Digital labor

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Digital labor or digital labour is the exploitation of unpaid labor in the creation of content for social media. Digital labor describes a series of affective and social activities within capitalist modes of production not typically viewed as work, including the increasing participation on social media websites, and the effect of social media on social patterns and communication and the collapse of work and play.

The notion of digital labor has evolved from the traditions of workerist/Operaismo, Autonomism, and Post-Fordist theory that grew during the workers' struggles in Italy, which included a substantial feminist movement in the Wages for housework campaign.

Digital labor as a field also includes consideration of the affect and the axiomatization of the body, collective intelligences, and the hive mind, semiotics and postmodernism, artificial intelligence, science fiction, gaming culture, hyper-reality, disappearance of the commodity, contested definitions of the "knowledge worker" in capitalistic society.


Digital labor borrows from understandings that the cognitive-cultural economy, and the rise of capitalism in the 20th century, has eliminated the previous separation that existed between work and play/entertainment.

The rise of digital labor can be attributed to the shift of human history from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age, as production-based industries declined with the rise of a new digital and information-based economy. Multiple authors, including Christian Fuchs (sociologist) and Sebastian Sevignani, have linked digital labor to the theory of Marxism.[1] Marxism states that capitalism creates a class struggle between the minority and the working class majority. Although this theory applies to the production economy of the time, it can be used to describe labor within the digital economy as digital labor replaces factory labor.

Social Media[edit]

Digital labor is rooted in Italian autonomist, workerist/Operaismo worker's rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the wages for housework movement founded by Selma James in 1972. The idea of the "digital economy" is defined as the moment, where work has shifted from the factory to the social realm. Italian autonomists would describe this as the, "social factory." Studies of the digital labor of social media were some of the first critiques of digital labor.[2] This included scholarship like, "What the MySpace generation should know about working for free" (Trebor Scholz), and "From Mobile Playgrounds to Sweatshop City" (2010). (Andrew Ross), Tiziana Terranova and others developed a working definition of digital labor, drawing from the idea of free labor, and immaterial labor. Other scholars who have written about Digital Labor include: Ursula Huws, Trebor Scholz, Frank Pasquale, Sergio Bellucci, Christian Fuchs, Andrew Ross, Jaron Lanier, as well as Postcolonial feminists, including, Lisa Nakamura.[1] Their work has been tied to other Alter-globalization texts.

Current debate over digital labor examines whether or not society's capitalistic economy has prompted corporate exploitation of digital labor in social media. Social media has developed as a means for people to create and share information and ideas over the Internet. Because social media are typically associated with leisure and entertainment, the monetization of digital labor has blurred the line separating work from entertainment. Proponents argue that exploitation occurs as typical social media users do not receive any monetary compensation for their digital content, while companies are able to take advantage of this freely accessible information to generate revenues.[3] Studies of social media sites such as YouTube have analyzed their business models and found that user-generated digital labor is being monetized through ads and other methods to create company profit.[4] Criticism against exploitation centers around people as prosumers. Scholars argue that exploitation cannot occur if people are both producing and consuming their own digital labor, thereby deriving value from their own created content.[5]

Digital economy[edit]

The digital economy has been written about by both those critical of the contemporary geopolitical net sphere and those interested in how to exploit the new features digital economies.[6]

Digital labor is also interested in emergent digital subcultures including: community forms, blogs, digital organizing tools, and the way these platforms can be potential generators of cultural goods subsumed and incorporated into globalized networks of cultural goods.

Digital labor markets are websites or economies which facilitate the production, trade, and selling of digital content, code, digital products, or other ideas or goods emerging from digital and technological environments. A widely used example of a digital labor market is Amazon Mechanical Turk.[7]

Digital labor has been concerned with the topic of disintermediation, where digital labor has taken away the job of the mediator in direct, social, communication.

The concept of the digital economy has been applied to the onset of the peer production platform economies, like free and open-source software projects like Linux/GNU, free and open-source projects like Wikipedia. Computer scientist Jaron Lanier, in the books You are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future, argues that the open source approach contributed to the social stratification and widening of the gaps between rich and the poor, the rich being the major stakeholders in digital companies, who own the content of the content creators. A digital labor critique of the open source software movement is that peer production economies rely on an increasingly alienated labor force, forced into unpaid, knowledge labor.[8] In this way, the so-called "gift economy" is an essential part of the reproduction of the labor force within late capitalism.

See also[edit]


  • Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). OCLC 320322044
  • Antonio Negri, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: Polity, 1989). OCLC 20134011
  • Anonymous, "The Digital Artisan Manifesto." (posted to nettime on 15 May 1997).
  • Value-Creation in the Late Twentieth Century: The Rise of the Knowledge Worker. Institute of Governmental Affairs, University of California, Davis. 1995. OCLC 34399964.
  • Political Economy of Information, ed. Vincent Mosco and Janet Wasko (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988). OCLC 17106342
  • Sergio Bellucci, E-Work. Lavoro, rete, innovazione, Roma, Derive e Approdi, 2005.
  • Graham, M. and Anwar, M.A. 2018. "Digital Labour" In: Digital Geographies Ash, J., Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski, A. (eds.). Sage. London.


  1. ^ a b Fuchs, Sevignani, Christian, Sebastian (2013). "What is Digital Labour? What is Digital Work? What's their Difference? And why do these Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?". Triple C.
  2. ^ Zittrain, Jonathan (December 7, 2009). "The Internet Creates a New Kind of Sweatshop". Newsweek.
  3. ^ Rey, P. J. (2012-04-01). "Alienation, Exploitation, and Social Media". American Behavioral Scientist. 56 (4): 399–420. doi:10.1177/0002764211429367. ISSN 0002-7642.
  4. ^ Soha, Michael; McDowell, Zachary J. (2016-01-01). "Monetizing a Meme: YouTube, Content ID, and the Harlem Shake". Social Media + Society. 2 (1): 2056305115623801. doi:10.1177/2056305115623801. ISSN 2056-3051.
  5. ^ Fuchs, Christian (2015). Routledge companion to labor and media. New York. pp. 51–62. ISBN 978-0415837446.
  6. ^ Tapscott, D., Lowy, A., Ticoll, D., & Klym, N.' (1998). Blueprint to the digital economy : creating wealth in the era of e-business. New York: McGraw-Hill.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Moshe, Marvit Z. (February 4, 2014). "How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine". The Nation.
  8. ^ Terranova, Tiziana (June 20, 2003). "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy". Electronic Book Review.

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