Digital labor

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Digital labor or digital labour is a term for emergent forms of labor in Post-Fordist economies, characterized by the production of value through interaction with information and communication technologies. Digital labor takes different forms from on-demand platforms, micro-working and the creation of content for digital platforms such as social media. Digital labor describes affective and social activities within capitalist modes of production not typically recognized 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 Workerism, Operaismo and Autonomism that grew during the workers' struggles in Italy, which included a substantial feminist movement in the Wages for housework campaign.Operaismo refers to an Italian movement during the 1960s and 1970s in which working class members fought for better working conditions and more pay.

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) Sebastian Sevignani, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greg de Peuter 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.

On-demand platforms[edit]

On-demand work has been rising since the years 2008-2010. It follows the development of Internet access and the spread of mobile devices, which allow almost everyone to be in touch with this kind of platform, including children and teenagers. Such platforms cover a large field of domains : rental (Airbnb,, travel (trivago, tripadvisor), food delivery (Uber Eats, Grub Hub, and Postmates), transportation (Uber, Taxify, Lyft), home services (Task Rabbit, Helpling), education (Udemy, Coursera), etc.

'Workers on such platforms are often not considered as employees, and aren't well paid. For example, an Uber driver earns between $8.80 and $11 per hour after expenses.

All of these platforms can be seen as data producers : both customers and workers produce data while using the service. This data can then be used for improving the service[2] or can be sold on the market. Business model of such companies is often centered around data.

Social Media[edit]

The notion of digital labor on social media arise from the fact that most of the value of any social media platforms is created by the users. Therefore they can be considered as digital workers on the platform. On most platforms however this work remains unpaid. Some exceptions include video and music sharing platforms. This is linked with the notion of participatory culture, "a term often used for designating the involvement of users, audiences, consumers and fans in the creation of culture and content"[3].

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.[4] 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. In the book Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games authors Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter analyze video games and virtual environments through the lens of a Marxist critique. This book was published in 2009 by the University of Minnesota Press. Nick Dyer-Witheford is an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and Greig de Peuter is an associate professor for Communication Studies at Wilfird Laurier University. Immaterial labor is explained in this chapter as “the activity that advanced capital depends on its most dynamic and strategic sectors.” (pg. 4, 2009). It is linked directly to video games because games are essentially built on immaterial labor the authors explain. The video game industry was started because there was an overlap between the military industrial complex and the counter culture movement. Both hacker communities and major corporate capitalists intertwined in the development of this industry. In addition, the video game industry was one of the first cultural mediums where the United States was not the country of origin. The authors argue that this concept of immaterial labor negatively impacts capitalism by that users to given the autonomy to expose capitalistic principles such as reliance on labor. Immaterial labor allows workers to become individual entities and not beholden to a typical capitalistic structure of 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.

Social networking labor, or user labor, denotes the creation of data by social media and networking platforms users, which contributes to the financial gains and profits of those platforms, but not to the users. It is based on the production and exchange of cultural content, and the collection of users' metadata. Microwork tasks can be completed before using the platform, which indirectly trains algorithms (such as text or image recognition when creating an account).[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]


The development of micro-working platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk created new forms of digital labor. These platforms make use of low-wage employees in order to accomplish tasks that cannot or cannot yet be performed by a computer. Micro-working platforms are often used in the field of machine learning, for AI training or AI verification[9].

Internet users can also contribute to a form of "user labor", in which the user is asked to perform an action which produces data in order to use a platform. As an example, the ReCAPTCHA service developed by Google uses human identification as a way to transcribe books or to label image sets.

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] In this way, the so-called "gift economy" is an essential part of the reproduction of the labor force within late capitalism.

In the book "Games of Empire" the idea of gender wage gaps in machine domestic labor is examined. According to the book, while decline of manufacturing jobs sent young men toward computer-related industries, capital's rely to women's domestic rebellion was to turn the activities they had performed for free into jobs in the service sector. Both service work and high-technology jobs can be defined as forms of immaterial labor; technology jobs.

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. ^ "How Uber Uses Data to Improve Their Service and Create the New Wave of Mobility". Neil Patel. 2017-04-17. Retrieved 2019-03-30.
  3. ^ Fuchs, Christian. 2013. 'Social media:a critical introduction'
  4. ^ Zittrain, Jonathan (December 7, 2009). "The Internet Creates a New Kind of Sweatshop". Newsweek.
  5. ^ Casilli, Antonio (2017). "'Digital Labor Studies Go Global : Toward a Digital Decolonial Turn'". International Journal of Communication.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Fuchs, Christian (2015). Routledge companion to labor and media. New York. pp. 51–62. ISBN 978-0415837446.
  9. ^ Antonio Casilli, Julian Posada. The Platformization of Labor and Society. 2018. <halshs-01895137>
  10. ^ 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)
  11. ^ Moshe, Marvit Z. (February 4, 2014). "How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine". The Nation.
  12. ^ Terranova, Tiziana (June 20, 2003). "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy". Electronic Book Review.

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