This paper stems from a two-year study of four 20-something Montréalers who were selected based on their dedicated production of user-generated content in the hopes of gaining future employment in creative industries. User-generated content, or UGC, is a term meant to capture the diverse forms of productive, Web-based activity that make up Web 2.0 or social media platforms. These practices may range among creating a social network profile, posting and commenting on links, participating in forum discussions, blogging, microblogging, uploading photos and videos, and folksonomic tagging. While these examples vary in terms of the level of users’ engagement with content creation, what they have in common is that they are hosted by corporately-owned websites rather than by the user-producers themselves. In fact, UGC is somewhat of a corporate buzzword, along with Web 2.0, terms that I use in order to emphasize the commercial context in which users contribute content and personal information. Despite popular celebratory accounts of UGC as democratizing, Web 2.0 sites have come under scrutiny for their application of asymmetrical capitalist business models to user production and communication networks (Coté & Pybus, 2007; Scholz, 2008; Gillespie, 2010). In this context, my case studies of four 20-something creators of UGC highlight how user activity constitutes a kind of labour, where social, cultural, and economic value is extracted from the work of user-producers.
In order to analyze the work performed by these young people, I constructed a theory of UGC as apprenticeship labour, based on Marxian concepts of exploitation (or surplus value), immaterial labour, and free labour (Marx, 1867; 1857/58; Lazzarato, 1997; Terranova, 2000; 2004). These theories describe how capitalist extraction of surplus value works to appropriate subjectivity as part of investing commodities with cultural and informational ideologies. Examples of this appropriation include free labour performed in a host of digitally-mediated contexts, including the open-source software movement (Terranova, 2006), participation in virtual worlds like Second Life (Herman, Coombe & Kaye, 2006), and the everyday use of services like Google (van Dijck, 2009).
My account of young people’s creation of UGC is situated among these approaches, with the crucial addition of some key concepts to the overarching free labour framework. First, Arlie Hochschild’s (1983) influential writing on emotional labour explores how self-presentation as part of cultivating one’s career persona involves emotional work that resonates outside of the workplace. What Hochschild describes as “emotion management” has since become a central feature in conceptions of creative work, and offers a key consideration of the gendered and ethical components to online free labour (see McRobbie, 1998; Ross, 2004; Hesmondhalgh & Baker, 2008; Gill, 2007).
Second, Dallas Smythe’s (1981) concept of the audience commodity posits that media chiefly produce audiences and not texts: “audience power is produced, sold, purchased and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity” (Smythe, 1981, p. 256). This view places audience labour at the heart of the commodity cycle, determined by market and governance structures particularly in relation to advertiser-supported media (Meehan, 2002). The audience commodity is a useful concept for highlighting how Web 2.0 platforms appropriate user labour in an ad-supported revenue model.
Third, I draw from Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984 ) sociological account of “new cultural intermediaries” in explaining culture as a form of class-based capital. For Bourdieu, the new cultural intermediaries—workers in radio, television, marketing, advertising, etc.—naturalize legitimate, middle-brow culture “while living in the unease of the inherently contradictory role of a ‘presenter’ devoid of intrinsic value” (p. 326). In framing both platforms and users themselves as intermediaries, Bourdieu’s account resonates with the free labour thesis in terms of how the “cultural turn” in organizational thinking renders work as central to class identity, with workers enacting new forms of emotional labour that help them stay afloat in uncertain working situations (du Gay, 1997; du Gay & Pryke, 2002).
In preparation for these precarious working conditions in creative industries such as music, fashion, and photography, the four participants in my study evidenced multiple ways of performing labour in creating UGC—their reflections led to the iterative construction of the labour model I just described. But the framework most salient to them in accounting for their labour rested on an apprenticeship model of UGC, where current participation was seen as a non-remunerated training ground, driven by the promise of notoriety that begets autonomous future employment. This move toward professionalization through UGC tends to be based on the cultivation of a particular “branded self” (Hearn 2010), where identity formation gets shaped by the exigencies of an imagined future profession in what Mark Banks (2010) has termed a “negotiated autonomy”: a constant process of tactical movement between precarious and liberatory subject positions in digital cultural production. This process is what Shawn, Angelika, Marilis, and Laura—all in their early 20s—were apprenticing into through UGC production, where negotiated autonomy serves as the hallmark of new media working conditions. It draws on an ideology of liberation that “poses the freedom and autonomy of working for oneself against the banality of office-based, hierarchically organized and traditional employment,” despite the actual lived precariousness of free and freelance labour (Gill 2007, 14).
