Tag Archives: new digital work order

Digital Work and Child’s Play

Creative director for Elle magazine Joe Zee seems confused about the role of a fashion/style blogger and the role of a fashion magazine editor. In yet another barb against Tavi Gevinson, the ‘tween-age blogger wunderkind from suburban Illinois, Zee reiterates his colleague Anne Slowey’s skepticism about young bloggers’ fashion expertise: “What am I getting out of a 13-year-old’s opinion about fashion? How does that help me distill the collections? What am I supposed to be buying? That’s what an editor’s job at a magazine is.”

Um, yeah. That may be what “an editor’s job at a [commercial] magazine” is but when did telling the public what they’re “supposed to be buying” become the only legitimate mode of fashion writing?

While Slowey, Zee, and other gatekeepers want to keep the “digital natives” off their cultural-economic territory (presumably, they’re nostalgic for a time before the democratization of fashion), there is a growing discourse about the problem of the the ‘tween blogger that is worth considering seriously. By the way, notice how real and virtual territorialism always only works in one direction. Nearly all major fashion magazines now have full-time bloggers on staff. Can you imagine how ridiculous – but also wonderfully hilarious – it would be if ‘tween and twenty-something bloggers protested the print media’s convergence and capitalist takeover of digital media spaces?

To get a sense of how non-territorial bloggers are, check out this very short video from the Evolving Influence Fashion Blog Conference (NYFW 2010) hosted by the Independent Fashion Bloggers. Panelists included Britt Aboutaleb and Lauren Sherman (Fashionista.com), BryanBoy, Tavi Gevinson, Susie Bubble, and Phil Oh (Street Peeper).

In the past few months, a number of people have raised concerns about ‘tween bloggers and child labor laws. The spark, I think, was lit by the news that Gevinson had been commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to write a column for their January 2010 issue reviewing the Spring collections. Here’s what some of them are saying:

The ethics of the industry employing young models have been discussed at tedious length, but because of the “massification” of bloggers, Tavi gets to elude these discussions because we can pretend that she’s just an “amateur,” that she’s not at work when she’s at fashion shows. Yes she is. She is being invited to these shows for economic reasons, so we’re not just talking about techno-generational issues; we’re talking about child labour. (March 5, 2010)

Having exhausted teenagers in the pursuit of fresh material to exploit to connote “youth,” the fashion industry has begun to seize upon ever younger recruits, willing victims fashionized far before their time. Bled of their individuality by the parasitic industry, these victims are left for “generic” . . . (February 16, 2010)

[P]erhaps after some formal journalism training, Tavi could probably make a decent fashion journalist. Still, the question remains: Will she be taken seriously? It’s hard to tell whether she will be greeted with open arms as the new and improved Tavi, or rejected and thrown aside like so many child actors before her. (February 10, 2010)

Each of these critics in different ways are shedding light on the underside of work flexibility that the new creative economy both desires and demands. The Internet’s reorganization of time – what Michel Laguerre calls “flexitime” – and its impact on the meanings of work/leisure, workplace/home, workday/weekend, to name just one set of traditional spatio-temporal binaries is generally celebrated as post-industrial freedom:

[T]he process by which work that used to be done at a conventional workplace can now be carried out elsewhere (locational flexibility) and at a time of their choice (temporal flexibility) . . . allow[s] employees more freedom in the organization of their working hours.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post about the new digital work order and its regulatory mechanisms that induce not only multi-tasking but also omni-tasking (the idea that because one can always work, one should always be working) and which manifests for me as blogger guilt, the flexibility of work in the Digital Age particularly for those working in the creative economy is a complicated thing.

Returning to Gevinson: On the one hand, she is an exemplar of the democratization of fashion and the media that define the neoliberal present moment. Her youthful pluck, unique creative expressions, mastery of information technologies, and enterprising initiative embody the characteristics that are most valued in the creative industries of fashion and media today. Moreover, her age and gender, her location outside the traditional centers of fashion (she lives in Oak Park, Illinois), and her aptitude for multitasking as consumer and producer of fashion objects, images, and discourses confirm the neoliberal beliefs in the democratizing potential of work flexibility and related to it, the flexibility of geographic, social, and economic borders. That a 14 year-old girl (14, this month) from a Midwestern suburb has made her way into the global centers of fashion is suggestive for many people of the decentralization and thus democratization of the powerful cultural institutions of the media and fashion.

