The labor of online product promotion: Barriers to collective action
First Monday

The labor of online product promotion: Barriers to collective action by Daniel Carter



Abstract
Theorists have suggested that precarity — an experience of risk and uncertainty — increasingly describes the work experiences of many different kinds of contractual workers: from highly paid freelancers to those who pick up odd jobs. Theorists have further suggested that this common experience of precarity might serve as the basis for collective action. I contribute to this discussion by attempting to understand how individuals who work online promoting products experience precarity in different ways. Based on interviews with professional bloggers and members of a group that I refer to as the flexibly unemployed, I describe the characteristics and work practices of these groups, as well as their interactions. I argue that bloggers’ exploitation of the flexibly unemployed, together with their ideologies toward labor, act as barriers to collective action. I conclude by suggesting that, rather than imagining that workers from different classes will find common ground, communication systems should be developed that allow workers to network and share information in ways that are isolated from members of other classes and outside of online work platforms that commoditize social relationships and interactions.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Background: Contractualised, precarious labor
3. Methods
4. Findings
5. Discussion
6. Conclusions

 


 

1. Introduction

Mary is a professional blogger. She used to work in real estate but got out during the last financial crisis and started a blog that promotes products for brands. The first month after attending a blogging conference, she made US$2000 in advertising revenue. Now she runs two blogs and gets paid to attend conferences. “Brands are paying me to go represent them and talk about them,” she says. At this point, she has so much work that she hires an assistant, an illegal immigrant at the time the two began working together, to write some of her blogs’ content. She makes between US$350 and US$500 per blog post.

Katherine doesn’t consider herself a blogger, but her work looks a lot like Mary’s — she reviews products and posts promotional messages to her social media accounts. From this perspective, Katherine and Mary might both be considered, broadly, to be content producers, and their work might sometimes be seen as a form of “creative expression” (Papacharissi, 2012) or even “produsage” (Bruns, 2007). They’re also similar in that both engage in highly contractualised forms of labor — like freelancers or workers in the gig economy, they accept short-term contracts with no obligation on either the worker or the employer to continue the employment relationship. Katherine and Mary both understand that next month’s income might fall drastically and that they might lose their ability to secure new contracts at any time.

However, despite similarities in the nature of their work arrangements, Mary and Katherine’s lives are very different. While Mary makes several thousands of dollars per month, Katherine estimates that she might make fifty. She got sick a few years ago and ended up on disability: “I was just trying to find ways to get things that I could use so I didn’t have to go buy them,” she explains. She uses her income from online product promotion to help feed her five dogs, and, where Mary is happy to get a free vacation from a brand she works for, Katherine is happy when she receives a discount on a bottle of shampoo.

Proponents of contractualised labor argue that workers prefer the flexibility of setting their own schedules, but critics claim that such arrangements push risk and insecurity onto workers (Kalleberg, 2011; Malin and Chandler, 2017). Consequently, theorists argue that the increasing contractualisation of labor places more workers in conditions of precarity, defined by Ross [1] as “intermittent employment and radical uncertainty about the future.” However, Katherine and Mary’s stories help to reveal how people of different classes experience this precarity differently.

Drawing on interviews with bloggers and a group that I refer to as the flexibly unemployed, this article examines the contractualised labor of online product promotion in order to better understand how members of different classes experience what are assumed to be precarious conditions. I specifically focus on interactions between these two groups in order to contribute to discussions of precarity as a potential basis for collective action. Because the concept of precarity applies to members of many classes, theorists have “attempt[ed] to identify or imagine precarious, contingent or flexible workers as a new kind of political subject, replete with their own forms of collective organization and modes of expression” [2]. However, as Ross (2009) notes, the extent to which workers of very different classes will find common political cause is questionable. As I argue below, barriers to such cooperation include neoliberal labor ideologies and the exploitation of contractualised workers by other contractualised workers. I conclude by suggesting that, rather than imagining that workers from different classes will find common ground, communication systems should be developed that allow workers to network and share information in ways that are isolated from members of other classes and outside of online work platforms that commoditize social relationships and interactions.

 

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2. Background: Contractualised, precarious labor

Social, political and economic developments beginning in the mid-1970s brought about changes in the nature of labor arrangements, weakening the Fordist standard employment relation (SER) and making more prevalent contingent labor based on short-term contracts. As Vosko (2011) describes, the SER is defined in relation to employee status, working hours, permanency and the performance of work at an employer’s worksite. Under the SER, in exchange for loyalty and continued productivity, workers receive employment security as well as wages, entitlements and other social benefits sufficient for the support of a household [3].

