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:




11 responses to “Bloggers and the Politics of “Free” Labor

  1. I’m glad that you and so many others keep writing about these things — they’re on my mind a lot recently but I think are still too “personally relevant” to think about clearly.

    At the risk of turning this into a personal sob story — after being laid off from a job in digital marketing three months ago I have been mostly living off savings and unemployment and contemplating new student loans for a master’s, but have somehow been busier than I was when I worked. I write for two online magazines, for free, in the hopes of ‘building a stronger editorial writing portfolio.’ I work for a photographer, for free, for the experience, and listen to her wail about the potential jobs she’s lost to media taking photos for free from Flickr, blogs, etc. I write my own blog, for free, for whatever infinite reasons people blog. A number of my personal style posts were picked up by American Apparel and are now featured on their product pages as “real life” model shots — they emailed me to inform me they had done this and to let me know that they could take it down if I objected.

    At one point, all of these were things — writing, photography, modelling, essentially copywriting product endorsements on my blog — I imagined I’d be paid for. At this point it seems apparent that this is no longer the case and that I am going to be devoting an epic amount of time and effort to providing, basically, a ridiculous amount of digital free labor, in the hopes that at some point preferably before my mid-30’s it will pay off or all this will somehow be resolved and therefore enable me to uh, start eating stuff that isn’t cup noodles for dinner again without going back to a soul-eating desk job. My resume, experience, etc — similar to so many others like me I’m sure — looks and sounds quite impressive, but I haven’t been paid a single cent for most of it. While this probably relates to both the logistics of new media and the politics and longstanding internship tradition in the industries I’ve mostly worked in — analyses aside? It sucks.

    • It totally sucks. And that’s an important aspect of the new digital work order that doesn’t get talked about enough – the labor that drives the new creative economy is not only uncompensated for the majority of people but it also comes at a personal, emotional COST. I’ve read a lot of popular and academic stuff on the creative economy for this blog as well as for my manuscript (on the fashion media complex in the context of neoliberalism) and I can’t think of one text that actually provides a sustained analysis of the affective labor driving the new creative economy. Scholarship on affective labor usually focuses on the kinds of economic, ideological, cultural, political work feelings do in/for neoliberal capitalism – but not the emotional work it takes to, say, sustain an unmonetized blog. (If anyone knows who’s doing this kind of work, please let me know!)

      Another point you make that I just want to underscore is that “employment” and “work” are no longer synonymous – I’d argue that for women especially, they never were! While so many people are un- and under-employed or are employed temporarily as freelancers, adjunct faculty, etc., people are WORKING more than ever. Andrew Ross’ book “Nice Work if You Can Get It” argues just this point. He also believes – and I’m persuaded by his argument as well – that precarious labor is not just a phase of this economic crisis but is actually the new condition of labor. The creative economy demands the New, the Fresh, the Innovative and thus employee turnover (one reason for the precarity of labor) is built into the system.

      I know analysis is not that comforting – certainly not as comforting as having a regular income or having your labors recognized in material and immaterial ways – but for me, at least, it is a reminder that experiences like yours are not personal at all. You’re not doing anything wrong, there isn’t anything you should be doing that you’re not, it has nothing to do with you. I could go into how neoliberal policies beginning especially in the 1980s has a lot to do with why we’re here but I’ll spare you and I have a sense you already know. I’m always impressed with how thoughtful your comments are (on our blog as well as your own). Your recent post on modesty and public space was fabulous! Made me think of Hanna Papanek and Lila Abu-Lughod’s concept of veiling as a kind of “portable seclusion” or “mobile home.” While you wearing a long skirt to tool around in Brooklyn is not the same thing as veiling, it’s a really intriguing idea about how women’s relationship to clothing is conditioned by the need for physical protection — i.e., sartorial shelter – and not simply aesthetic expression. Hm . . . maybe this is why I favor architectural details in my clothes??

      • your comment about employment and labor rarely being synonymous for women is really interesting — i’m reminded of my mother’s shame and jokes about her ‘eighteen year maternity leave’ and yet many of my childhood memories are of her being busy and tired and having little time to herself, not of any sort of two decade vacation.

        there’s so much pop culture commentary going around about how ‘my generation’ (ie, those of us born after 1980 or so) are so flaky, we job-hop, we don’t stick with careers like folks did in the good old days, we don’t want families and a lifelong career with one company, and while every generation thinks that the younger one is the downfall of modern civilization, i think the point there is also this economic change you’ve mentioned.

        abu-lughod was in my mind a lot when thinking about the long skirt and veiling etc, and similar thoughts about how clothing can be used to define what is private and public space, beyond what is defined by society, which is of course very different in different cultures, which is what i found interesting about the relations between wearing frumpy clothes in brooklyn and socially mandated veiling in other societies…and of course ‘too much’ coverage in our society (combined with a darker complexion, most likely — damn, i get away with everything as a skinny white girl, don’t i) would lead to more harassment for being muslim or orthodox jewish etc, etc. another commenter on my blog brought up issues about how any body that isn’t the norm (ie is female, black, gay, whatever) is encouraged to somehow perform and protect/conceal themselves for the sake of safety/privacy/etc — not sure where to go with that one but there’s something there as well.