In this context, the term “apprenticeship” is used heuristically, in an anthropological sense, to describe the practical training of young people for a specific mode of craft production. This training, which involves the two simultaneous processes of socialization (learning the skills, values and norms of the profession) and social control (determining the worker’s place in the occupational hierarchy), happens online in an informal and self-directed way (Graves, 1989; Coy, 1989). The participants searched out and constructed their own “masters” out of the pool of UGC success stories, as a way of entering into creative professions in the context of high youth unemployment during the transitional phase leading into adulthood (Hamilton 1990). While this kind of apprenticeship is thus implicit and not bound by labour contracts, it can still be seen as a form of free labour that creates value for commercial web platforms through violations of users’ privacy and intellectual property rights. UGC as an extension of the subject gets consolidated in commodity form and exchanged on the marketplace without the individual’s control or even knowledge. In this way, the contractual terms of Web 2.0 platforms delimit the rights of young people engaged in UGC apprenticeship labour, marginalizing and devaluing their work of cultural production.
Using the term apprenticeship to describe how this study’s participants envision their investment in creating online content is meant to also highlight the way that age in particular serves as a pivotal axis along which their labour’s value gets determined. At the same time, it underscores how they are learning not only the practices of online cultural production, but the attendant norms of free and immaterial labour, such as precarity, flexibility, and self-exploitation – they are learning to negotiate autonomy.
Here are a few examples from the series of interviews and observations I conducted with this group of young Montrealers, all of whom used their UGC practice as a means to cultivate professional identities for creative industries:
Shawn, 21, explained: “I started my blog because I figured I’m a journalism student who wants to work at a fashion magazine, so therefore I need credibility. And now, the best, and easiest, way to get any kind of credibility is through a blog” (September 25, 2009). In positioning UGC as something of a stepping stone toward a more traditional creative career, Shawn saw his blog as a bridge between a teenage impulse toward personal expression and his aspiration for a career in fashion journalism. Web 2.0 platforms like Tumblr and Twitter enabled Shawn to develop a portfolio of work that could garner some notoriety, while he was also learning about the contours of an industry where, as he claimed, “nobody gets paid.” Despite his recognition of the slim likelihood of getting paid as a fashion blogger, Shawn cited examples of small-town Canadian bloggers who had “made it” – examples that reflected popular notions of gaining notoriety and thus monetary compensation from UGC, an essential element of the liberatory myths about the supposed democratization of media production, where good ideas, even from small producers, get rewarded with fame and fortune.
In contrast to Shawn, Angelika, 23, was adamant that her blogging was diametrically opposed to explicit career goals, and that her photography blog did not serve as a direct route to professional development. Her blogging was seen as “more for fun and just to get information out there, and just, put myself out there—not really for a professional thing” (October 19, 2009). At the same time, though, Angelika conceded that while putting herself “out there” on the blog was just “for fun,” her online presence also had implications for future professionalization. Rather than aiming for a career in photo-journalism or commercial photography, Angelika described her career ambitions as: “I want to do visual culture” (October 19, 2009). She noted that in this context, she could probably use her blog as a kind of calling card. And, when we revisited this issue in a later interview session, Angelika said that even if she weren’t to show anyone the blog, it fulfilled the important function of being a place to maintain her creative production: “It makes me feel like I’m doing something creative” (February 5, 2010).