The decline of the SER is rooted in the transition from a Keynesian economic paradigm that privileges labor market security to a neoliberal paradigm that emphasizes private property, free markets and free trade, leading to deregulation and the weakening of social benefits [4]. Internationally, the market-driven policies of neoliberalism — along with advances in information technology, increased economic integration and price competition — led to the development of flexible production processes and employment systems [5]. Rather than life-long workers, employers sought labor that could be hired and fired as needed, resulting in an increase of non-standard work relations (e.g., temp work, contract work, part-time work and freelancing) over those characterized by the SER [6]. Arnold and Bongiovi (2013) describe the consequences for workers of such nonstandard relations as:

a decline in attachment to employers, an increase in long-term unemployment, growth in perceived and real job insecurity, increasing non-standard and contingent work, risk shifting from employers to employees, a lack of workplace safety, and an increase in work-based stress and harassment. [7]

One critical response to neoliberal labor practices, the elaboration of precarity as an experience that spans many categories of labor, focuses on the redistribution of risk. As Standing [8] points out, the Keynesian era, in which large portions of the population fell under the SER, was built on an understanding that capital bore the bulk of risk and insecurity, whereas neoliberalism, as both a set of concrete policies and also an ideology extending from the state to the individual, entreats workers to participate in risky markets themselves. Short-term and nonstandard contracts enable employers to better respond to fluctuations in labor demands while also allowing workers to see themselves as self-employed “free agents” in a market in which some thrive but most merely subsist [9]. While short-term and non-standard contracts respond to the desires of young workers who seek flexible schedules and an alternative to the “leaden cage” of the Fordist SER [10], they also place risk on individual workers, leaving them without the security of guaranteed work or benefits from employers or the state.

An important feature of the concept of precarity is that it can be applied to a wide range of individuals, from highly skilled consultants to creative workers, low-paid temp workers and migrant workers. This has led to a set of arguments that posit new social classes based on the shared experience of risk and uncertainty. One of the most prominent of these arguments revolves around the precariat, a broad group described in relation to the shared experiences that emerge in relation to nonstandard labor relations (Standing, 2011). Characteristics of the precariat include a distrust of the state, the loss of community support and a work-based identity (Standing, 2011) and uncertainty about the future [11]. Especially in Europe, groupings such as the precariat, which cut across conventional class borders, are seen as the basis for new social movements that have the potential to speak to a broad range of concerns, from state benefits to gender equality and migrant rights (see, for example, Casas-Cortés, 2014).

Indeed, one of the benefits of the concept of precarious work is that it does serve as a useful analytic lens on the commonalities of labor in situations where, for example, concepts such as formal and informal work often fail to adequately capture the breadth of contemporary labor arrangements [12]. However, those critical of the unifying potential of precarity cast doubt on the likelihood of “a highly trained aristocracy of labor, intermittently employed in high-end sectors, find[ing] common cause, simply on the basis of insecurity, with the less skilled casually employed in low-end jobs” [13].

Perhaps more pointedly, Fuchs (2010) argues that labor analyses based on common experiences lead to a conception of class that, in contrast to a Marxist conception of class, does not focus on exploitation and the individual’s position in relation to capital. For example, Florida (2004), in describing what he refers to as the creative class, implies that it is the end product of work, and not the conditions of that work, which defines class — a problem that holds as well for many descriptions of knowledge or information work. As Fuchs [14] points out, analyses that focus on common experiences or the product of labor “ideologically forestall insight into the economic differences and relations between the rich and the poor, owners and non-owners of capital and wealth, the wealthy and precarious workers, employers and employees.” In the context of the workers discussed in this article, while they all produce blog posts and other social media content, they hold many different positions that could be captured by an analysis of labor and class. Some perform this work as a way to supplement the income of a primary wage earner; some perform this work as their household’s primary wage earner but scrape by on low-paying, infrequent jobs; and others perform this work in a way that entails the high pay and status of consultants and minor celebrities. Some negotiate contracts directly with brands, while others work through a series of intermediaries. While all these individuals experience precarity and perform work outside the SER, they do so in markedly different ways.

In order to differentiate between workers who may produce similar products but who also have distinct relationships to capital, Standing [15] outlines what he refers to as the “globalization class structure,” which introduces “new classes and forms of economic stratification ... with distinctive sets of entitlements and patterns of security.” He bases his analysis on two characteristics of workers: composition of social income and exposure to economic insecurity. Standing describes social income as composed of self-production (e.g., goods that are consumed, bartered or sold), wage benefits, community and family benefits, enterprise benefits (e.g., employer-provided health insurance), state benefits (e.g., various forms of social services and state-supported insurance programs) and private income from investments.