On the other hand, as the critics above point out, the numbers of hours she’s working, her integration into the adult world of fashion commerce (where she’s exposed to a host of extracurricular activities that are surely not Board of Ed approved), and yes, the level of public scrutiny she invites and does not invite should make us all seriously think about the exploitation of young bloggers by the high profit-seeking fashion and media industries.

(In the above photos, Gevinson sits front row with BryanBoy at the Marc Jacobs show and hangs backstage with Leigh Lezark and Geordan Nicol of the MisShapes before the Y-3 Spring 2010 fashion show in New York City.)

Ironically, work flexibility was once the “rallying cry” of laborers who were sick of the Fordist industrial work order. As Andrew Ross writes in his latest book, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (NYU Press):

The demand for creative, meaningful work in factories and offices was a rallying cry of the 1970s ‘revolt against work’ [movement which led to] calls to humanize the workplace by introducing mentally challenging tasks and employee innovation . . . as an alternative to the humdrum routines of standard industrial employment.

Fashion blogging exemplifies precisely the conditions of labor being fought for in the 1970s. Bloggers work in a field where creative passion and playfulness are job requirements. They typically work from home or from exotic locations like the tents at Fashion Week (in New York, Milan, Paris, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg, etc.) As such, “work” often looks a lot like “play” – and as the photos of Gevinson attest – what we once considered child’s play (playing dress-up, cutting school to hang out with the cool kids, and poring over the sartorial styles of star designers and celebrities) is now potentially a culturally and economically profitable business.

It is the playfulness of the creative economy that works to gloss over the un-democratic social and labor conditions internal to the capitalist logics driving the media and fashion industries even in the age of democratization. As the critics who are concerned about the issue of child labor in the new creative economy allude, the future of the Digital Age may look a lot like the Industrial Age.

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The Backlash Against Bloggers: What Does It Mean?

There are some signs that the best days of the fashion blogger phenomenon may be behind us. This isn’t to say that fashion bloggers are going away but the public discourse about them and the value of their digital labors seems to have shifted in the past couple of months.

  • First, Elle editor Anne Slowey described Tavi Gevinson’s commissioned column for Harper’s Bazaar as “gimmicky” and then Huffington Post’s style editor Lesley Blume was quoted as saying that asking adult women to take style cues from young women like the Olsen twins and Gevinson was “insulting.” (Read here.)

This month, Barney’s Creative Director Simon Doonan told GQ magazine that he wants his front row seats back from the teen/tween bloggers that have overtaken runway shows. He even throws a little snark at 13 year-old blogger: “Since they are all about my height, I am going to impersonate one of them. I am going to wear a doily on my head (Tavi!) and tell everyone I’m a teen blogger.”

Late last week, New York Times fashion writer Guy Trebay told WWD that he doesn’t really care “whether Bryanboy gets excited by a handbag or something.”

The easiest explanation for this backlash is to cite the techno-generational divide: the persnickety old guard vs. the whipper-snapping new guard. And I think that’s part of it, but only part of it. Instead of resting the critique of this backlash entirely on the laps of cantankerous sartorial Luddites, I think it’s useful to consider the political economy in which this backlash emerges.

Not too long ago, fashion/style bloggers were embraced as the embodiment of fashion’s democratization. Along with cheap chic fashion, fashion/style bloggers were heralded as proof that fashion had finally become accessible to everyone despite race, gender, class, physical location, time zone, etc. The free flow of fashion objects and images across socioeconomic differences and fiber optic cable lines (as with the deregulated circuits of trade, capital, and labor) signified, according to numerous fashion editors, writers, and neoliberal politicians, a truly democratic society where everyone has the right to access the commodities that will enable them to practice their freedoms of expression, self-determination, and consumer choices. Free market agency, we were told, is coextensive with political agency.

Drowning out previous celebrations of democratization are anxious cries about the massification of fashion journalism. Consider Trebay’s statement: “It sounds like a very Establishment view, but I think that the Establishment is composed, in general, of really skilled people.” The inference, of course, is that bloggers (now positioned as a threat to the Establishment rather than as a sign of the Establishment’s fairness and openness) are unskilled. But the significance of massification rhetoric has implications that go far beyond a techno-generational divide.

Massification rhetoric has historically secured dominant power relations by producing a category of collective identification called “the masses” and then casting suspicion on them as unruly, unthinking, and uncultured. Moreover, as Andreas Huyssen has pointed out, the categorization of “the masses” carries with it gender inscriptions that imagine the masses (here, the collective of “teen/tween bloggers”) as subjective, emotional, and thus feminine. This is evident in the Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer Robin Givhan’s assessment of fashion bloggers: “[T]heir opinions [are] suspect. They’re too invested. They’re biased. Passion gets in the way of truth-telling.” Establishment fashion journalists, we are meant to understand, are dispassionate and objective reporters.

I don’t think that the recent backlash against bloggers suggests that the era of fashion’s democratization is coming to a close – it’s difficult to imagine that fashion, in this economic climate, would risk alienating any potential customers especially customers with as much cultural capital as star bloggers like Gevinson and BryanBoy. However, I think this backlash does signal a shift in the popular understanding of “democracy” in the creative economy, a return to a social theory of apprenticeship in which hierarchies of power are not seen as opposed to democracy and free market societies but rather as opportunities for “paying one’s dues” and “earning one’s stripes.” This is precisely the link Weber observed between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

Exclusion and exploitation in the forms of higher rates of un- and underemployment and free labor (typical in the new creative economy, in general, and in fashion, in particular), are incorporated and naturalized as part of the cost of democracy. Enduring exploitation becomes a virtue – it demonstrates a faith in and a faithfulness to the meritocracy and magicality of capitalism.

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Bloggers and Ann Taylor’s Bottom Line

As a postscript to my previous post about the implications of the corporatization of the fashion blogosphere, I just wanted to share this bit of hubbub over Ann Taylor LOFT’s recent invitation to bloggers to “come take a sneak peek at LOFT’s Spring 2010 Collection before anyone else.”

The invitation, according to Jezebel and the Los Angeles Times (threadbared was not invited), promised “a special gift to all attendees and entry into a ‘mystery gift card drawing.'” So far, okay, right? The cause of the controversy is LOFT’s fine print stipulation that “all bloggers must post coverage from our event to their blog within 24 hours in order to be eligible” for the gift card drawing. (The amount of the gift card to be revealed after the submission of this blog coverage.)

Jenna of Jezebel admonishes those “editors and bloggers [who attended the event for being] too excited by the opportunities for graft to notice that it’s precisely this kind of constriction of editorial judgment that atrophies creativity, and which is turning the fashion media — women’s media — into a lowest common denominator whirl of focus-grouped, product-placed bullshit. The internet was supposed to be different.” (Click here to read one blogger’s response to this post.)

While LOFT’s terms of inclusion are no doubt unseemly, my point in the previous post is that creative digital labor, while represented as free from market relations, is actually deeply entrenched in capitalist relations and logics. Moreover, the capitalization of creativity is rooted in a much longer history of art and commerce dating back to the late 18th century, when writers and other artists labored under what cultural economic scholars call a “regime of patronage.” What’s shocking about the LOFT’s invitation is not that it invites bloggers into a matrix of market relations — let’s be honest, this happens all the time! — but that it does so so openly.

Recall, for instance, that in 2007 the Chanel Company invited 12 bloggers to Paris for a weekend of discovering “the history and iconic places of Chanel.” Susie Bubble stresses on her blog that “there was no obligation to do blog reportage but for me along with most of the bloggers I think, it would have been criminal not to blog about the wonderful experiences we had.” While there may have been no formal agreement to post (positive) comments about Chanel’s traditions, products, and largesse, Bubble clearly understands that there is an unspoken social-economic contract conditioning bloggers’ access to the fashion industry. It was precisely New York Times fashion writer and blogger Cathy Horyn’s perceived breach of this contract that led legendary designer Giorgio Armani (and before him, Helmut Lang, Carolina Herrera, and Dolce & Gabbana) to ban her from their shows.

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Why I feel guilty when I don’t blog

There are buckets of reasons why I’m glad Mimi is my on/offline writing collaborator and dear friend – but surely top among them is her capacity to deliver much-needed kick-in-the-ass motivation from thousands of miles away. At least that was the effect of her two previous blog posts for me this morning.

I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block lately — but it isn’t for a lack of topics to write about. For example, I’ve been following the news and campaigns about fashion philanthropy (specifically, the Fashion Delivers campaign for Haiti and the LA Times‘ piece on Dress for Success) and wondering how much the overstatements about fashion’s capacity to “empower” and “save,” while no doubt commensurate with the prevailing lifestyle politics of neoliberalism in which consumer power is made co-extensive with political power, is also a kind of false bravado that betrays fashion’s own inferiority complex about its social significance.

