This post was written by Jasmin Leech, New Media and Digital Culture Research Master’s student, University of Amsterdam
Value is an abstract, ever-evolving, and shifting concept. It informs what labor we perform; how we get compensated for it, and what we can do once we clock out. In the wake of the Global Digital Cultures conference, many questions and topics stood out to me, swirling about in my head. It seemed impossible to collate everything that I had found interesting into a single blog post, under a single theme. Eventually, I realised that the entryway through these topics begins with my experience, and how that has differed so dramatically from the experiences of others. Our paralleled reliance on the digital is very much present, and yet, the immense privilege I experience because of my global positionality, and the uncomfortableness I feel because of the dissonance with the experiences of others is an object of study that I want to understand better.
As a student, I have supplemented my income with part-time hospitality jobs. Working as a barista, bartender, waiter, and the like. Unlike generations of students before me, however, my work is offered and given to me via an app. I work for a hospitality agency, meaning that after onboarding (that was in the form of a YouTube video), my workplace can change as each gig changes, and I can sign up for each shift as I please. After each shift, my manager signs my timesheet via the app, they rate me, and I rate them. My rating determines my access to different jobs. As of writing this, my score sits at a nice 9.6 out of 10.
The irony is not lost on me, as I watch my star rating fluctuate.
In doing this job, the talks by keynotes and presenters echo in my ears. As I sign off, I cannot help but think about the value of my work. Which app-based differences mean that I get a certain wage, and my co-worker gets another? If I were to do this work in a different country, working directly for an employer, would my day’s shift hold a different value? If my work were creative and digital, as opposed to hospitable, would that change how much I value, or even financially rely on a higher rating at the end of a job?
The Global Digital Cultures research collective aims to employ an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the complex ways through which digital media have interacted with the different strata of society. The question I am most drawn to, is, how do digital media transform what and how we value? In the context of work, I want to inquire into the transformation of the body, creativity, and labor in the context of current digital media scholarship. Building on the work by current scholarship and the presenters who attended this conference, I will combine political economy, local studies, and labor studies, in order to sketch out different ways digital media shape our world.
This blog post consists of three sections and looks at three distinct kinds of labourers in distinct localities. I will first address creator studies. Considering precarity in the workplace and translating power relations in the UK and US. Secondly, I will address creative labour based in Hong Kong to further explore the links between locality, labour, and technology. I will then discuss migrant, and domestic migrant workers in Singapore, focusing specifically on the inter-relation between these workers, labour conditions, locality, and access to technology. In all three of these objects of study, I approach the concept of value as it morphs and becomes visible in digital society. The creator economy shows the internalisation of market value into identity and workflow, as well as the prioritisation of certain values over others, all on a micro-scale. I will then consider creative labour as an example of digitisation and market logic and its impact on creative labour on a macro scale. Finally, my discussion concerning migrant workers serves as a materialisation of the value that digital communication affords, in the context of power relations and advocacy. I will then conclude with a note on how each of these topics helps us understand ways through which digital media can be used as an object of study through which to understand global ideations of the body, creativity, and labour in the context of value.
UK-based scholar and keynote in the creator studies workshop, Zoë Glatt has produced over the past few years a detailed, interesting body of ethnographic research of influencers and YouTubers based in the UK and US, specifically London and L.A. (California). By highlighting issues such as “escalations of precarity in creative labour and closing down of mobility,” (3853) Glatt discusses the evolution of a cultural industry that notedly only materialised because of the affordances of digital platforms, therefore presenting an interesting way to understanding global digital cultures and how they have evolved through platform dynamics.