Based on the amount and composition of workers’ social income and also their exposure to different types of economic insecurity, Standing describes seven social strata. Because I am particularly interested in the experience of precarity, Standing’s discussion of proficians, flexiworkers and the unemployed is especially relevant here. Unlike elites (who have exceedingly high income from capital investments) or the salariat (who have stable employment and receive enterprise benefits), members of these strata engage in highly contractualised work:

  • Proficians resemble highly skilled consultants or craft workers; they have low employment, job and work security but receive unusually high flexible wage benefits. As I argue below, the professional bloggers interviewed for this project tend to resemble proficians.
  • Flexiworkers “comprise a disparate group in non-regular work statuses, including all forms of casual worker, outworkers and agency workers ... their common characteristic is insecurity in all forms” [16]. While flexiworkers, like proficians, receive higher than average flexible wage benefits, their non-standard work status results in low enterprise and state benefits (such as insurance and other forms of social protection). In 2007 Standing noted that the number of flexiworkers was increasing, and more recent studies conclude the same (Katz and Krueger, 2016).
  • The unemployed also experience insecurity in all forms but additionally lack the flexible wage benefits that are available to flexiworkers.

As I argue below, in order to understand online labor and the potential for collective action, it’s important to consider the interactions between members of these classes. As I demonstrate, workers who align with Standing’s description of proficians often have relationships with members of the salariat that mitigate their exposure to risk. Further, I find that the proficians interviewed for this study rely on the precarious conditions of the flexibly unemployed in order to grow their businesses and further reduce their exposure to negative working conditions.

 

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3. Methods

In order to identify individuals who promote products online, I collected messages to the social media platform Twitter that contained either the hashtag #ad or #sponsored. According to FTC guidelines (U.S. Federal Trade Commission, 2015), individuals who promote products online must disclose that they’re being compensated, and I found these two hashtags to be frequently used for this purpose. In order to avoid an unusual event biasing my collection, I gathered tweets for one week at a time, with collection periods spaced six weeks apart. Following this schedule, I collected 473,122 tweets between January 2016 and July 2016.

I first conducted exploratory analysis of this dataset, looking for patterns between different kinds of users and attempting to locate groups that might relate to Standing’s description of classes that experience precarity. During this process, I found that users could be meaningfully divided between those who included a link in their Twitter profile and those who did not — accounts with links usually belong to bloggers who are promoting products and their own blog content. In contrast, users who use #ad or #sponsored and do not include a link in their profile tend to be individuals with different characteristics than the bloggers discussed above. Most obviously, these users have far fewer followers than bloggers and, instead of linking to their own blog, they typically link to promotional pages on company’s Web sites.

Prior work indicates that compensation for bloggers and similar social media users with large followings can be quite high and that these people often resemble Standing’s description of proficians (e.g., Marwick, 2013). I conducted an informal manual review of users who did not include links in their Twitter profiles and consequently assumed that these people likely resemble flexiworkers, as I noticed that they appeared to be completing small tasks for companies in ways that indicated contractual work with low compensation. For example, it’s evident from many of these users’ tweets that they are completed through various, easily identifiable online labor platforms, whose policies and compensation structures I was able to review. As I describe below, while I initially assumed that members of this group would resemble flexiworkers, I came to see them as closer to Standing’s description of the unemployed.

In order to identify individuals from these two groups to interview, I first filtered my dataset to include only users who had used #ad or #sponsored at least ten times during my collection periods. I then created random samples of users who either included a link in their Twitter profile or did not (from here on I refer to these groups as bloggers and the flexibly unemployed). I verified that the selected users were individuals (and not accounts representing companies) and contacted them over e-mail (if an address was available) or Twitter to request an interview. I iteratively sampled and conducted semi-structured interviews with members of each group until reaching saturation, ultimately interviewing 23 bloggers and 14 flexibly unemployed persons. Interviews were conducted over phone, Skype or, in several cases, online chat or e-mail.

 

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4. Findings

In this section I describe the characteristics and work practices of bloggers and the flexibly unemployed before noting several ways the groups interact.

Bloggers

Bloggers with whom I spoke have relatively high incomes and often rely on some form of enterprise benefits, attached either to a primary job or that of a partner. While they encounter the same insecurities that characterize many forms of contractualised employment, such as inconsistent or lost income, their experience of precarity is moderated by additional forms of security that allow them to manage their exposure to risk.

