The perpetual hustle. On platform labour and labour on platforms

Using social media is a vastly different experience in 2021 than it was ten years ago. The internet was once seen as a world apart from the drudgery of the everyday, a place where you could be anybody. This has not been the case since the arrival of platforms like Facebook, which have attempted to tether users’ offline and online identities. What are the implications of this shift?

From free labour to platform labour

From their conception, platforms became a site of personal expression, political action, and vernacular creativity in the form of user-generated content. It leads researchers to theorise about users’ activity as a kind of uncompensated labour and to the famous dictum - ‘If you are not paying for it, you are the product.’ An Italian theorist and activist, Tiziana Terranova once called this ‘free labour.’ Digital or platform labour contains a heterogeneous spectrum of practices, consisting ‘of unpaid and paid work, digitally mediated and digital-based ‘gig work,’ but also domestic labour, cognitive and creative labour and much more.’

This has changed now. With new ways to monetise online content (from the sponsorship agreements between influencers and brands to the complete commodification of platforms through the introduction of the Shopping tab), the mere act of posting online can be relatively easily transformed to a venerable career path. Per one survey from 2019, the most desirable profession among young children (in the US and UK) is ‘vlogger/YouTuber’ [The latest IQS survey showed the same trends among young Polish girls]. To be fair, the study was conducted on behalf of LEGO and seems a bit like clickbait fodder prime to produce outrage around the supposed cultural decline of our times. However, the advancing appeal of leveraging online following into a career is undeniable, especially in the context of financial insecurity.

For older generations, this might spark the kind of anxieties on par with hand-wringing about reality TV. In fact, all forms of media and media technologies (and celebrity attained through them), no matter how reified now, have at one point been regarded with contempt or alarmism. Think attitudes around violent movies or video games, online pornography and sexting, children watching television or the penny dreadfuls of the 19th-century.

Not all platform labour is born equal

Platformisation describes ‘the penetration of economic, governmental, and infrastructural extensions of digital platforms into the web and app ecosystems,’ and has engendered transformations in all social life sectors, including labour. There is a lot of work that is embedded in the systems that we use, rendered largely invisible - from online content moderators to Lyft drivers to Twitch streamers and TikTok stars.

Once, the notion that ‘on the internet, no one knows you are a dog’ implied a collapse of all IRL distinctions. These distinctions are reproduced in the web of platforms, as the term ‘digital divide’ implies. The precarity of an UberEats delivery person cannot be compared to the careers of Emma Chamberlain or Charli d’Amelio. Both teenagers rose from middle-class security to global stardom with mainstream crossover success through YouTube and TikTok, respectively. In that sense, class factors greatly reproduce economic disparities, opening (and obstructing) different paths into platform labour.

Gender and race beget qualitative discrepancies in the ways labour is received and the material benefits that come from it. The untold distinction between ‘content creators’ and ‘influencers’ often has sexist undertones, creating a chasm between the (perceived as) more legitimate labour of the former and the supposed frivolity of the latter. As social media anthropologist Crystal Abidin writes, the tacit labour performed by influencers is ‘so thoroughly rehearsed that it appears as effortless and subconscious.’ On the other hand, creators of colour often have their creativity appropriated or earn a fraction of the attention (and of their white counterparts).

While social media might have once been conceptualised as instruments of distraction (from our ‘real’ lives, from work, from friends and family), through platformisation, we might say we have achieved peak convergence between the offline and the online. We are becoming hyper-aware of how our activities on social media might impact our job opportunities and react to imagined surveillance by ensuring that our digital self-presentation is either carefully curated or pseudonymised (through a ‘finsta,’ or ‘fake’ Instagram profile, for example).

The omnipresence of hustle culture and the increased precarity forged by decades of neoliberal politics have produced a class of workers facing casualisation, insecure or on-call labour, gig work, and so on. With the COVID-19 pandemic transforming the workplace (or at least most office work), all time spent online is potentially time spent working.

All work and no play...

As one might expect, there is an array of platforms dedicated to work. To name a few - LinkedIn, a sort of entrepreneurial Facebook;, LinkedIn but for researchers and academics; Upwork, for freelancers; and Muck Rack, for journalists and PR professionals.

I have found LinkedIn, in particular, to be fascinating. The platform favours the veneer of positivity that tints Instagram, in the sense that most users’ activities revolve around their (professional and academic) successes - a status update on LinkedIn is usually the gleeful announcement of a new job or a new skill acquired. Nowhere is the absurdity of the work-searching landscape than job listing copy where every service industry worker is rebranded as a ‘hero,’ the existence of HR influencers, and the infamous five years of experience as a requirement for entry-level positions.

But labour is not confined to ‘work’ platforms. On TikTok, a de facto ‘playful’ platform, talk of side hustles and ways to maximise one’s passive income abounds. Freelancers offer advice on how to earn money as a ‘virtual assistant’ or digital copywriter. Landlords explain how they make six figures in passive income by buying, ‘flipping,’ and renting out properties. OnlyFans performers advise novices on how to venture into the world of platformised sex work. I would argue that the perceived silliness of TikTok is on par with the assumed frivolity of Instagram in the minds of most, but this does not preclude engagement with serious topics.

The logic of play informs the ways we perform our identities, engage with politics, and work. Beyond that, TikTok users often refer to themselves as creators, and the platform is beginning to recognise this, for example by introducing the Creator Fund, which allows users to monetise their videos once they surpass ten thousand followers on the app.

Platform users reinventing themselves as content creators and claiming a share of the monetary pie might be part of the commodification and professionalisation introduced by the dominance of the platform model. But could it also be a way of seizing the means of digital production, of reclaiming the value of one’s digital labour?

To an extent, yes. But this is, of course, done in the context of existing platform logics. And it harks more to individualistic modes of citizenship in place of a truly emancipatory collective politic.

The web that was

Platforms’ uneven content moderation policies disproportionately affect non-normative identities and ideas. For instance, Instagram’s new Terms of Service contribute to a broader trend of suppressing the voices of already marginalised users. According to research conducted by the Hacking // Hustling collective, sex workers and activists are already dealing with disproportionate amounts of shadowbanning, surveillance, and harassment online.

In recent years, digital spaces like 4chan have been researched as breeding grounds for right-wing extremism, malicious trolling, hate speech, and conspiracy dissemination. Before that, 4chan was known for its affiliation with Anonymous (posts on that platform are always attributed to Anonymous, and in this sense, total anonymity reigns supreme; there is no social capital to be earned through posting).

In some ways, the media ecology of anonymous imageboards such as 4chan once exemplified ludic escapism, a desire to untether oneself from the ‘real,’ that is, the serious world of work or school. Now, this world seems inescapable. Work is the spectre lurking at every corner of the internet.