Glatt highlights many different dynamics in her work on platformized creator studies, however, two topics stood out to me, precarity and the continuation of neoliberal logic in these spaces. On precarity, Glatt discusses how many content creators feel a deep sense of distrust in the platforms that they are financially reliant on. Most of this stems from the fact that these workers “earn income from, but are not employed by, these tech giant platforms” (3866). This has led to a strong drive for creators to develop a cross-platform approach to their business model. Glatt writes:
“I use YouTube for my main videos, Instagram, Twitter, those are the main platforms. I used to have a Snapchat and Tumblr. […] My podcast also has a Twitter and Instagram. I started using Facebook recently to create a community for my book the Hormone Diaries. I wanted to have a place where other people could post stuff and actually a Facebook group was the best option for that. I have a private Discord community for Patrons. What else do I use? I have a newsletter on MailChimp. And I have Patreon, does that count as a platform?” Glatt (2022, 3860)
This theme of platform-based insecurity is consistent across most of the work Glatt presents. As she highlights the “lack of accountability and responsibility that platforms show toward the creators that generate profit for them” (3861), she discusses the unforgiving nature of algorithmically dependent visibility and the constant demand of output that is placed on the creators, due to the systems that consistently boost creators who regularly post a large amount of content. The demands for constant content production, keeping up with competitive metrics and overall precarity, lead creators to feel as though their own relationship to their creativity and sense of self has been affected. Glatt discusses how these processes also mean that there is a reproductive neo-liberal logic according to the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. Pointing out that, many creators who manage to break into, and remain in YouTube’s success and fame, have resources behind them such as familial support, stable financial backing and come from a well-educated background. In this way, we can begin to see how platformised logics reproduce and bolster existing neo-liberal logic and power relations, as well as increase precarity. Furthermore, we can trace the internalisation of market logic in this situated case study.
Creative labour and political power
Creative labour has been deeply affected by our increasingly digitised society. However, just like with many pursuits, these changes are not standardised across the globe. Creative labour in the context of the first case study discusses the replication of neo-liberal logic as well as precarity in the industry. In this case study, as performed by Tse, based in Hong Kong, we will land on similar objects of study, yet the power relations and economic forces that create and exacerbate them are significantly different. We can also trace the changing values of creative labour as they evolve through digitisation, markets and culture.
Keynote speaker from the conference, Tommy Tse, in his ethnographic work based in Hong Kong, shows that local cultural changes, precarity and anxiety have led to a devaluation of creativity in this region, arguing that we may begin to theorise creative production as a way through which to understand movements of social justice and political change. Furthermore, outdated work ethics, precarious employment environments and accelerated economic development have created an incredibly specific context in which these workers operate.
Remarking that Hong Kong has the longest working week, clocking in at approximately 50 hours a week, Tse comments that creative workers often get employed by large-scale companies with “competitive and highly individualistic social relations in the commercialized setting of Hong Kong” (5). Tse investigated, through ethnographic research, what logics are prominent in attitudes towards cultural production, as well as how global media has shaped and subsequently depleted perceptions of the value of creative work. His findings indicate that workers face a fast-paced working environment, which technology has only exacerbated, stating that “technology speeds up physical, emotional and immaterial labor processes or extraction of value from creative workers.” (9). Tse identifies three primary ways through which technology has inherently transformed creative work, stating that technological affordances have led to the de-centring of creative work from a specific location, the surveillance of work speed, and other effects of the digital panopticon, all of which led to increased pressure on the individual worker.
In addition to these effects, Tse found that among his interviewees, the drive towards the digitization of the creative sector has led to increased reliance on technical support and the need to develop data analysis skills. Furthermore, the barrier to entry to these creative sectors increasingly includes the ability to use various applications and software. Arguing overall, that the creative sector has shifted its priorities from quality of output to the ability of the output to adapt to and change according to changing market conditions. Tse, furthermore, observed a general shift in attitudes towards work overall with interviewees pointing to high staff turnovers, loss of trust in companies facilitating career advancement and shrinking PR budgets. In this way, we can understand how accelerated market demands, digital surveillance, and high barriers to entry have changed the landscape of creative labour, while also reflecting the cultural values and political positionality of the region. Already from two different situated case studies on digital creative labor, we can draw up parallels that allow us to understand the processes and diverse ways that the digital can affect worker relations.
Migrant and Domestic Migrant workers
When considering the work of the GDC, a question I keep returning to is the localized nature of the research that any researcher should consider. Through investigating the changing values of work and how digitisation transforms these work relations, much can be learned about these processes. While the previous sections explored localized examples of precarity and cultural changes as a result of platformization and digital technology, this section discusses the use of another side of social media, as a means of visibility, advocacy, and power. The first case study will be in the context of migrant workers having to access TikTok and how “the platform’s user-centred design presents opportunities for marginalized communities to participate in content production and distribution” (1), and how this in turn allows for TikTok to be used as a tool to expose the working conditions and surveillance of these workers. The second case study discusses domestic migrant workers and how soft violence is used to control the workers, and how this extends specifically to restrictive access to mobile phones, which in most cases, serve as the worker’s only connection with their home country, family, and friends. By taking this approach, we can begin to understand a shift in affordances of digital media as it changes locality, purpose, and user base to further understand global cultural shifts on a micro to macro scale.