Bloggers receive compensation through the completion of contracts that are formed either directly with brands or with marketing companies that serve as intermediaries. Examples of contracts include producing sponsored content (such as a blog post that features a brand’s product) in exchange for a fixed payment, producing content that is compensated on a per-view or per-click basis (such as sharing a link to a coupon) or moderating online discussions. While compensation for these contracts can vary widely with the size and value of a blogger’s audience, participants typically described making between US$200 and US$1,000 per blog post, and several participants claimed that their annual income from blogging was over US$100,000. Bloggers do describe this income as unstable in the short term (they may have a bad month or need to plan their budgets around business cycles or tourism seasons), but they also say that, over the long term, they experience consistently rising incomes and feel little anxiety about losing their niches.

Bloggers’ relatively high flexible wage benefits are often paired with additional benefits from a primary job or that of a partner. One participant, for example, described her “day job” as an electrical engineer and noted that her husband works in the tech industry. Others described leaving high-paying jobs in engineering or television (often to raise children), saying that they either make more money blogging or are able to rely on a partner’s wages. Notably, these examples of primary jobs and partners’ jobs are often professional positions that entail enterprise benefits such as health insurance. In this way, while bloggers resemble Standing’s descriptions of proficians, their positions are complicated by their access to benefits that are associated with salaried employees.

The security provided by these additional benefits allows bloggers to experience and describe unstable work conditions in distinct ways. Indeed, bloggers often narrate their entry into blogging as an escape from precarious situations. One participant, for example, worked previously in real estate but notes, “When the economy, the crisis, I gave up. ... When I gave up real estate, it was really hard for my family.” She now receives US$350 to US$500 for producing a blog post, which might be written by an assistant. Another participant describes her blogging income as mediating the instability of a partner’s unemployment: “Well for me, for us right now, it’s everything. We would be homeless without my income because my husband is unemployed, and it’s the only money we have.” In these descriptions, the precarity entailed in contractualised work seldom comes to full fruition; instead, bloggers and their partners rely on existing benefits to either smooth out difficult times or mitigate the risks of engaging in contract labor.

However, despite their access to enterprise benefits and other forms of security, bloggers talk about their work in ways that strongly align with neoliberal conceptions of workers as entrepreneurs who determine their own success. Bloggers consistently describe themselves as hard-working and deserving of the wage benefits they receive. After telling me that her US$70,000 per year income from blogging is not needed, in her household, to “make ends meet,” for example, one blogger reiterated, “Don’t get me wrong. I work hard. Most days I work from 4:30 am until 6–8 pm.” Other bloggers similarly stressed the level of commitment to their own success. One discussed the sacrifices she made to attend her first blogging conference: “I invested in myself. I paid for the conference.” And, as I discuss in more detail below, bloggers further invest in themselves by hiring assistants who allow them to produce more content and further grow their audiences.

The flexibly unemployed

The group of online workers I discuss in this section perform a variety of small-scale tasks to promote products on social media. Some spend their days entering online sweepstakes. Others complete tasks such as retweeting an advertisement in exchange for points that can be converted into gift cards. Of the fourteen participants in this group, seven work by performing small tasks such as tweeting a link or posting a picture in exchange for product samples, coupons or points that can be exchanged for gift cards. The remaining seven work primarily by posting promotional material to social media platforms in exchange for a chance to win a product or cash prize. Additionally, several participants in this group supplement their income by completing online surveys for compensation, although all expressed that they preferred other kinds of work. For the most part, these contracts are available to anyone who uses social media — while one participant described the difficulty of working without a smartphone (she eventually purchased a pay-as-you-go phone with her income tax refund) and another described being unable to complete promotional tasks because she couldn’t afford the materials necessary (“They want you to take a picture of you eating lobster. I don’t eat lobster and I can’t afford lobster, which is why I’m getting Amazon gift cards”), for the companies running these promotions, there is no shortage of workers.

Two of the participants in this group perform the work described above while working a full-time job; one is a teacher, and another enters sweepstakes while working a retail position. Following the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) guidelines, the remainder would not be considered part of the labor force, as they are neither employed in a conventional position nor seeking work. One is retired. One is disabled. One is a student enrolled in online classes while taking care of her daughter. Many others describe themselves as “stay-at-home moms.”

