The Other Conversation We Need to Have about Social Media Platforms

Social media platforms and their opaque governance have finally come to the forefront of public policy discussions after four years of Trumpist lies and the ongoing problems caused by the circulation of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Now, media manipulation and privacy concerns appear regularly in the news and are the subject of congressional hearings, but what about platformized labor? The important conversations about political speech force us to reckon with the inordinate power wielded by Big Tech as more and more of social life occurs on platforms, so we should also be talking about how our livelihoods are embedded within platforms. The CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been questioned by congress — offering mostly polite dodges to every meaningful question — and researchers in the burgeoning field of media manipulation research have testified to the problems posed by Silicon Valley’s blackboxed governance, but no one is talking about platformized labor, especially not the kind of labor that produces content for social media platforms.

Platforms’ widespread lack of transparency should urge us not just toward regulating information circulated on platforms, but also toward protections for those who produce content for these platforms, especially those who earn a living from that content. As more and more platforms begin to pay people to produce content, we need to talk about the people who produce our favorite YouTube content or TikTok videos as workers. They are not just “users,” and they are certainly not a new class of platform-enabled entrepreneur. To speak of them as entrepreneurs belies the fact that most platforms systematically deny users the necessary information and control needed for entrepreneurial decision-making. Instead, platforms withhold and frequently change the criteria that determines the visibility and value of workers’ content in ways similar to how driving platforms such as Uber frequently change the rules and evaluation criteria for drivers.

Instead, we need to start talking about how to extend labor protections to this emerging class of platform-enabled, creative workers who provide their labor to platforms. From 2015–2017, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork and interviewing among YouTube’s “creators” for a project on work in the cognitive-cultural economy funded by the National Science Foundation. That project resulted in my recent book: Creative Control: The Ambivalence of Work in the Culture Industries, published by Columbia University Press. In the book, I show how YouTube depends upon the precarious, often unpaid labor of demographically diverse, geographically dispersed worker and argue that this is a feature of most social media platforms, despite the visibility of an incredibly small number of high earning superstars.

…YouTube depends upon the precarious, often unpaid labor of demographically diverse, geographically dispersed workers. This is a feature of most social media platforms, despite the visibility of an incredibly small number of high earning superstars.

Over the course of nearly 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviewing, I came to learn the frustrations, anxieties, and distinctive alienation experienced by creators as they grapple with a recalcitrant platform. I sipped coffee with survivalist vloggers and toy fanatics in the Midwest and spent afternoons speaking with creators in apartments that served double duty as green-screen production studios. I even met one young woman in the Rust Belt that created make-up tutorials to pay her way through college. Some had viral hits, but many did not. While a few earned upwards of $100,000 a year from their content and related revenue streams, others earned $10 a month for hours of work. Despite their differences in terms of location, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and age, creators all voiced common complaints. They felt frustrated and powerless when confronted by YouTube’s ability to enact near-instantaneous changes to its search algorithms, content policies, and payment system — all of which have direct consequences for earnings. Whereas traditional workers might encounter a manager or another person, YouTube’s creators often work alone, dealing with the power wielded by a faceless, non-human, and often silent platform — a situation common to most platform workers the world over as they face what Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri call “algorithmic cruelty.”

They felt frustrated and powerless when confronted by YouTube’s ability to enact near-instantaneous changes to its search algorithms, content policies, and payment system — all of which have direct consequences for earnings.

The heightened precarity of platform-based employment takes an emotional toll on creators, one highlighted by a tragic event that took place in YouTube’s offices a few years ago. In the Spring of 2018, Nasim Aghdam indiscriminately opened fire upon YouTube’ s employees. Unlike other workplace shootings, Aghdam seemed to have no prior relationship with her victims. So, why did she indiscriminately open fire on them? When I heard the initial reports, my thoughts first turned to the very real gun problem in the United States, but my second thought, prior to reports of Aghdam’s identity, was that the shooter might be a “creator.” Sure enough, as details emerged, it became clear that Aghdam had worked as creator, providing her labor to the platform. As the story unfolded over the course of 3 days, terms like “active shooter” or “viral” social media star were used to describe Aghdam, but no one called her a disgruntled worker. Why not? Among platform-based creative workers, Aghdam’s unjustifiable violence was singular, but her frustrations with her boss were quite common.

Understanding how platforms heighten precarious employment in already precarious industries such as entertainment requires that we understand the conditions under which platform-based creative workers labor. Imagine a job where wages are unclear, unstated, and permanently in flux. Like many workers, the terms of employment forbid discussion of wages and the boss refuses to explain the payrate’s intractability. Imagine that the boss occasionally throws away workers’ output without explanation and responds to workers’ inquiries with a dodge. This too is typical of creators as they produce content in order to meet the demands of platforms’ algorithms, often at the expense of their values or ethical judgments — a situation they share with Big Tech’s more conventional employees.

Additionally, imagine a boss who can take away the right to be paid at all. This occurred in January 2018 when the platform changed its monetization policy overnight and many of YouTube’s creators lost their ability to earn money. This policy continually shifts, making almost monthly headlines as YouTube allows or disallows creators to make money from particular forms of content. Many creators who I spoke with in the research for my book were told that their content had violated the platform’s “Community Guidelines,” Others recounted situations in which the platform’s automated copyright enforcement systems removed or “demonetized” content that failed to violate the platform’s stated fair use guidelines. When creators sought explanation or attempted to appeal these decisions, they faced stonewall tactics, often recounting the platform’s admonishment to “Please check our forums” or, most often, silence. Imagine a boss that invites your participation and expression, but who both refuses to pay when you “fail” to fulfil their unstated desires and refuses to explain how to fix the problem, disappearing behind their office door.

…a growing class of platform-based creative workers experience heightened precarity, frustration, and intense anxiety due to their collective lack of labor protections vis-à-vis platforms’ blackboxed governance.

Platforms’ impact on politics and public health have renewed political interest in regulation. While these are valid discussions to be had, we need to also consider platforms as a labor issue. We need to seize this moment to force serious discussions regarding platforms’ impact upon work. Whether it is YouTube, Lyft, Uber, or Amazon, policymakers need to rethink the relationship between platforms and people as a labor relation, not one between product and “users.” Platforms already understand this which is why Uber spent so much money to oppose Prop 22 in California. Until the public and lawmakers realize this, a growing class of platform-based creative workers experience heightened precarity, frustration, and intense anxiety due to their collective lack of labor protections vis-à-vis platforms’ blackboxed governance.

I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University. My research addresses issues of power, technology, and the future of work under capitalism.