Similarly, while Marilis, 20, had worked as a journalist, her career aspirations had less to do with writing and more to do with planning and promoting cultural events. For her, blogging also served as an indirect route to cultivating a more professional persona; one of her blogs is an online portfolio of the events she has been involved in putting together. Yet as Marilis describes it, “event planning” probably doesn’t even encompass all of the kids of production she would like to do, which include styling, art direction, and band management. Reflecting her diverse interests in cultural production both online and offline, Marilis was working on a web-based television show that would feature local artists, and that would allow her to be involved in various aspects of production. The expertise and connections that enabled Marilis to take part in such a production in the first place came from blogging, primarily the street-style blog Pregnant Goldfish. As part of putting together Pregnant Goldfish, Marilis worked with a team, going around the city to different events, meeting people—mostly stylish young people and musical artists—to take their photographs, and presenting them on the blog with brief, whimsical written descriptions. In this way, Marilis’s blogging had led to her current career goals of event planning, promotion and production activities, even while she felt that she had little understanding of her rights as a prolific producer of content for several online platforms.
Laura, 24, wrote the gossip blog for the Toronto daily newspaper, Metro News, where she worked on cultivating a unique journalistic voice in the context of pop cultural critique, in the hopes of someday working as a fashion and culture critic. She described her apprenticeship as trying to emulate the writing style and promotional strategies of her favourite blogger, 28-year-old Michael K of Dlisted, who she read religiously in an effort to cultivate a similar style. Yet at the same time, Laura acknowledged how improbable it would be to make a living from blogging – particularly in her satirical description of the ideal patronage scenario: “just try to find a rich person who likes my opinions… like, ‘I find this blogger really funny, I want them to write just for me and my friends, we’ll read it on our yacht’” (October 27, 2009). What made this comment humorous was precisely the absurdity of Laura’s far-fetched plan to secure a wealthy blog patron. I think her understanding of how unlikely it is to get paid for blogging also contributed to her assertion that she gained many friendships through blogging, and experienced “huge emotional fulfillment and creative expression […] from being able to just write what I want” (October 27, 2009). So UGC production was not only applicable toward making money, but toward making friends and making the self – as Laura added, blogging has allowed her to learn certain “good lessons” like humility, while she also contended that the endless striving and self-promotion involved threatened to turn over-ambitious bloggers into “monsters.”
To conclude, I hope these brief vignettes convey how the participants’ sometimes ambivalent faith in UGC as a place where they could cultivate a do-it-yourself kind of apprenticeship offers some new provocations around the notion of free immaterial labour in Web 2.0 environments. The free labour theory, prescient for its time, remains extremely useful for teasing out the different kinds of labour involved in online cultural production, especially once it is paired with older theories of emotional labour, the commodity audience, and new cultural intermediaries. Users’ sense of the value of cultural production tends to be located within labour structures that are both apparent, as in the emotional and creative work that goes into the production of UGC, and hidden, as in the way that free labour as well as personal information are exploited through commercial imperatives. In this way, Web 2.0 as a training ground for online cultural production offers users an apprenticeship model where they get inculcated in the naturalized structures of risk and precarious labour. The future promise of remuneration remains a touchstone for competing desires to be compensated for labour time while also upholding some notion of unpaid, autonomous creativity. This autonomy further implicates the labour of identity formation that remains crucial for young people in their online cultural production. In this context, identity work encapsulates not only professionalization, self branding and exploration/play, but citizenship and its attendant rights structures within the process of “negotiated autonomy.” As opposed to the radical autonomy envisioned in the theories of immaterial labour, negotiated autonomy posits that workers make the best of the multiple aspects of exploitation in their employment conditions under late capitalism, in which, as Banks asserts, “autonomy can play a more multipart (and liberating) role than that conventionally ascribed by orthodox critics, acting as a resource for underpinning a variety of practices and courses of action” (p. 262).
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Tamara Shepherd received her PhD from Concordia University (Joint Doctorate in Communication) in June 2012. She has published and presented papers on aspects of labour, literacy, and rights in user-generated content and new media policy, from a feminist political economy perspective. Her dissertation is titled “Persona Rights in Young People’s Labour of Online Cultural Production: Implications for New Media Policy.”
Thanks to the participants for generously sharing their experiences with me and enlivening the research. Thanks also to Leslie Regan Shade for her invaluable guidance and support. This research was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by the Faculty of Arts and Science at Concordia University.