Due to the nature of their work, participants in this group hover between Standing’s categories of flexiworkers and the unemployed. While the BLS would see many of them as unemployed, they often see themselves as working or “earning” and consciously engage in forms of highly contractualised labor. This work is one manifestation of companies’ increasing reliance on informal and short-term, contractual labor arrangements (noted, for example, by Doorn, 2017) — while highly visible on-demand drivers and delivery persons receive the bulk of attention in this regard, participants in this group represent an invisible form of contractualised work that takes place out of public view, online and in the home. For these reasons, I refer to this group as the flexibly unemployed.

The compensation received by the flexibly unemployed varies widely between individuals and is often highly inconsistent from month to month. Several participants estimated that they earned several hundred dollars each month through their activities, combining money earned directly (usually in the form of gift cards) with savings from coupons and the value of free products they receive. One participant who enters sweepstakes estimated that she earns between US$50 and US$3,000 per month, emphasizing the unpredictability of benefits. Other participants estimated that they earn much less, with roughly half of this group claiming that they make less than US$100 per month. While these participants often have trouble estimating how many hours they spend working in these ways, all but two said that they work at least 10 hours per week, and three said that they work over 30 hours per week. Based on participants’ estimates of their earnings (including free products and savings through coupons) and number of hours worked, hourly wages range from 25 cents per hour to US$11 per hour, with an average estimated hourly income of US$2.45.

Further, while bloggers often have partners in professional positions who receive high wage and enterprise benefits, the flexibly unemployed tend to either not have partners or to have partners who engage in contractual work that does not provide stable income or benefits. One participant, for example, described a situation in which her sweepstakes winnings supported her family during a period in which they lacked other relevant state or enterprise benefits:

Last year we had our third child, and my husband took off work. He is a contractor in the alarm industry, not a part of any company. The pay is more, but the downside is that if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid. No vacation or sick days. So when he took off, my sweeps winnings paid our bills and rent for almost two months, and we didn’t have to touch our savings.

Apart from these occasional examples of large sweepstakes winnings, however, most participants in this group describe their compensation in terms such as “something extra” or “my extra little money.” However, while bloggers also at times describe their income as “extra,” the meaning of that term has to be understood in relation to participants’ household finances. The most frequently described use of “extra” money for the flexibly unemployed, for example, was birthday and Christmas presents for children. At other times, “extra” money was described as contributing in ways that are closely tied to households’ day-to-day needs. Several participants, for example, described the benefit of receiving products such as shampoo, tampons, headache medicine or dog food.

In addition to low benefits, members of this group also experience high levels of insecurity. While the forms of this insecurity — such as inconsistent payments and sudden termination of contracts — are similarly relevant to proficians such as bloggers, the extent to which the flexibly unemployed chose to focus on these hardships while narrating their work is notable. Rather than entrepreneurs who take responsibility for their own success, the flexibly unemployed tended to express a much greater awareness of the extent to which they are subject to external (and often exploitative) forces.

Participants complained, for example, that they could be refused contracts with no explanation and lack recourse when receiving payments late or not at all, especially in relation to completing surveys:

A lot of the surveys out there, I don’t really like. Because there’s a lot of survey sites where you take survey after survey after survey, and you keep getting booted out for this one and that one, because they’re looking for too specific of a group. Then you end up spending hours on hours just doing surveys, and you don’t even get any rewards out of it.

Other participants described platforms in which the rules around compensation were unclear. One participant, for example, writes product reviews on Facebook and says that she is compensated in relation to the number of times their content is shared — however, the formula for converting shares into compensation is unclear to her: “it’s not really points because they don’t have a point system and they won’t tell us how much it’s actually worth.”

Beyond the extent to which the flexibly unemployed see their work as controlled by external forces, the most striking difference between their statements and those of bloggers involves motivations for work. While bloggers tend to see themselves as entrepreneurs or as companies, the flexibly unemployed with whom I spoke describe being motivated more by feelings of social isolation or desires to feel as if they were somehow “earning” or “providing.” Several participants strongly identified as “homemakers” or as “old-fashioned girls” whose job is to manage a house, and for these women, promoting products online is a way to feel as if they are contributing to their household. As one participant told me, promoting products online “does help me as a three-year homemaker feel as if I am contributing to the family financially ... .. Honestly [a specific online platform] has helped me more in self-worth then anything.” Similarly, many participants described seldom leaving their homes, either stating this directly or implicitly through descriptions of their everyday routines. Reflecting on why they perform the work they do, these participants make clear the emotional consequences of their work. For example, one participant told me, “I actually never get out of the house. ... [Free samples] make me feel better about myself.” These examples of social isolation and emotional rewards are especially relevant because, as I describe below, many of the social opportunities offered by their work are mediated through bloggers who rely on the flexibly unemployed to act as both valuable audiences and as low-paid labor.

