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Global digital workers’ predicaments and prospects


2023-05-16 01:54

Wang Youran
Chinese Social Sciences Today

With the development of online social media, the number of independent content creators is constantly increasing, and their influence is growing day by day. The surge in demand for creative digital content has reached unprecedented heights, driving internet technology companies to continuously develop new platforms and leverage market advantages. However, the effective protection of creators’ labor rights and copyright, as well as the need for platforms to pay creators more transparently and fairly, still requires the collective wisdom of multiple fields to address.

‘Aspirational work’

Social media platforms have opened up new channels for self presentation, artistic expression, and marketing, attracting a growing group of social media influencers. They believe that their passion, unremitting efforts, and creative talent can be applied to build audiences, and forge a career. They often possess cross-disciplinary skills, such as high creativity, writing ability, interpersonal skills, attention to details, and research and critical thinking skills.

In the face of the “we-media” craze, Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor from the Department of Communication at Cornell University, believes that “these platforms are reconfiguring how people think about preparing themselves for the labor market.” Duffy says, “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.” Duffy notes that “the vast majority of individuals carry out endless ‘aspirational work’ on social media platforms, approaching their unpaid work online as investments in a future self that will hopefully be able to ‘do what they love’ for a living.”

Returning to Marx

Christian Fuchs, a chair professor of media systems and media organization from the Department of Media Studies at Paderborn University in Germany, has long studied the digital media-oriented information society from a critical perspective. Fuchs argues that when creators publish their works on social media, internet companies reap significant profits while exploiting the digital labor of creators and undermining the participatory culture that they share. To solve this problem, Fuchs suggests that Marx’s theory can be used to redefine “work in capitalism as process of concrete labour that creates use values and abstract labour that creates the value of commodities.”

Fuchs said that “users of social media are creative, social, and active prosumers who engage in a culture of sharing, doing, connecting and making and in these work activities create social use-values. On corporate social media that use targeted advertising, this creativity is a form of labour that is the source of the value of a data commodity that is sold to advertisers and results in profits.”

“Marx points out the transformation of work in a communist society: It would not be based on the ‘theft of alien labour time,’ but on the ‘free development of individualities’ enabled by the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created for all of them,” according to Fuchs.

Fuchs points out that “the only alternative to exit the Internet crisis and exploitation economy is to exit from digital labour, to overcome alienation, to substitute the logic of capital by the logic of the commons and to transform digital labour into playful digital work.”

Promoting legal reform

Giuseppe Mazziotti, a law professor at the Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin in Ireland, believes that the imperfection and regional differences of anti-monopoly law and intellectual property law have led to the career dilemma of digital content creators. Internet technology giants have significant control over the digital content that most people browse, and platform monopolies not only limit creators’ income channels, but also pose challenges to the core profit model of the entire cultural industry through market competition.

Mazziotti believes that the next focus of European and American legislative measures should be to establish standardized systems for collecting work information and improve platform information transparency. Mazziotti notes that “access to information on content-related exploitations would strengthen creators’ bargaining power and make their rights more effective and commercially valuable.”



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