Book review

Digital labor: The Internet as playground and factory, edited by Trebor Scholz

Stephanie Anne Brown

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Keywords—New media; Playbour; Prosumer

Brown, Stephanie Anne. 2014. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz [book review]. In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital labor: The Internet as playground and factory. New York: Routledge, 2013. Paperback, $37.95 (258p) ISBN 978-0-415-89695-5; hardcover $150 (258p) ISBN 978-0-415-89694-8.

[1] As I write this, I'm fighting, as I so often do, with my compulsive urge to check my Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr feeds. On the one hand, I need to be productive, but on the other hand, I feel an intense desire to find a new message in my inbox telling me I've been retweeted, commented on, or reblogged. As Trebor Scholz and his fellow scholars illuminate in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, many of us conduct labor online for nothing in return save the affective and social capital earned when we receive measurable attention for our content. Meanwhile, the monetary capital for our labor is funneled into the pockets of corporate Internet gatekeepers like Google and Verizon. The underlying question these scholars seek to tackle is one that many scholars working in areas of fan creativity and transformative digital authorship wrestle with: does the unpaid labor Internet users and fans put into writing 140-character tweets or producing full-length fan films constitute exploitation? Furthermore, is it appropriate to use a theory often equated with physically punishing factory labor as a framework with which to study types of labor generally undertaken by those privileged enough to have both access to the Internet and the time to spend laboring online?

[2] In this essay collection, Trebor Scholz, associate professor of culture and media at the New School in New York City, author of a forthcoming monograph on the history of Orwellian economies of the social web, and the coauthor (with Laura Y. Liu) of From Mobile Playgrounds to Sweatshop City (2010), gathers a group of prominent scholars in the areas of labor, digital networks, technology, surveillance, and critical cultural studies including McKenzie Wark, Lisa Nakamura, Christian Fuchs, and Tiziana Terranova, each of whom brings a "commitment to understanding the complex implications of new forms of waged and unwaged digital labor" (1). This collection was precipitated by the international Internet as Playground and Factory conference that Scholz chaired at the New School in 2009. The goal of the conference (and the resulting book) was to explore "whether Marxist labor theory, with its concept of exploitation of labor, is still applicable to emerging modes of value capture on the Internet" (1).

[3] The book comprises 14 chapters divided into four sections that replicate the structure of the original conference. The first section, "The Shifting Sites of Labor Markets," covers what Scholz considers the overarching issues in the debate, including defining free labor and exploitation, along with other terms; discussing gamification rhetoric, gift economies, and the fight over technical standards; and assessing the ways that historical examples of corporations profiting from unpaid labor can illuminate issues in the current monetization of unpaid digital labor. Andrew Ross and Tiziana Terranova provide the book's first two chapters; their contributions act as a solid primer on issues discussed and debated throughout the rest of the book. For example, Ross argues that although new technologies did not create the idea of free labor, the Internet has made it easier to capitalize on its existence. Terranova builds on Ross's discussion of free labor by recommending the use of Maurizio Lazzarato's term immaterial labor to describe and more fully understand the ways in which the tremendous amount of user activity that makes the Internet monetizable to corporations might constitute exploitation. Terranova argues that immaterial labor severs digital labor from a set class association and frees it from any parameters of what constitutes a knowledge worker. Even more so than free labor, immaterial labor allows for the conceptualization of online space as a site where knowledge, art, and cultural ideas and norms are often produced collaboratively, but with only a few actually being compensated.

[4] These accessible opening chapters provide arguments and keywords that subsequent contributions build on and refer back to. The second section, "Interrogating Modes of Digital Labor," narrows the focus to specific case studies and sites of digital labor, including fandom, blogging, and's Mechanical Turk (, a crowd-sourcing operation launched in 2005 wherein workers from around the world choose and complete discrete human intelligence tasks. The third section, "The Violence of Participation," examines the stakes involved in digital labor exploitation by relating online practices to forms of physical exploitation and by illuminating the ways in which a discussion of digital exploitation can help us to more clearly theorize other contemporary forms of labor exploitation. The book concludes with the section "Organized Networks in an Age of Vulnerable Publics," which looks into the near future at possible alternatives to the current capitalist and neoliberal logic of the network and tangible solutions to the issues and critiques raised in the volume. In this section, Michel Bauwens proposes the creation of benefits-driven institutions, which participate in market exchanges but do not accumulate capital. He hopes they might spur an entire countereconomy focused on the commons and based on the ideology of peer-to-peer production. Fuchs points toward commons-centric projects like Wikipedia as cells of struggle against capitalism that could potentially be harnessed into a full-scale revolution of communication and of society itself.

[5] It is within sections 2 and 3 that the most specific attention is paid to fans and fan labor. Abigail De Kosnik argues in her chapter on the free labor undertaken by fans that although fans often think of their activities as residing outside of any economic framework, there should be methods of providing compensation for this work—or at least potential paths to employment given by corporations who benefit from the buzz and transformative works created by fans. In her chapter on the practice of gold farming within the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, Nakamura discusses the racialization of the practice and certain specific instances of racist rhetoric within fan-made machinima created to express players' disapproval of the practice.

[6] The essays in this collection conceptualize the landscape of digital labor as a continuation of traditional workplace social structures while also exploring discontinuities and intensifications of those often exploitive relations. As Scholz explains in the introduction, "These are new forms of labor but old forms of exploitation" (1). A key thread throughout the collection is that the Internet, technology, and related labor are not new or neutral. Rather, they are scaffolded by societal structures and rules. Like other societal structures, they contain both the potential for exploitation and the potential for revolution; as Ross puts it, "Like any other technology, they are facilitators, not causes of changing social forces" (16). Similarly, Terranova draws our focus to what she refers to as the outernet, the social, cultural, and economic relationships that connect the Internet to societal power structures. She argues that characterizing cyberspace as an escape risks ignoring the reality of how deeply the Internet is both embedded in and is a cause of the structure of postindustrial society. This sentiment, echoed throughout the book's essays, is summed up nicely in the final chapter by Ned Rossiter and Soenke Zehle, who argue that "a misunderstanding perhaps exists—that new technologies call for radically new forms of political organization" (235).

[7] Although the book seeks to apply familiar theories of labor to newer technologies, a major source of the book's tension is the focus on the exploitation and monetization of social behavior that does not "feel, look, or smell like labor at all" (2) rather than on more familiar discussions of factory and physical labor. From Dallas Smythe's 1981 argument that television audiences are produced and sold as commodities to advertisers to Lazzarato's conception of immaterial labor, there has long been a blurring of the lines between work and pleasure—and in our current digital world, everything, from Facebook to fandom, "is put to work, unfairly harnessing implicit participation for wild profits" (2). However, the contributors to this volume differ in their views on how zealously we ought to focus on the digital labor being performed by largely middle- to upper-class laborers. Scholz addresses this issue up front, arguing that although the ability to call for resistance to the more capitalistic implications of the Internet is a privileged position, the digital divide is shrinking with the growing use of cheap cellular phones across the globe, and the degree to which participation in digital labor is voluntary varies widely across the global and socioeconomic spectrum. Many essays grapple with similar juxtapositions of digital labor and factory labor, with varying levels of success. Mark Andrejevic sums up his position by explaining, "The point of running them alongside one another is not to diminish the brutality of the exploitation of industrial capitalism but to add depth and urgency to the critique of exploitation in the emerging information economy" (162). Therefore, focusing on digital labor and exploitation can shed light on the larger implications of exploitation in the current global economy as a whole.