In the case of migrant workers gaining visibility through online affordances, Satveer Kaur-Gill, who presented at this conference as part of the Glocalisation in South East Asia, makes the point that they can directly show the public their lived experiences that usually stay hidden be that “dormitory conditions, stringent medical surveillance of their bodies, the mental health anxieties they faced from confinement and isolation, and the extensive mobility restrictions imposed on them” (1). This dynamic is especially interesting, as we consider the study of the digital as increasing surveillance in the workplace, on social media, and in private life.
Among other things, this leads to an interesting dynamic in which there is “hyper digital visibility and home country invisibility” (2), as well as encouraging a digital network between workers, other workers, and people across the globe resulting in what Kaur-Gill proposes as “the potential to build grassroots centred voice infrastructures that shape the possibilities of dialogue, communication, and reflexivity among subaltern populations” (12). In this way we can begin to see how digital media both can expose previously unseen, unequal labour relations, as well as begin to challenge and potentially transform them.
Additionally, in work done by Parreñas, Kantachote & Silvey, who also presented at this conference, it is argued that soft violence is used in many cases of Singaporean-based domestic migrant placements. This comes to the forefront in many ways, however, in the context of the digital, restrictive access to technology sticks out as an object of interest. Herein lies a contradiction in which access to technology is seen not as a necessity, but as something that should be restricted to non-working hours, which in the case of many domestic migrant workers in the case study of Singapore, are not always clearly designated. For migrant workers, access to technology is often their only connection to their family, friends and support network. This act isolates them in a bid to restrict agency. Furthermore, “working days” can extend to an expected 12 hours plus of labour. Parreñas et al. argue that this restriction on technology acts as a restriction of agency and the migrant worker’s social connection, thereby making it a process of soft violence in the form of psychological control over the worker.
In both of these cases, we can highlight diverse ways through which digital media has transformed worker relations, as well as expose dynamics of laboured control over the body. We can begin to understand ways through which the study of the digital must not only be localised but also focus on and acknowledge cultural, economic, and social processes.
Throughout this blog post, we have discussed value, labour, precarity and creativity, as it has transformed in the digital age. Through the case studies of digital creators, based largely in the UK and US, creative labourers in Hong Kong and migrant workers in Singapore, we can begin to sketch out the complex ways through which digital media had effected change in labour relations, creativity, and agency. In all of these cases, we can see how the body and the value that the body’s labour produces are subject to many existing power relations, and these power relations change dramatically as you consider locality, class, and race. Additionally, we see the internalisation of digital market values on a micro scale, precarity in creative labour on a macroscale and the digital as a powerful method of communication that can affect change. Overall, I believe that this forms an interesting look at different ways value translates and changes in the digital mediascape, and as a young researcher with a mere four years of media studies scholarship under their belt, I look forward to seeing what the rest of this body of scholarship explores.
Glatt, Zoe. ‘We’re All Told Not to Put Our Eggs in One Basket”: Uncertainty, Precarity and Cross-Platform Labour in the Online Video Influencer Industry’’. International Journal of Communication 16, no. Special Issue on Media and Uncertainty (2022): 1–19.
Kaur-Gill, Satveer. ‘The Cultural Customization of TikTok: Subaltern Migrant Workers and Their Digital Cultures’. Media International Australia, 28 June 2022, 1329878X2211102. https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X221110279.
Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar, Krittiya Kantachote, and Rachel Silvey. ‘Soft Violence: Migrant Domestic Worker Precarity and the Management of Unfree Labour in Singapore’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 47, no. 20 (16 December 2021): 4671–87. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2020.1732614.
Tse, Tommy. ‘Work Faster, Harder, Cheaper? Global, Local and Sectoral Co-Configurations of Job Insecurities Among Hong Kong Creative Workers’. Critical Sociology, 14 April 2022, 089692052210873. https://doi.org/10.1177/08969205221087345.
- Thumbnail: Anne Nygård https://unsplash.com/@polarmermaid
- Globe: Nasa https://unsplash.com/photos/Q1p7bh3SHj8
- Star Rating: https://realfootball1.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/9-stars2.jpg
- Global Digital Cultures: GDC https://globaldigitalcultures.uva.nl/
- Streets of Hong Kong: Dinis Bazgutdinov https://unsplash.com/photos/YsPVzglFc60
- Surveillance: Tobias Tulius https://unsplash.com/photos/4dKy7d3lkKM
Jasmin Leech is a New Media and Digital Culture Research Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam. They are most interested in the intersection between digital media studies and philosophy.