Beyond Digital Labor: Re-theorizing the User/Platform Relation

Authors: Dalton Kamish*, Simon Fraser University, Kayla Hilstob*, Simon Fraser University
Topics: Communication, Cyberinfrastructure
Keywords: digital labor, immaterial labor, platforms, infrastructure, social media
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 34
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Digital labor has become an umbrella term for describing a range of digitally mediated practices, from paid work in the gig economy (Srnicek 2017) to cultivating a personal brand on social media (Scolere, Pruchniewska, and Duffy 2018), resulting in an ambiguous concept (Gandini 2020) that has ultimately obscured the user/platform relation. In the unwaged category, social media users are theorized as workers who perform digital labor (Fuchs 2014) akin to immaterial labor (Lazzarato 1996; Terranova 2000) and unwaged housework (Jarrett 2015). This paper challenges this conceptual framework by re-theorizing the user/platform relation through Engels’ (1970) argument in The Housing Question against the identification of tenants as workers. Following Engels, we argue that typical social media users do not confront platforms as sellers of labor-power but as buyers of a commodity, and are thus not in the position of workers (Rigi and Prey 2015). From this foundation, we engage with ongoing debates on the audience commodity (Kaplan 2019) and digital rent (Frayssé 2015; Fumagalli et al 2018) to begin articulating a more precise account of social media platforms’ valorization process and the user/platform relation therein. Theorizing users not as workers, moreover, may counterintuitively enable a stronger political position against digital exploitation. Instead of conceding the commoditization of communication as digital labor and demanding Wages for Facebook (Ptak 2014 as cited in Jung 2014), privatization of communication as corporate platforms become infrastructures essential to our lives (Plantin et al 2018) ought to be the focus of critical opposition.

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