Relationships between bloggers and the flexibly unemployed

While I located participants and conducted interviews for the two groups discussed above separately, I also encountered unexpected points of convergence between these groups. A stay-at-home mom who enters sweepstakes, for example, mentioned visiting the site of a blogger whom I also interviewed. At other times, bloggers described hiring assistants who share many characteristics with the flexibly unemployed persons I interviewed. As I describe below, these examples indicate how the highly contractualised and highly compensated work of bloggers depends on the similarly contractualised but poorly compensated work of the unemployed.

One of the main ways flexibly unemployed persons interact with bloggers is by acting as an audience, visiting their blogs and following them on social media. Several of the bloggers interviewed for this project, for example, focus their content on alerting readers to free products and coupons; they are compensated by brands for promoting these offers, and many of the flexibly unemployed with whom I spoke described closely monitoring these blogs and social media feeds. Additionally, even bloggers who are not focused on free products and coupons frequently promote giveaways and other brand-initiated contests. These offers are then promoted by other bloggers and seen by the flexibly unemployed. In this way, blogs that serve primarily to promote products acquire audiences comprised of people who also work, although more implicitly, by promoting products.

Bloggers and flexibly unemployed persons also interact through online events moderated by bloggers. Twitter parties, for example, are promotional events occurring on Twitter during which a host — usually a popular blogger — provides information about products, asks questions that reinforce product knowledge and brand loyalty and distribute prizes (usually in the form of free products) to participants. Bloggers sometimes described contracts to host Twitter parties as especially lucrative (especially given that many bloggers script and automate much of their participation in these events), while flexibly unemployed persons sometimes complained that the parties are too time consuming (often requiring participation over the course of an hour). In these ways, bloggers rely on audiences of people who have abundant free time and who lack jobs from which they earn higher compensation. While bloggers do not directly hire these audiences, they facilitate the transfer of compensation from brands to flexibly unemployed persons, acting as middlemen who can attract large numbers of people to a brand’s promotion.

Many bloggers also directly hire flexibly unemployed persons to complete small, routine tasks. Ten of the 23 bloggers interviewed for this project engage in this practice, employing assistants to complete tasks ranging from writing content to promoting the blogger’s content on social media. The most common kind of work outsourced to assistants is completing bloggers’ obligations to Facebook groups that are used to increase engagement with social media content. These groups, referred to by participants as “blogger support groups,” are often private (members typically have to prove that they are successful bloggers to join) and have daily discussion threads that support members in various ways. For example, one thread might help group members get comments on their blog posts — members post a link to one of their blog posts and are then obligated to visit all the other links on the “chore thread” and leave a comment, thus increasing the perceived value of the blog. One participant, for example, told me that almost all of the comments on her blog are produced in this way.

Bloggers I interviewed describe hiring assistants to perform the tasks required by these Facebook groups. Sometimes the assistants are hired on an ongoing basis and are people the bloggers know or have met through their work; at other times, they are hired through online services such as Fiverrrr or services that focus specifically on social media support work. As bloggers are compensated in relation to the audience and engagement they can offer brands, these activities are central to their work, as indicated by one blogger’s description of her use of assistants in self-promotion:

Then I have several groups in Facebook that I add my links to so that it will be re-shared by everyone else who adds their link. Then I send a reporting form to my VA [virtual assistant] team and they complete the threads for me. After that is taken care of, I also join a comment thread where I comment on everyone’s post and they comment on mine. I also join click groups and Alexa to drive traffic to my blog and my VA team completes those threads as well.

From the perspective of what is produced, the work of assistants closely resembles that performed by both bloggers and the flexibly unemployed persons discussed above: broadly, all of these people produce content that they distribute on social media. Further, like the work of the flexibly unemployed, contracts with assistants are short-term, contractual and carry few restrictions on who is eligible to work. As such, they likely attract similarly marginalized individuals — indeed, several bloggers described the advantages of this kind of work for immigrants who cannot work legally in the United States:

It was incredible, because she was going through very difficult times. She was working on getting her immigration status legal. She wasn’t able to work. She was taking care of a little kid at home for a friend, so she wasn’t making any money.

The compensation for bloggers’ assistants varies considerably. One blogger claimed that assistants can make several hundred dollars per month. Another described paying an assistant three dollars per chore thread, and another said that she compensates her assistants by sharing with them free products that brands give her. As with bloggers’ reliance on low-paid, flexibly unemployed persons to act as audiences, their entrepreneurial expansion relies on the existence of a workforce with flexible time and a willingness to work for levels of compensation that would likely be illegal if their labor was classified so as to fall under labor laws.

