The Labor of Social Media

The battles over whether communities on Twitter are good or bad, toxic or supportive, obscure the labor that sustains all social networks.

Illustration by Loki Muthu for Jacobin.

Last week, Michelle Goldberg’s incendiary Nation cover story “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” was released online and promptly beelined into the very group it criticized. An examination of the web-based species of organizing that some have taken to calling “Twitter feminism,” Goldberg’s piece presented a narrative of online feminism as a once-robust, supportive community increasingly transforming into a mire of poisonous infighting.

While a handful of established feminist writers lauded Goldberg’s piece as a brave pushback to the viciousness of Twitter call-out culture, for the women who again and again have found their concerns sidelined by liberal mainstream feminism, the article seemed yet another attempt to diminish them. Many pointed out that what Goldberg had flippantly dismissed as toxicity and “trashing” in the feminist Twittersphere could be better thought of as the articulations of marginalized voices attempting to be heard using one of the few public forums available.

As the ongoing debates over unpaid internships and writing for free have evinced, the traditional media world has long been structured to bar those who cannot afford the high cost of jumping through gatekeeping hoops from entry. The idea, then, that Twitter and Tumblr — microblogging platforms that anyone with an internet connection can join — have emerged as more egalitarian alternatives to traditional media does make sense. Wide swaths of online communities have flourished while mainstream media remains inattentive to radical movements; as several people pointed out in response to the Goldberg piece, Twitter has been indispensable for activists seeking to find community and ignite political bases, and operates as a crucial part of “real-life” organizing, not in opposition to it.

But the celebration of social media as the great leveler often overlooks the inequalities that continue to persist across different forms of publishing. As bloggers like Trudy of Gradient Lair and Flavia Dzodan have pointed out, the gaping power imbalance between those (mostly white) feminists who have media perches and those who do not has not diminished because of social media.

A Guardian writer, as Dzodan notes, has a prominent institutional platform from which she can set the record straight in the event of an online dust-up, whereas her Twitter-only counterpart does not. And the disjunct between Twitter activists and columnists is more than just an issue of visibility or influence — it’s also one of material inequality. Simply put, columnists are paid for their output. Tweeters aren’t.

In The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Astra Taylor examines the limits of social media as a democratizing force. Of the explosion in digital “openness,” she writes:

The disruptive power of the Web has been uneven at best. From one angle, power has been sucked to the periphery: new technologies have created space for geographically dispersed communities to coalesce, catalyzed new forms of activism and political engagement, and opened up previously unimaginable avenues for self-expression and exposure to art and idea. That’s the story told again and again. But if we look from another angle and ask how, precisely, the power of institutions has been eroded, the picture becomes murkier.

Twitter, for example, clearly has proven itself an effective platform for the important job of lightning-quick consciousness-raising and community building. However, as we celebrate it as a space in which the voices barred from traditional media have been able assert themselves, we should also examine why that space has yet to transform into substantial political power.

While social media has been harnessed successfully as a tool for raising support for on-the-ground mobilizations — the powerful, viral online campaign led by Kenzo Shibata for the Chicago Teachers Union during the 2012 teachers’ strike being a recent and notable example — it still remains mostly unclear how the bulk of the political conversations happening on Twitter transfer to real material gains for disenfranchised groups. The systemic racism and economic barriers that continue to exclude black women from national media positions will not be extinguished by the uncompensated intellectual labor happening on social media.

We rightly don’t celebrate the fact that 75 percent of unpaid interns are women as a victory for feminism; it should similarly concern us that that black women and other women of color could likely have the monopoly on doing the hard work of social justice organizing on Twitter without remuneration, sometimes literally for hours a day. Though a few Twitter superstars have been able to parlay a vibrant social media presence into paid writing or speaking gigs, for the vast majority of users, their Twitter output continues to financially benefit only the company’s owners. (By the close of 2012, Twitter’s revenue had reached $317 million through a combination of advertising and data licensing.)

The invisibility of the labor of social media has adversely affected even those who are paid to tweet. Most companies and publications now have dedicated personnel handling their social media accounts — whether they be entire departments or a single undergraduate intern. But as a new breed of communication work, social media management comes with all the attendant demands of older forms of emotional labor.

As Kate Losse and Melissa Gira Grant have noted in their work on Silicon Valley, the people who are responsible for tending to digital “communities” are predominantly women. This uneasy fact undergirds the way in which people have become accustomed to treating the Twitter accounts of publications as customer service hotlines. In an age when you can tweet your displeasure over the shortcomings of JetBlue or Pizza Hut and maybe receive a coupon for your trouble, why not use Twitter as a vehicle for 140-character letters to the editor?

The problem, however, is that the internal hierarchies of news publications are usually structured such that the people responsible for handling social media rarely have any sway over the publication’s main content. Despite their lack of editorial influence, these social media workers must perform the emotional labor of fielding any fallout that results from the publication of controversial articles, often (as in the case of the Goldberg firestorm) contending with thousands of angry messages over the course of a few hours. Though in some cases these employees may pass the complaints they receive up the chain, they remain the human buffers between an outraged public and the publication itself.

In an age when magazine mastheads are public information and editors and writers are not only present on Twitter but openly disclose their affiliations, targeting institutional Twitter accounts with fury often comes off less like a letter to the editor and more like berating a waitress for bringing the wrong order. While coordinated Twitter assaults on politicians or private companies are often effective pressure campaigns, the outcome is less clear in the case of media institutions, which profit from page views generated by controversy while their social media personnel absorb the cost of the resulting negative feedback.

The battle over whether communities on Twitter are “good” or “bad,” “toxic” or “supportive,” “trashing” or “truth-telling,” obscures the immaterial labor that sustains all social networks. If tweeting is unwaged work that is performed by users who are 60 percent women, then the useful question to ask is not whether social media has given rise to a “culture” in which liberal feminists feel persecuted by more radical wings. Instead, we might interrogate exactly who benefits from women’s free digital labor, and, in close connection, whether social media work, even as a paid profession, is becoming entrenched as a pink-collar sector in which women bear the responsibility of “nurturing” online communities but still hold very little power over the decisions that guide them.

New campaigns like Laurel Ptak’s Wages for Facebook have germinated precisely in response to the explosion of unwaged digital labor and the way in which people have seamlessly integrated this work into their daily rhythms. As Jessica Weisberg noted in the Nation, “Ptak’s manifesto is meant to call attention to the ‘feminization’ of digital labor by encouraging users to demand more from social media sites and to question what prompts them to engage in these sites at all.” Like Wages for Housework, the 1970s Marxist feminist movement to which it pays homage, Wages for Facebook could play an important role in exposing and ultimately upending the insidious assumption that work for which one receives no pay is done strictly out of love.

And independent of Ptak’s project, there exist dozens of yet-unnamed but steadily growing pushbacks to the free labor of tweeting — some of which have ironically sprung up from the very quarters that Goldberg condemned as “toxic.” In significant numbers, feminists of color have stopped performing the exhausting work of gently educating their white counterparts on how racism continues to pervade mainstream feminist spaces. When asked by strangers on Twitter to provide resources or education, they are now increasingly demanding to be paid as consultants.