Digital Labor

My colleague Ramesh Srinivasan and I just submitted an article to a journal in which we analyze social entrepreneurs’ digital labor practices. The argument we are making is that one needs to focus on (1) organizational missions, cultures and histories, (2) the nature of the labor (its level of creativity or its invocation of routinized, uncreative time-motion studies!) and the level of agency for workers to choose this labor versus various alternatives, and (3) the level of capitalization of the labor, notably who profits and to what extent from the contributed work. Our case studies, Samasource, a digital labor firm that brings digital work to developing world populations, including refugees and women, and Current TV, a cable network that self describes as “democratizing” documentary production, maintain an interplay between for/non-profit and social empowerment/exploitation. Instead of waiting the 4 months for reviews, or 8 months for publication we’d love some real time feedback on some of the more illustrative examples and concerns that drive this research. (I’ll be presenting this analysis at the American Anthropological Association meeting on Friday at 5 if you prefer embodied engagement).

Jonathan Zittrain’s ‘Minds for Sale’ is a provocative and compelling introduction to digital labor systems, firms, and projects. Networks, when properly articulated and managed, can accumulate a range of creative and uncreative input, he explains, from LiveOpps’ solicitation for physicists to solve a complex theoretical problem, to the more rudimentary shape-detection mouseclicking to assist computer algorithms. The level of creativity solicited in crowdsourced projects is thus a clear element to consider when empirically analyzing digital labor projects, and attempting to inductively link them to virtue-focused or free, exploited labor critiques. Yet, deeper ethnographic analysis concludes that issues like organizational culture, social mobility, history and mission, profit-sharing, and levels of agency complicate Zittrain’s pyramid model of creative (top) —> uncreative (bottom). Our reseach is thus part critique of previous scholarship on free labor/participation, part ethnography, and part analysis of the case studies to show the importance of ethnography to develop more accurate theories. Theories associated with digitally-distributed labor, or the coordination of labor through the use of networked ‘new media’ technologies, tend to fall into idealized, oppositional binaries that are judgmental rather than based on detailed analyses of the actual system or site. As such, they lack the important grounding that ethnography provides and are polemic rather than analytical. If you start ethnographically, it seems likely that these three issues will form a basis of a more nuanced critique of digital social entrepreneurship.

In three following posts, we will consider three anecdotes in order to explore these issues. In the first post we will explore YouTube and the free labor users perform to build value for Google. In the second post, we will ask questions about Amazon’s mTurk microwork system. In a final post we will explore the strange complementarity and conflict of activism video and profiteering on YouTube through an analysis of Iran’s Green Revolution and the grassroots uses of corporate technologies.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures