The Exposure Economy

Curator's Note

 As media platforms have proliferated, the demand for written content has increased – but while there are new economic applications for writing (and new writing formats) these don’t always translate into profits for creators. Largely unplanned expansion online by media organisations has meant workloads but not budgets have increased and many writing jobs attract no fee and instead offer exposure as payment. In a bid to save money while finding niche ways to attract consumers, online media outlets hit upon what appeared to be a mutually agreeable solution: content was produced free of charge in exchange for much prized ‘exposure.’ Recently this system has come under attack, particularly since the buy out of the Huffington Post by AOL. Historically, writing work has always involved a double economy: remuneration and reputation. Even the ‘hack’ writers on Grub Street, unambiguously ‘for hire’, recognised that staying in work meant maintaining their profile.

Today, the need to promote the professional self is believed to be even more urgent. When there are many highly trained individuals with the same skill set, talent levels and ambition all vying for the small number of positions, what distinguishes any one person from another is name recognition. Writers are thus ever keen to get their names in print and, increasingly, on air and online. Add to this the fact that social media networks (which provide the scaffolding to the new media industries) have provoked shifts in everyday values: exposure and ‘profile’ have taken on new currency to all members of the network society not simply those involved in new media work. But as a form of compensation exposure (while undoubtedly valued and valuable) distracts from the broader worth of new media labour. After all, it is among the distributed labour networks of the new media industries where so much of the action and innovation in our culture is taking place.

(Thumbnail image for this post used from the Web comic Cat and Girl. You can view the comic full by clicking here.)


Thank you, Caroline, for raising such an interesting issue and for continuing what seems to be shaping up as a theme for this week so far: "free" labor.

I found Ellison's distinction between "amateur" and "professional" to be particularly informative, and this distinction seems to run throughout this week's posts.  There seems to be an increasing expectation that performing work for free as an amateur will eventually lead to a paid position as a professional (we also saw this with the playtesters discussed in yesterday's post).  However, I'm not sure how often this transition actually happens - you might have more hard data regarding this.  From things like CNNs iReport to amateur bloggers to TV writers producing web content to, dare I say it, academics, there is a presumption that doing things for free will grant the exposure that leads to a paid job.  While there are most certainly other reasons for doing this work - personal gratification, seeing one's name in print, etc. - there is also often the expectation that eventually, all this work will "pay off."  It's similar to the situation experienced by a PA working on a film who expects to become a film director someday.  Sorry, buddy, but it's probably not going to happen.

I really like this clip, and I can see many of us using it in our classrooms along with your post to stimulate a lively discussion. 

One challenge with the Huffington Post example is that very few of the authors make a living directly off their writing, especially on the site.   Many are paid as professors, lawyers, or journalists by other organizations; some use HuffPo precisely and explicitly as a platform to lead users to other, often long-form works available for purchase. In fact, one could argue that the HuffPo writers do what they do for similar reasons that many of us choose to contribute to online venues such as In Media Res and Flow – building networks, increasing social and/or cultural capital in one's field, “crowdsourcing” a review process, and floating ideas that will eventually become a part of longer works. 

Let’s historicize free labor.  I’d love to see more nuanced takes on Hardt and Negri and the writings of Tiziana Terranova, whose AOL “netslaves” considered themselves exploited workers in ways that many contemporary professional and amateur laborers and fans do not. 

The challenge is figuring out how we recognize and analyze moments and patterns of self-description that take place in specific contexts and mix this analysis with an analysis of the field of power relations that construct the choices available. We must acknowledge personal positions and not render individual and communal voices silent in macroeconomic analyses.    

How can we critique and problematize the rise of the neoliberal entrepreneurial subject while still taking seriously a range of choices made by creative and media laborers in a time of dizzying change?  To paraphrase/twist the words of Patricia Clarkson’s character from Six Feet Under, we make different choices, and they are all hard ones. We often presuppose that giving away work for free is an easy choice, when many times it is anything but simple.   


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