Daily Archives: May 4, 2010

Bloggers and the Politics of “Free” Labor

Depeche Mode once opined in “Blasephemous Rumors” that God’s got a sick sense of humor. I don’t know much about God, but it may be that the blogging gods have a funny kind of humor as well. Just as I promise to shift the blog onto the proverbial back burner and focus on my manuscript, out pops a slew of articles, posts, and debates I can’t help but post about!

Take, for instance, this post on IFB on the issue of digital content and copyright. In a nutshell, the discount shoe company Payless Shoes seems to have entered into a partnership with Chictopia for use of the outfit posts of their users in Payless shoewear. The question: who has the right to give permission to Payless Shoes for the use of these images? (A summer storm of props to Jenny of FFW for bringing this to my attention, by the way, via our Threadbared Facebook page.)

Because I’m still determined to be all about the manuscript this week, I’ll save my longer commentary for another time. For now, I do want to point out that Chictopia users’ ire about this partnership (from the comments, many are suggesting a boycott of Chictopia) is both understandable and misguided. As we’ve noted before, “free” Web 2.0 technologies are a complicated matter. In posts about The Fake Sartorialist, the digital wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, and pretty much all our posts listed under the category “Labor and the Creative Economy” and the tag “New Digital Work Order,” we’ve pointed out that the free exchange of visual and textual content that blogs and other social media technologies enable is both democratizing (the modes of knowledge and culture production are diffused across a wider swath of people – yay!) and capitalist (and thus exploitative – boo!) because the products that we produce and consume (digital content) are given voluntarily/freely. As such, bloggers and other digital laborers are providing (freely) FREE LABOR to entities like Chictopia as well as Facebook, MySpace, The Sartorialist, etc. who profit from that labor. (I realize that’s an incredibly long and probably run-on sentence but the manuscript beckons! (I love your run-ons, and I love making them into discrete sentences for you! — Mimi))

Chictopia users certainly have reason to gripe about this – it doesn’t feel good when our labors profit others (see Marx and the concept of “alienation”) but a boycott of Chictopia isn’t really the answer. As I said, Chictopia is not the only one that profits (materially or immaterially) from this free digital content. A more productive approach might be to insist on updating laws for the digital age that takes into account the changing relations of labor and capital. As one commenter called Unfunded rightly points out:

There is such a double standard between digital media and print media. Magazines inspire people and publish creative content and, holy crap guess what??, they get paid to do it! They receive daily shipments of a bunch of products from various merchants who hope to get their product featured. And I guarantee if Payless posted an article or editorial on their site that was originally published in a top magazine, with no credit back to that magazine, they would have hell to pay.

Copyright law is expanding for better and for worse and hopefully one day it’ll address the similarities and differences between digital and print media labor.

But before we all jump on the copyright bandwagon – let’s also consider how copyright protections are historically embedded in narrow ideas of what it means to be an author, an individual, and thus worthy of legal protection. See Martha Woodmansee’s work for more on this history and also my post on the politics of fake.

Oh, what the hell – here’s the Depeche Mode video too: