Regardless of whether I want to inform myself about the latest news, want to get home at night, or want to go on holiday to Spain, I use platforms like YouTube, Uber, or Airbnb. I would even call myself a platform-dependent person, as many probably would. With the increasing rate of consumers like myself, the number of laborers and cultural producers on platforms has also increased over the years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, when doing gig work from home became much more attractive. Those platform laborers and cultural producers started those jobs with the promise of more freedom, independence, and low entry barriers when working the platforms. Driven by a neoliberal agenda and the promise of being a free and successful entrepreneur. Because of this trend, the interest of researchers concerning the working conditions of platform-dependent work has also increased, leading to various publications concerning the precarity of platform labor and cultural production opposing this imaginary. (Duffy 2020; Duffy et al. 2021, Duffy et al. 2023; Poell et al. 2021).
While there is a lot of research concerning the Anglo-American context of the precarity of platform labor and cultural production, there is less to be found from other perspectives (MUSZYŃSKI et al. 2022; Huang 2021), especially from the global South (Frey 2020, Mehta 2019). Therefore, I want to draw on some of the existing literature that uses the US as a point of reference concerning the precarity of platform labor and cultural production before discussing and problematizing the precarity of platform labor and cultural production from a global perspective. I am going to argue that when looking at the precarity of platform labor and cultural production, one cannot fall into the trap of universalizing the issue. For this last part, I will elaborate on conversations I had with Lorena Caminhas at the 2023 “Global Digital Culture (GDC)” Conference and the “Global Perspective on Platforms and Cultural Production” workshop. Lorena Caminhas is a postdoc of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sao Paulo. In the specific context of the precarity of platform labor and cultural production, her research about erotic-camming workers in Brazil caught my attention.
The workshop aimed to challenge universalism, provincialize US-focused research, and multiply the frames of reference concerning the research on platforms and cultural production. This includes an expansion of the geographies of theories by drawing on post-colonial studies and accounting for colonial historicity and local context. A greater interest was spent working with those theories to understand how a non-western place can be studied without ending in a deterministic Western view on specific sensible issues, and so account for the historicity and circumstances of the studied places. Therefore, I align my thoughts with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s‘Provincializing Europe’ (2009); he is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College at the University of Chicago. I want to extend this thought by not only rethinking Eurocentrism but also the Anglo-American-centered point of reference when it comes to the research on the precarity of platform labor and cultural production. This will include accounting for the socio-cultural and political dynamics of the regions that are being studied. I will argue that a localized approach is necessary when one wants to study the precarity of platform labor and cultural production, and we cannot just rely on US-focused literature about these issues. Moreover, some cases might even show that platform labor and cultural production can be viewed as an opportunity instead of just precarious work from these localized viewpoints. Yet, this can lead to the problem of cultural essentialism, which I will briefly discuss in the last section.
Neoliberalism and the Ever-Ongoing Competition of Platform-dependent Work
Before I turn towards localized viewpoints that see platform-based labor and cultural production as an opportunity instead of as precarious work, I want to draw on some existing literature and explain why this kind of work is considered precarious within the Western context. With its deep connection to neoliberalism, platform-dependent work can be described as individualized work. Therefore, every individual can be seen as an entrepreneur, investing in him or herself by accumulating views, likes, good ratings, or high rankings. This results in every individual competing against each other on the platform. With this ever-ongoing competition, some will lose. This is the precarity within neoliberalism that American political theorist and Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Wendy Brown describes in ‘Undoing the Demos’ (2015) as ‘no guarantee of life’ because when everybody works for themselves, some individuals become ‘sacrificiable’ for others. Although neoliberalism promises the freedom of each individual to invest in himself and creates the imagination of being a successful entrepreneur, the illusion ends when the high risks aren’t rewarded.
Concerning content creators on platforms, Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, accounts for the promise of success in praxis with the term ‘aspirational labor’ (2017). Their investments of time, work, money, and other resources, aiming to be among the top-tier creators, have a high potential of not getting rewarded. Realistically, only a very small percentage will be able to achieve it, which makes the general experience of the work completely different compared to those who end up being successful. The devotion and entrepreneurial investment in their work does not lead to a substantial material reward. Even those who end up among the top-tier creators have to maintain their audience. This results in ongoing competition among content creators to gain and maintain visibility. This time-intensive work, that the American scholar Nancy Baym calls ‘relational labor’ (2018), never ends. The never-ending competition and the lack of proper working contracts driven by neoliberal market principles are what make platform-dependent work precarious. The uncertainty and insecurity of that work make it hard for laborers to plan ahead financially or when they will have holidays.