 

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5. Discussion

Barriers to collective action

In relation to the suggestion that the increasingly common experience of precarity might unify workers from diverse socioeconomic classes, the findings presented above indicate specific political goals that could bridge the concerns of different kinds of online workers — however, they primarily indicate challenges to achieving such broad collective action.

Both bloggers and the flexibly unemployed do experience notable precarity. In relation to weak work security (for example, the lack of limits on working time and hours) and income security (e.g., the lack of an applicable minimum wage), bloggers and the flexibly unemployed have much in common. Income security is one area in which proficians and the flexibly unemployed might find particularly strong common cause, especially for proficians with relatively low wage benefits. The lowest-paid blogger with whom I spoke, for example, said that she earns 50 dollars per blog post and that this probably translates to roughly six to seven dollars per hour. Notably, this was the only time during my interviews that participants brought up anything related to or resembling labor organizing:

I definitely think a lot of us deserve more pay because this is a ton of work. We had a big discussion [on a Facebook group] about cutting it down to the hourly rate. Like, if we really cut it down, how much per hour we’re earning, it’s kind of bad. So, that’s just my one complaint ... Even for these blogging companies, I think they are taking a lot of that money and pouring it into their business and not giving the bloggers what they deserve.

Like this blogger, the flexibly unemployed persons with whom I spoke would also benefit from having their labor recognized in a way that would make minimum wage laws applicable. However, a strong barrier to recognizing groups’ common precarious status in this regard is proficians’ reliance on the low-cost labor of the flexibly unemployed. The same blogger, above, who complained about her hourly compensation, for example, participates in Facebook “support” groups and is also paid to host Twitter parties, both activities that rely on the labor of the flexibly unemployed. As the blogger quoted above recognizes, bloggers are exploited by marketing companies and brands — but the nature of their work passes the exploitation down the line to the flexibly unemployed. For bloggers who hire illegal immigrants or pay their assistants by sharing free products, increased income security for all contractual workers would negatively impact their business strategies.

Another barrier to collective action is likely bloggers’ belief in self-reliance. While bloggers often have access to enterprise benefits or wages from a primary job or that of a partner to mitigate the risks of precarious work, they describe themselves as entrepreneurs who have bootstrapped their way to success. Like the tech workers described by Lane (2011), who always assume their contracts will be terminated and, in response, behave as “companies of one,” bloggers believe strongly in individual agency and are unlikely to support labor reform either at the governmental or organizational levels. While Standing (2007) notes a similar attitude in relation to members of the salariat class, one of the contributions of this paper is in suggesting that the same tendency might be shared by those who have access to the benefits available to this class either through a partner or through holding multiple jobs.

Implications

These barriers question the extent to which individuals with varying relationships to capital can be expected to cooperate in bringing about labor reforms that would support workers who share common experiences of precarity. Indeed, one implication of this discussion of online product promotion is that workers in marginal positions need spaces in which they can communicate among themselves precisely without interacting with individuals of other classes. This is especially true for online workers who already lack the social benefits of co-located work. As Gray, et al. (2016) find, online labor platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service do not meet all of workers’ technical or social needs. Their study shows how online workers network with each other through social media, text messaging, phone calls and in-person meetings in order to share information about the reputations of employers as well as to form social relationships. The flexibly unemployed persons I spoke with for this project share much with workers on platforms such as Mechanical Turk, including the nature of their work (completing repetitious tasks for low pay), uncertainty around employer reliability and social isolation. However, the work of product promotion is in some ways unique because it is treated as if it is not work and is instead a social opportunity. Common contracts ask people to share their opinions about products or to broadcast promotions on their social media feeds. Twitter parties are described as fun and interactive ways to meet other consumers. And blogs claim to include comments sections as a way for readers to communicate with each other and with bloggers. However, as I’ve shown above, these activities for the most part only produce an illusion of social connection. Most of the flexibly unemployed persons interviewed here have very small social media followings. Twitter parties are described as tedious task completion, and the host with whom participants interact is sometimes just an automated script. And, as a result of the ways blogger support groups and virtual assistants are used to inflate the perceived value of audiences, blogs’ comment sections are often full of short comments made out of obligation rather than as a way to interact socially.

