect any payment for the sales—the only people making a profit are the vendors. Instead, the artists just use the CDs as an advertisement for the clubs where 5,000 people show up—the real money makers.

Of course, the US record lawyers argue that restrictive use of copyright will grow the industry faster than anything else—that people don’t create content for free. Others disagree, finding the modern paradigm of copyright suffocating. The movie ends with a return to Girl Talk, who discovers and remixes the Tecno Brega remix of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, bringing the whole story full circle. Luis recommends Rip, a remix manifesto as a similar film. This one is a crowdsourced documentary about similar topics, also featuring the likes of Girl Talk and Larry Lessig, as well as an entire section on Brazilian remix culture.

We finish the class with a short hands-on activity in which we attempt to create our own models of quantifying free cultural labor in terms of money. The class splits up into a bunch of smaller groups and tries to determine the variables and metrics involved. We look at a number of platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Google search results and come up with equations to calculate the monetary value of an individual’s social media labor. You’ll be able to read about all these models and more in this week’s round of blog posts!