Precarity Due to the Technology of Platforms
Next to the neoliberal competition for visibility, other factors arise from the platform’s technologies and their governance that amplify the precarity of platform-dependent work. Under the term ‘algorithmic precarity’, Duffy describes the uncertainty and unpredictability of the recommendation systems of platforms (2020). If one’s content is shown or recommended by the platform, the reason for this is mostly not transparent. Further, some creators even described biases produced by the platform and its algorithms, resulting in inequalities. For example, black creators describe being less visible than others. Nonetheless, creators mostly have to live with produced inequalities on the platform. The creators try to make sense of those recommendation systems, leading to additional labor time spent to get a clue of how their algorithms might work, which Sophie Bishop, associate professor at the University of Leeds, calls ‘algorithmic gossip’ (2021). However, due to changes in those algorithms by the platform, creators can lose visibility, leading to more labor that has to go into understanding the new recommendation system. These algorithmic technologies, described as ‘black boxes,’ therefore amplify the precarity of creators on platforms.
These changes, next to newly implemented rules or affordances by the platform, are part of what Thomas Poell, David Nieborg, and Brooke Erin Duffy call ‘platform’s evolution’ (Poell et al. 2021). Any changes due to a platform’s evolution result in more labor that has to be spent to adapt and remain visible on the platform by the creators. Platform evolution, in the most extreme sense, can also lead to the abrupt disappearance of a platform. As in the case of the video-sharing platform Vine, its bankruptcy led to the platform going offline, leaving many creators behind and losing their audience and their primary source of income. To avoid being completely shut off from their audiences and increasing the risk of platform dependency, creators are active on multiple platforms to avoid this from happening. However, being present and active on multiple platforms comes with a drawback of even more labor that must be invested in maintaining their audiences (Poell et al. 2021). Therefore, a platform’s evolution can be considered one of the most precarious factors of platform-dependent work, making each laborer’s life more uncertain and unstable.
Precarity or Opportunity? The Case of Erotic Camming Workers in Brazil
With the elaborated baseline of why platform labor and cultural production can be understood as precarious, we have to account for where the research comes from and their point of reference. Moreover, we must pay attention to the socio-cultural, political and economic context of the region the research is focused on. In current research on the precarity of platform labor most interviews were held with US-based content creators and platform laborers (Duffy 2017; Duffy et al. 2021). Living in the US with a stronger GDP and a higher average income than ‘global south countries’ and a comparably much more stable economy, those platform laborers and cultural producers have a higher possibility of choosing a less precarious job outside the platform. This would lead to more stability and consistent payment, including regular yearly holidays for them. However, what does it look like, and how do we multiply our frames of reference, especially turning towards the ‘precarity’ of platform labor and cultural production in the global south? To do so, I want to draw on conversations I had at the GDC Conference and the workshop on ‘Global Perspectives on Platform Labor and Cultural Production’ in Amsterdam 2023.
During the conference and workshop days, I talked multiple times with Lorena Caminhas. We talked about the precarity of platform labor and cultural production following her research about online erotic camming platforms in Brazil. Her findings about the camming workers on those platforms caught my attention. Despite my previous knowledge and the existing literature on platform precarity, those workers don’t seem to view their position as precarious as one would assume. Instead, her interviews show that compared to other jobs in Brazil, such as a salesperson, waiting staff, freelance professional, escort, or work in the public sector, the work as an erotic camming worker is less precarious. Additionally, those camming workers view this platform work as high quality and autonomous. The main factors that she identified during her interviews are autonomy, stability, and safety. The free choice of when and where to work, also accounting for the duration of the work, gives those workers more freedom and autonomy than the formal, traditional, and informal labor they’ve done before. While being interviewed, the erotic camming workers described a better ‘labor standard’, resulting in regular and higher payments than their former jobs. A reason for that is the growing informalization of work and employment in Brazil, which the platforms take advantage of, as Caminhas told me. The erotic camming workers described a regular income flow if one obtained ‘exclusivity’ on the platform. Whereas getting paid in their former informal jobs can be challenging. But also, formal jobs are considered highly precarious due to the stratification present in the formal working sector in Brazil, especially when it comes to the workers’ ethnicity. Moreover, the interviewees in Lorena Caminhas’ research described being excluded or even rejected from other working sectors before working on the platform. Further, they said, they could earn more money than in their previous jobs and have to spend less time on the platform if they are ‘exclusive’. From the interviewees’ perspectives, the platform governance and the implemented rules and conditions set by the platforms lead to more stability within their work than the work they have done before. This makes them feel that contingencies are more under control while working on the platform instead of outside it. Next to the stability, the work was considered safer since the camming workers worked from home, and the platform assured privacy protection.