  2. I’m so glad to see you raise this, even briefly. Especially that you included the question of authorship & labor. Authorship is a tricky concept, and it’s fascinating to see in which moments people feel entitled to claim it, or against whom. The same might be true for effort – when does it “feel” like labor that oughta be paid? In each case, maybe it’s about alienation?

    In the case of authorship, though, the creative thing is alienated from the social context/community it arises from and instead associated witha single/specific entity who gets to be the “author” …while in the second case the labor is alienated from the individual? maybe?

    I look forward to you having more time to write about this! All of my academic work these days is about studying authorship, ownership, aesthetics & power, and permission.. mostly in the context of music but the same questions come up in fashion too…

    • Thanks for the comments, Ripley! Your work sounds so on point w/ a chapter I’m working on on the very same issues of authorship, creativity, and capitalism but with regard to the exceptional fashion designer . . . The chapter is in its nascent stages but as I work through it, I’m sure I’ll be posting about it on the blog. When I do, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  3. mary

    I’ve been noticing that there seems to be a lot of contradictory reactions to these issues from bloggers/blog readers/other participants in digital culture. I think a lot of people would agree that the Chictopia situation is a little shady or at least unfair. But at the same time, there’s internal pressure to keep digital media from becoming too mainstream. The author of a fashion blog I read recently decided to allow ads on her blog, and she immediately received backlash comments about how sad it was that she’d “sold out.” The really strange bit is that she also runs an online store and uses the blog to promote her business. So these readers were apparently okay with her running an “indie” business operation (that they benefit from), but not okay with her following typical advertising practices in order to be more profitable. Apparently she should be more concerned with some kind of creative integrity than with getting paid for what she does. It’s hard to imagine someone arguing that to a brick-and-mortar shop owner.

    It seems like these attitudes are somehow connected to ideas about creativity and talent… To add to Meg’s comment above, I’ve also had a hell of a time getting paid to write because of the never ending argument that I’m gaining experience and padding my portfolio with examples of my creative ability. The problem is that there’s no established point where a client can no longer claim that this should be enough compensation for my work. (Also, hi Meg, I commented on your blog yesterday, and I think you should get paid for stuff too.)

    • Ah, the ol’ “sell out” argument! Besides the sour sanctimony that these arguments are drenched in, I get really cranky about the chain of false dichotomies they set up, for example, between mainstream and indie culture and related to that, between assimilative and oppositional practices. Cultures, cultural practices, and economies are not so neatly divided. And just as “mainstream” practices are not always already about selling out, “indie” practices are not always already oppositional or progressive. (See Mimi’s posts on hipster appropriations of Native clothing.) It depends so much on the who, how, when, and where of it all – that is to say, it’s situational.

      Also, notice how the discourse of selling out is only ever directed at marginalized people – people who are made to be responsible for maintaining some imagined authenticity? It rarely takes into account how “mainstream” choices and practices may be negotiating the historical and ongoing uneven distribution of power and resources (which often reflects, reproduces, and secures historical hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.). It seems then that professionalization, profit-making, and self-promotion can only benefit those with the privilege of not being responsible for remaining authentic.

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  5. Tamia

    I love the perspectives represented in the comments here. I often struggle with this “new model” (free content, free services, free everything) that pervades the digital world, especially in terms of Style Sample magazine. I’d love to be able to pay my contributors (erm, including myself), but I can’t do that until the magazine makes money, which will be difficult because people expect digital content to be free!

    It’s a weird cycle that we’re all trying to extricate ourselves from, but it’s difficult in part because we’ve helped create the system in the first place. However, I think we all understand that the free model can’t go on forever, and to address the points made in some of the previous comments, at some point we have to put our collective foot down and say “enough!” We all gotta eat.

    • You’re so right, Tamia! We helped create and expand the structures of digital media. We’ve also, if we’re being honest w/ ourselves, benefited from it (albeit in limited and vastly uneven ways).

      I’ve written a lot and given talks about how the out-sized celebrity of someone like Tavi Gevinson is particular to the way Web 2.0 technologies work. The same could be said about Threadbared. While we don’t have nearly the readership of Style Rookie (which takes a much more mainstream approach to fashion than Threadbared does), we are constantly amazed/thrilled/honored that we get as many readers as we do. (17-18,000 hits/month from readers in every continent except Antarctica). (We also think our readers are the smartest out there!) As academics who still work in and rely on traditional publishing procedures, we know having this many readers and being part of the dialogues readers bring to blogs is a rare and wonderful thing. Free digital technologies and the free digital labor they require is a huge, if not principle, reason this is possible.

      So am I conflicted about the potential and peril of this “free system”? Hell yes, I am . . . sigh.

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