Elizabeth Nelson
Elizabeth Nelson

Dream Work—Unpaid Labor in the Gig Economy

by J. Edward Anthony

Stories abound of so-called social media influencers who earn thousands of dollars for a single post. The New York Times reported in July 2019 that the YouTube star du jour, Emma Chamberlain, made as much as $2 million a year from her videos alone. Being a social media influencer is glamourous, and it seems that anyone can do it—not just teenagers. Recent college grads, aspiring entrepreneurs, and work-at-home mothers have amassed huge followings and garnered advertising deals through their social media personas.

Social media platforms have opened new channels for self-presentation, artistic expression, and marketing. But Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok are doing far more than creating new career opportunities. “These platforms are reconfiguring how people think about preparing themselves for the labor market,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, Communication. “So many of us are compelled to engage in social media self-promotion. I hear about these demands from the people I study, but I also hear about it from students and colleagues. In the social media age, we’re all expected to cultivate a marketable, commodified, visible self-brand.”

Aspirational Labor

Self-branding on social media takes time and energy—investments that can exacerbate existing social inequalities. Questions of economics figure prominently: Is it worth hiring a professional photographer for my LinkedIn profile picture? Should I accept a low-paid gig to bulk up my portfolio? How much time should I spend promoting my achievements online?

Such issues constantly trouble people who work in creative industries, in which engaging in unpaid or underpaid work has become a required strategy for advancing one’s career. Duffy says that this undercompensated work—what she calls aspirational labor—reflects habits that are increasingly common across today’s workforce.

Duffy prefers the term content creator to influencer, and she interviewed scores of them for her book (Not) Getting Paid To Do What You Love (Yale 2017). Career success stories make the news, Duffy says, but they tend to obscure the reality. For every get-rich-quick tale, many more content creators are struggling to get by in a hypercompetitive job market. “I am particularly interested in all the people who are not seen and not reaping tremendous rewards,” says Duffy. “Despite media reports of bootstrapping careers enabled by social media, this level of success is quite rare. The experiences of most social media aspirants speak to the real toil and grunt of careers in the creative industries.”

The Social Media Clock

Duffy recalls an exchange with an undergraduate at her previous university. “One of my students was tweeting in class,” Duffy says. “I talked to her about it afterwards, and she explained that she was the social media marketing intern for a well-known entertainment company. Her position required her to monitor the comments that constantly popped up on the brand’s Twitter feed.” Duffy’s astonishment doesn’t quite hide her indignation. “Everyone talks about internships being exploitative, but with social media it gets amplified. There are no boundaries! The work never ends, because today’s employment economy necessitates we are churning out social media materials—and data—all the time.”

Content creators often blaze their career paths with countless hours of underpaid or unpaid labor. Chamberlain, the YouTube star mentioned above, told the New York Times that she spent 20–30 hours editing each video, above and beyond the time she took to plan and film them. She was posting a new one roughly once a week. Chamberlain admitted that the work was taking a toll on her eyesight. At the time the article appeared she had dropped out of high school. By then, Chamberlain had scored lucrative marketing contracts, but she started out making funny videos for friends in her spare time.

“Coding and tech skills tend to be highly paid and male dominated. On the other side, the majority of content promoters and distributors are women, and it’s lower paid and lower status.”

Chamberlain’s story reflects themes that Duffy has found in social media careers and the gig economy at large: New communication technologies often blur the lines between hobby and job, personal life and professional obligation. The lack of clear boundaries can make it difficult to see work for what it is.

Invisible Labor and the Feminization of Work

Duffy relates content creators’ unpaid, aspirational labor to other forms of unrecognized work—such as housekeeping and parenting—that have long fallen disproportionately to women. “We have this gendered division of labor playing out in the digital economy,” Duffy says. “Coding and tech skills tend to be highly paid and male dominated. On the other side, the majority of content promoters and distributors are women, and it’s lower paid and lower status.”

“There’s nothing natural about this division of labor,” adds Duffy. “ln every case, it’s socially constructed. It could have been otherwise.” As an example, she points to Black female mathematicians working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the early days of the space program—a story popularized by the 2016 film Hidden Figures. “Computing culture demonstrates how arbitrary the valuation of labor can be, and how quickly it can change,” she says. “In the 1950s, computing was feminized work. The rise in pay and prestige came later, with the entrance of men into these spaces. The field of journalism witnessed a similar trajectory, and this same gendered division is playing out in the realm of social media.”

Building on her study of content creators, Duffy is working with Megan Sawey, a Communication PhD student, to pursue several lines of research that consider social, political, and technological forces that tend to render labor invisible. One form of invisibility is legal in nature: Freelancing platforms connect people with gigs, but the people who do the work do not have the legal status of employees and therefore lack certain protections. “I think it speaks to the wider feminization of the workforce—the way tech companies conceal certain forms of labor, and just how widespread the freelance economy is,” says Duffy.

Duffy still encounters people who won’t take seriously the women who are the focus of her research. “There’s a pervasive assumption that the creators and distributors of social media content don’t have ‘real jobs,’” she explains. “A key aim of my research is to take seriously the labor that people do, especially when it’s rendered socially invisible.”