The ‘exclusivity’ that can be achieved on the platform leads to a regular income, giving them higher visibility but, more importantly, a fixed audience as regular and consistent customers. By obtaining exclusivity on the platform, their work seemed to gain more stability, making it in their eyes, less aspirational. Instead of the feeling of competing against all the other camming workers on the platform, they had regular customers waiting for their scheduled camming sessions. This led to less time that had to be invested into ‘relational labor’, since the scheduled sessions, in combination with regular customers, resulted in consistent visibility and, therefore, more stability. However, this is only the case for ‘exclusive’ creators. It is important to note that although the two black creators interviewed had obtained exclusivity, they were less successful than others. In their case, they earned as much as in their former jobs, but the stable income, more flexibility, and security in the case of one creator who got harassed at her previous hospitality job still made the camming job more preferable, as Lorena Caminhas’ research shows.
After obtaining exclusivity, the erotic camming workers did not have to focus on gaining visibility and had to understand the recommendation system of the platform due to algorithmic precarity. However, the ‘exclusivity’ feature makes them dependent on that one platform and further leads to immobility when finding alternative work. Although this could result in a precarious situation caused by the platform’s evolution, since the creators have to adapt to changes or lose all of their audience when the platform goes offline, it is not perceived as precarious. Instead, the creators trust the platform regarding its governance decisions and sustainability. However, especially in Lorena Caminhas’ research, specific issues leading to the precarity of platform labor and cultural production persist. Such is the lack of diversity; the few black camming workers described being less successful than others. The same occurred for older age camming workers. Although they were less successful, they still described working for the platform as a better opportunity than working in their previous jobs. Precarity, Caminhas she told me, is therefore contradictory due to its different subjective understanding by not only people in different countries but also of factors of age, race, and work experience.
My conversations with Lorena Caminhas showed me that to research platform precarity in the ‘global south,’ we have to account for the localized context of the country’s economic and political situation, which resulted from its historicity. What is viewed as precarious work in the Anglo-American context can sometimes be considered non-precarious work in other countries like Brazil when viewed from a localized perspective. The platform labor of camming workers was perceived as non-precarious work compared to the jobs they would have done outside of the platform. In the case of Brazil, we have to account for the dominance of neoliberalism throughout the country’s economy, not just on platform-dependent work. Traditional work in some sectors, as described, seems to be far more precarious following the factors of autonomy, stability, and safety. Therefore, even some precarious aspects described on those platforms were seen as ‘side effects’ due to the economic and political state of the country rather than the fault of the platforms; and so the labor on those platforms as erotic camming workers is experienced as a better choice of work than in other sectors. This seems to be the case because of the growing informalization of work in the country. This shows that in the case of erotic camming workers on platforms in Brazil, the platform labor is not perceived as precarious work but, instead, is seen as an opportunity to escape their more precarious former jobs.
This makes a universal frame of reference fundamentally problematic. Many different factors need to be accounted for. Therefore, the subjective experience of platform laborers needs a localized approach according to countries, but also needs to incorporate other issues such as age, race, and work experience, as described by Lorena Caminhas. However, it is essential to note that a different subjective account regarding precarity does not erase problems of platform labor that are viewed as precarious in other research. The local context, in this case, makes the precariousness of erotic camming work perceived as more controllable than in the creators’ former jobs.
But what exactly does it mean to account for a localized context, and how does it look in the context of platform precarity? I want to answer this question in the last section.
What Now? A Call for Provincializing the Research?
Therefore, we have to turn toward post-colonial studies, which can give us essential hints for future research from a global perspective. But how can post-colonial studies and decolonial theory help us understand platform labor and cultural production if most platforms work across borders and have unified rules, functions, and working conditions?