Add to that, Angela McRobbie‘s admonition (also bouncing around in my head lately) that fashion “colludes in its own trivialization.” Here’s the full quote from the essay, “Fashion Culture: Creative Work, Female Individualization”:

In the absence of a lobby of policy-makers arguing vociferously on behalf of this autonomous sector, and for them to have access to low-rent urban retail spaces such as market stalls, lanes, corridors, and other cheap locations, when designers do find themselves in difficulty they are judged by a model which deems them simply unviable and the fashion press fatalistically announces another fashion label going out of business. Despite the profusion of fashion magazines, the expansion of the fashion media including television, and the appearance of academic journals devoted to fashion, there seems to be no coherent map of the field, which in turn encourages government to rely on simplistic accounts. In this sense, fashion lets itself down and colludes in its own trivialization.

In 2002 when McRobbie wrote “Fashion Culture,” fashion bloggers weren’t nearly as visible as they are today, so she didn’t mention them or any other members of the “creative proletariat,” like online and print magazine editors who finance their own publications. But like independent fashion designers, many bloggers and editors are being edged out by the corporatization of the cultural economy as well. It is increasingly difficult — almost untenable — for independent designers, bloggers, and editors to sustain their cultural projects without some form of material or immaterial corporate sponsorship (i.e., a feature story in a giant media outlet like the New York Times, affiliate marketing, direct ad sales, banner advertising, etc.). All of the social media outreach events planned for the upcoming Fall 2010 New York Fashion Week which, as Mimi puts it, are “aimed at cultivating new contacts and nurturing existing collaborations between fashion bloggers and captains of industry” attest to this.

Fashion and style bloggers understand that the support (material and immaterial) of fashion giants like the Chanel company, Marc Jacobs, or Vogue brings with it an enormous amount of cultural capital that can launch them into the stratosphere of fashion/media. And I certainly don’t begrudge the fashion blog elite the corporate love they’ve received — we’ve considered and continue to consider different strategies of monetization like speaking gigs, consulting, and commissioned articles. (Though we’re not opposed to advertising, the opportunities we’ve been presented with haven’t been right for us yet.)

Fashion bloggers and social media discourse celebrate — quite automatically now — the independent, DIY, and democratic spirit of blogging. Consider this quote about blogging from Jennine Tamm Jacob (The Coveted) in the video Mimi re-posted:

It was something that I could do. I could just set up a blog myself and I could write about whatever I wanted . . . it was just me doing my own thing and I found that to be really liberating.

But in understanding the cultural and political economies of the fashion blogosphere, it’s important not to gloss over the fact that computer-mediated communication technologies and digital labor are deeply embedded in capitalist logics.

My 3-part blog post on the state of the fashion blogosphere has had many iterations — a pocket-sized and abbreviated version appears in Style Sample Magazine, issue 5, and there’s a revised and expanded academic essay I’ve been working on as well. In the expanded essay, I point out that the new digital work order in which fashion bloggers labor is shaped and limited by capitalist logics. For example, the structures of digital temporality (i.e., timestamps, the organization and archiving of posts in reverse chronological order, etc.) continue to naturalize and positively secure capitalist valuations of productivity, punctuality, and accumulation (of symbolic, cultural, and material capital). Working overtime (if we can still use that concept in the “flexitime” of digital temporality) is de rigeur for fashion bloggers, especially because their productivity must keep pace with the accelerated rhythms of the fashion-beauty complex organized and driven by the capitalist logic of the New/Now. In other words, the spirit of capitalism and its ethic of dogged and steadfast productivity permeate the digital creative labor of fashion blogs even when that labor is “free” (that is, both free from the 9-to-5 workday/workplace and also unpaid).

So while digital technoculture scholars and fashion bloggers alike celebrate the Internet for enabling the flexibility of work and work hours, it may be that we no longer need the external regulatory mechanisms of the Industrial Age (i.e., factory clocks, etc.) because in the Digital Age, we are self-monitoring and highly multi-tasking subjects whose body, image, and time — commodified as cultural goods — are produced, distributed, and consumed in a global cultural economy that is unprecedented in its pace and efficiency.

It’s little wonder, then, why I’ve been feeling guilty about not posting! And I’m hardly alone — consider how many and how often bloggers apologize for their lapses in posting. Such guilt illustrates the affective economies of digital capitalism as well!

As a salve for this capitalist guilt, I have to remind myself that I’ve been highly productive offline — writing chapters at a maddening pace (for me) and loving (most) every minute of it. All free creative labor, but nevertheless . . .

I have to admit, though, it hasn’t been all work for me. I’ve also been quite distracted and all dreamy about Julie Wilkins’ London-based label, Future Classics, which I’ve only just discovered! (How did I not know about their deconstructed jersey deliciousness and their diaphanous silken wonders until now??) Now, should they want to collaborate on some affiliate marketing . . .

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