[8] Another issue inherent in a discussion of labor that does not always look like labor is the question of false consciousness. As Ross argues in the opening chapter, work for nothing has become normal because it is not experienced as work. Money has been replaced by the "affective currency" (19) of retweets, blog comments, and page views; the real currency goes to those who own the domains and bandwidth. As Wark puts it, "We have to pay for the privilege of producing our own spectacle" (71). But is it fair to say that Internet users are being exploited if they are enjoying their labor? Is it a form of false consciousness for fans to feel satisfied running a fan site that likely contributes to the bottom line of a major movie studio when they do not see any of that money themselves? "The Internet is fun" seems to some of the book's scholars to be the most dangerous ideology surrounding digital labor. Yet as Terranova argues, "free labor isn't necessarily exploited labor" (47). Andrejevic calls for work to be done to more clearly define exploitation in free labor contexts in order to respond to accusations that such critiques fail "to acknowledge the benefits and pleasures received by those engaged in various forms of free labor" (154). Indeed, several arguments throughout the book would have been bolstered by at least acknowledging the agency and pleasure of those doing the digital laboring while still interrogating the ways in which those users are being exploited. Wark, for example, describes World of Warcraft as "the fantasy version of the power of the vectoral class perfected," where players "pay for the privilege of laboring to acquire objects and status that are only artificially scarce," but he does so without taking account of any of the reasons behind players' love of the game (71). Some essays, however, do acknowledge and attempt to deal with this tension by bringing in relevant notions from cultural studies. Nakamura, for example, argues that if scholars are going to take game worlds seriously, they "must be willing to take their racial discourses, media texts, and interpersonal conflicts seriously as well" (201). However, an absence of discussion of agency and specific Web content is to be expected in a book focusing largely on political economy.

[9] There are moments when the opposing side in a debate is exaggerated, distorting the picture of whom the author is speaking to. I would expect a scholarly book on the political economy of the Internet to speak to a target audience of relatively like-minded digital scholars interested in delving into political economy, or political economists interested in exploring the Internet as a site of labor exploitation. However, there are points when the debate is framed in such a way that this assumption is called into question. For instance, Ross contends that "many readers will no doubt conclude" that the exploitation of Internet users by corporations is a trade-off for the amenities offered by the Internet (21), when it would be fair to assume that most readers would not in fact come to that conclusion. Similarly, in her chapter on blogging, Jodi Dean spends several paragraphs arguing that "word clouds aren't revolutionary" (144), when those reading this book would likely similarly not make the argument that they are. Overall, this volume provides a nice entry point for those interested in political economy, the Internet, or both, although jarring moments such as these gave me pause and made me wonder about the book's target audience. The collection's intended audience of political economists likely necessitates that its only direct discussion of fan labor is overly broad. De Kosnik takes as a starting point the refutation of the idea that fan activity is "a waste of time at best and pathological at worst" (99), which makes for a useful starting point in an essay directed at Marxist academics uneasy with situating the exploitation of digital labor alongside the more abject working conditions that are often their focus, but which is not a helpful or convincing argument for fan studies scholars.

[10] Although Scholz and the scholars in the collection are obviously not going take a utopian view of the Internet, they fortunately do not go so far as to disregard the Internet as a site of possible resistance either. As Ross argues, "Technologies are not simply weapons of class war, designed to control and deskill workers, they also harbor the potential to eliminate wage labor, socialize production, and free up our time" (16). The world the collection paints certainly isn't sunny, but it isn't entirely without optimism. Scholz agrees with Henry Jenkins that a Marxist solution to the current state of the capitalist Internet is not to "live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards" (8), but instead to come up with tangible steps toward a more open and free version of the Internet. The solution could be to more fairly compensate labor within the current system, as De Kosnik suggests in her discussion of fan labor; to create a communist Internet countereconomy, as Bauwens champions; to do away with the idea of intellectual property, as Wark suggests; or to lead a revolution to overhaul society, as Fuchs argues, noting that "a communist Internet requires a communist society" (222). Whether these solutions are possible or even feasible is up for debate, but at least Scholz and the essayists in his collection are looking for solutions.