In his work “Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference,” Chakrabarty (2008) provides an approach that tries to stay with the trouble of political modernity that is persistent everywhere but arises from European thought and the history of Western domination. For Chakrabarty:
“European thought is at once both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the experiences of political modernity in non-Western nations, and provincializing Europe becomes the task of exploring how this thought—which is now everybody’s heritage and which affect us all— may be renewed from and for the margins.” (Chakrabarty 2008, p.16)
Instead of sticking with universalist European origin and centric thoughts, theories, and practices, he proposes diversifying other countries’ perspectives, historicities, and narratives. In this specific case, this means first accounting for the European understanding of the concept of modernity as a and not the point of reference. For Chakrabarty, it is essential, by representing non-European modernity, to account for the indispensable but also inadequate categories and strategies implied by the ‘West’. But in doing so, it is equally important to account for the politics of despair that results from the shared history that other countries and regions (in this case India) have with Europe. These include unequal power dynamics and the forced implementation of European modernity onto other countries, leading to “[…]ambivalences, contradictions and the use of force, and the tragedies and ironies that attend it” (Chakrabarty 2008, p.43) with the goal of seeing the world as ‘radically heterogeneous’. In doing so, he wants to move the European historicity and their theories and thoughts away from the center and sees them as one of many narratives. With this inclusive approach, he wants to represent non-European political modernity and move beyond Western and non-Western power dynamics.
Connecting to Chakrabarty’s thoughts, Chen (2010) proposes in “Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization” a way to overcome the present conditions of knowledge production. He is a critical theorist focused on inter-Asian Cultural Studies and recently retired as a Professor at the Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies at National Chiao Tung University. For Chen, “For the past few centuries, ‘the West as method’ has become the dominant condition of knowledge production” (Chen 2010 p. 216). Like Chakrabarty, Chen, whose research is focused on Asia, wants to move away from the European-centric narrative, especially in knowledge production, and to multiply the perspectives and frames of references. For him, knowledge production always accounts for the specific context and locality that influences a theory’s work. According to Chakrabarty and Chen, a European theory cannot account for the same results and conclusions within a non-European/‘non-Western’ context.
However, while paying attention to the local, it is crucial in our effort to provincialize the research to not fall into the trap of cultural essentialism. Although local contexts frame the research and in this case how precarity is perceived through the creator’s subjectivity, we don’t want to frame those research as an opposition to the existing research, like in ‘the west and the rest’. We must avoid unqualified cultural emphasis on the region by paying attention to the place. Within every culture, there are differences and asymmetric power dynamics between the people who live there. Ani Maitra, Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity; Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies of Colgate University and Rey Chow, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Duke University, argued for more attention to be paid to the asymmetric power dynamics due to the distribution of materials but also the differences in the identity of the people living in a country. In this case, they focused on Asian countries when talking about “New Media in Asia” and the problem of Western cultural essentialism displayed on Asia. There is a need to pay more attention to rural and urban regions: “[…] locality must be examined through the material and infrastructural differences between digital multiplicities, differences that separate the urban from the rural, and the urban privileged from the urban underprivileged” (Maitra & Chow 2016, p.21).
I, therefore, locate Chen’s account as a call for more specific localized theories moving away from the image of a general theory primarily invented in the Western context that tries to make sense of other different contexts. With a focus on Asia, for Chen, this could be achieved by looking at the differences between Asian countries and interreferencing between them and so constructing alternative frames of reference. Looking at the case study presented, we must account for their local contexts, historicities, and current conditions in Brazil. By including the previous Anglo-American-centered research on platform-dependent work and its precarity, but accounting for the local contexts by listening to those who live and work ‘in the local’, to say it in Chen’s words, we can expand the research towards a global perspective. Resulting in a multiplication of the frames of references but also moving beyond the European standards and still existing colonial and global south vs. global north power dynamics. In the end, although the work on platforms stays mostly the same in each country, the current local conditions and contexts determine if the work can be seen as precarious or an opportunity. This includes avoiding the trap of cultural essentialism by accounting for the heterogeneity of a studied place and its people. Therefore, we must listen to the localized individual experiences of those who work on the platforms. In the case of Lorena Caminhas’ research on erotic camming workers in Brazil, this also includes paying attention to the different identities and circumstances of the interviewees, like their ethnicities and age differences, which in this case can be the reason for a different experience on the platform.
I hope to see more research like Lorena Caminhas’ work in the future to extend the research toward a global perspective. To move away from ‘global north’ vs. ‘global south’ power dynamics, universalism of research, and cultural essentialism in order to multiply the frames of references and provincialize, in this case, the Anglo-American-centered research, as we did in the workshop here in Amsterdam.
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Bastian August is currently a research master’s student and teaching assistant coordinator in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He specializes in New Media and Digital Culture with a significant emphasis on platform studies, particularly the governance of platforms, the precarity of platform labor and cultural production, and unequal power dynamics on platforms.