Gray, et al. (2016) conclude with two implications for the design of online work systems: that collaborative tasks be included as a recognized kind of work within online platforms and that the management and encouragement of online workers be similarly recognized and compensated. However, due to the claimed sociality of online product promotion, it seems unlikely that the platforms used by the flexibly unemployed would implement these recommendations. First, the work is already, to a large extent, perceived as collaborative. Second, the management and encouragement of workers has already been turned into an on-demand task — the exploitation of the flexibly unemployed, described above, is largely a result of their management by members of the profician class who mitigate their own precarity by perpetuating that of others. In this context, it seems especially important to note that the encouragement shared by Mechanical Turk workers was embedded within social relationships that exist outside of labor platforms and, consequently, are not tied to performance metrics and compensation systems. The effectiveness of bringing social relationships back to work, in the explicit (and likely quantified) ways demanded by online work platforms, calls for further research.

Irani and Silverman’s (2013) Turkopticon project provides an alternate model for promoting collective action among online workers. Turkopticon is an online platform that allows workers on the Mechanical Turk platform to share information about tasks they have completed and employers’ reputations — as such, it provides for many of the needs pointed to by Gray, et al. (2016). Crucially, however, Turkopticon is not embedded within the Mechanical Turk platform but instead offers an independent space where workers can interact without fear of surveillance and away from performance metrics and compensation systems. As a system designed only for one class of workers, Turkopticon does not promote the kind of broad collective action implied by concepts such as the precariat. However, based on the findings presented here, such systems have distinct benefits in circumventing the exploitation that is built into many kinds of online work. Further, to the extent that collective action is built on social relationships, there is value in building online communication platforms for workers outside of reward and compensation structures that increasingly commoditize social relationships and expressions.

 

++++++++++

6. Conclusions

In 2016, eight percent of adults in the United States earned money through an online job platform (Smith, 2016), and, if trends continue, by 2027 one third of American adults will support themselves through online, on-demand gig work (Suri and Gray, 2016). Further, these numbers do not include people, like the bloggers described above, who perform contractualised labor online but do so outside of job platforms. Many of these online workers experience precarity due to shrinking state and enterprise benefits, as well as a lack of various forms of labor security. However, as this article indicates, online workers represent diverse relationships to capital, and the ways individuals experience precarity can vary widely. While members of what Standing refers to as the profician class (such as bloggers) experience inconsistent income, they are often able to rely on the wage and enterprise benefits from a primary job or that of a partner to get through hard times. In contrast, members of what I refer to here as the flexibly unemployed experience their lack of security differently, relying on sporadic winnings and minimal wage benefits to provide basic needs for their households as well as minimal forms of sociality.

While some theorists have suggested that the common experience of precarity might serve as the basis for a broadly based social movement that would advocate, for example, increased state benefits, the findings of this interview-based study suggest barriers to such collective action. Of these, the most prominent are likely to be exploitation of the flexibly unemployed by proficians and neoliberal ideologies, held by proficians, which place agency entirely at the individual level. In relation to the doubt expressed by theorists such as Ross (2009) that highly skilled freelancers will find common ground with groups such as migrant workers and the unemployed, this article details specific barriers and suggests that, to some extent, these barriers are a result of business logics that makes the mitigation of one group’s precarity contingent on perpetuating the precarity of another group. These findings suggest the value of creating spaces where precarious workers can share information and form social relationships away from members of other classes who have different motivations, ideologies and relationships to capital. They further suggest that spaces for workers to communicate should exist independently of online work platforms that commoditize social relationships and interactions. End of article

 

About the author

Daniel Carter is an assistant professor of digital media in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University.
E-mail: dcarter [at] txstate [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Ross, 2009, p. 4.

2. Neilson and Rossiter, 2008, p. 52.

3. Vosko, 2011, p. 4.

4. Harvey, 2005, pp. 2–3.

5. Kalleberg and Hewison, 2013, p. 275.

6. Peuter, 2011, p. 419.

7. Arnold and Bongiovi, 2013, p. 292.

8. Standing, 2007, p. 19.

9. Ross, 2009, p. 14.

10. Standing, 2007, p. 27.

11. Ross, 2009, p. 15.

12. Kalleberg and Hewison, 2013, p. 273.

13. Ross, 2009, p. 15.

14. Fuchs, 2010, p. 180.

15. Standing, 2007, p. 19.

16. Standing, 2007, p. 21.

 

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Editorial history

Received 3 August 2017; revised 15 August 2017; accepted 28 August 2017.


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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The labor of online product promotion: Barriers to collective action
by Daniel Carter.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 10 - 2 October 2017
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/8055/6544
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i110.8055





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