In its most common uses, the term “labor” refers to either an organized system of exploitation or a personal source of pleasure. “Slave labor” relies on unfree populations forced into servitude, while a “labor of love” is a gift that an individual freely gives. These two usages are frequently conjoined, conflated, or compared to simply “work.” The orthodoxies that insist on using the word “labor” over “work” are less important than ways in which the word is deployed in these seemingly contradictory ways to explain centuries of media production and their producers.
On the one hand, media labor refers to a human productive capacity. The ability to communicate, while universal to all, has a special aura in relation to media industries and their specialized technologies. Beyond simply the application of skills, media labor implies a process of self-actualization for workers to construct particular kinds of identities in society (Mayer 2011). Media labor typically requires collaboration, even if remotely, and thus places individuals within social networks that are frequently further defined by gender, race, nationality, and social class. At the base of these definitions of media labor is the understanding that symbolic production as communication is both different from all other sorts of human creations, and that the laborer communicates to others without necessarily expecting money or other compensation. This definition is rooted in the biblical language of the “labor of love” (Hyde 1983), and though it can easily slide into romantic notions of media labor, it also expresses what separates communication (a song) from other material processes (pressing the record) (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011).
On the other hand, media labor implies the conditioning of one’s unique capacities within a social structure. In Marxist terms, the power of the media worker is traded for economic benefits such as wages. In liberal democracies, the nation-state supports these laborers to negotiate fair remuneration for their time and efforts in exchange for more tax revenues. Capitalism, however, acts as a social force to reduce the value of the labor to achieve the highest profit margins. This frequently means dividing media laborers according to occupational roles within and across various codependent industries (i.e., electronics manufacturing versus information processing versus video game design), and then conquering laborers’ abilities to self-organize through unions or other types of association. Under these conditions that create downward competition and stave off solidarities, it’s no wonder that media labor infers exploitation as much as actualization.
Labor as actualization and exploitation was already in play during the first media revolution. As Elizabeth Eisenstein (1983) charts, the rise of the printing press from 1450 to 1600 transformed not only media labor markets, but also the social value of printing as a special kind of labor across Europe. The painstaking process of reproducing books by hand, aka manuscripts, required increasingly skilled workers to cluster nearby to more efficiently reproduce figures, charts, and a new scientific lexicon. The earliest printers contracted experienced freelance stationers, along with a wide array of binders, rubricators, and calligraphers from the scriptoria. New trades developed. A new division of labor and press technologies freed printers to focus on the contents of their books, permitting creative experimentation and new inventions, such as footnotes, tables of contents, and cross-references. Laborers came from different social worlds and traveled extensively to market both their skills and their book lists. They often made collective decisions about the product while competing against other presses.
Laborers shared the same production and reception culture in large towns across Western Europe. Print shops became cultural centers for the growth of a cosmopolitan literati and learning communities that lured university students from lectures. Predating Wikipedia, these early media laborers had a hand in creating and re-creating books through editing, translation, and even scientific experimentation to test texts’ veracity. Some even developed free-labor networks of readercorrespondents to help correct errors for subsequent editions. Printers expressed their identities though their own libraries as testaments to the “by-products of their own shop work” (Eisenstein 1983, 49).
As the printers came to be known for their book lists rather than their richest readers, the master printer came to be the first celebrity of the age. Estienne made Latin Bibles. Ortelius made atlases. The famous master printer of Mainz, Peter Schoeffer, was known for developing indexes and new editions as sales techniques. He was also infamous for his testimony against Gutenberg, sending his business partner into exile. The master printer bridged social and cultural worlds, heading complex organizations by securing the financial resources to wholesale niche goods to yet-unknown markets. They were the ultimate multitaskers, taking on the roles of publisher, seller, indexer, translator, and editor, among others. They curried favor with officials and the guilds they needed for materials and resources. They mentored their own assistants and cultivated their own talent, especially authors and artists who would attract loyal buyers. In sum, they were self-promoters and entrepreneurs par excellence, becoming socially prominent as their goods were associated with their personae throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, printers erased the names of the workers who created the volumes under them. Master printers looked to new financial syndicates to provide labor and avoid the potential for strikes. They asserted the first claims over copyright and piracy to protect their profits over authors, competitors, and all other media laborers. With time, even the most creative personnel, such as illustrators, found they were replaceable to improved machinery. Printers’ power concentrated with slimmer and cheaper staffs. Ironically, printers and their publishing kin would look upon their media labor as a craft, even as they continually standardized its processes and harnessed labor power. The history of printing reveals that even as some laborers achieve status or celebrity as printers, the print industry renders far more laborers as an exploitable, and ultimately disposable, commodity.
Media labor is still a commodity to be leveraged against other materials and resources needed in operating an industry. Printers’ social status in the Western world declined in relation to the growth of new automated technologies. In general, new workplace technologies have exerted the most pressure on the middle range of laborers across media industries. “Deskilling” refers to the process by which media laborers’ skills have been mechanized, and thus are no longer valuable in the negotiation of labor contracts (Braverman 1974). The low status of assistants as support staff, as opposed to guild mentees, for higher-ranked media laborers was one outcome of deskilling. Another outcome has been the expansion of work duties among media laborers more generally as they are expected to do more of the tasks once assigned to others. Media labor typically involves a range of technological practices associated with time and duty management, financial and social accounting, and communication with a wider range of people outside of the workplace, such as clients, consumers, and audiences.
As automation has tended to homogenize the workforce in terms of their unique capabilities, the very definition of media labor has expanded to capture the symbolic, emotional, and communicative tasks involved in being part of an increasingly postindustrial workforce. This immaterial labor extends beyond the waged time and space of the traditional notion of the workplace and into the home as a “social factory” (Scholz 2013). Media laborers cultivate themselves as particular kinds of workers. Described in the present moment as selfbranding, immaterial media labor assists in the reproduction of media labor both in terms of individuals’ career portfolios and in terms of the social reproduction of jobs that are highly segregated by gender, ethnicity or race, and sexuality: from the white masculine world of high-tech hackers (Coleman 2012) to the feminine heteronormative world of fashion bloggers (Duffy 2013). In their most commodified articulations, media labor markets transform people into tradable objects. High-status star or celebrity identities operate as properties that can be managed by teams of workers, while low-status ordinary citizens give their personal data freely every time they surf the Internet.
Within these general trends, it is important to understand the ways national policies and regulations structure different kinds of media labor. The public service framework for broadcasting across most of the world, with the United States as an outlier, has meant that media laborers’ ethical codes include some commitment to the noble goal of serving the “public good” even if only as an ideal. At the same time, the incursion of commercial competition globally in this industry, assisted by deregulation, as well as the expansion of new digital platforms for broadcast content have forced public service workers to achieve more in a highly competitive setting. The lowering of protective barriers in international trade also spurred the offshoring of media work previously thought to be nationally based, such as copyediting in publishing or computer graphic artistry in visual effects industries. The popular notion of a “flexible” labor force most notably occurred during the government breakup of the Hollywood studio system in the 1960s. Producers learned to shed their financial risks by outsourcing virtually all of their in-house production staffs to independent contractors (Christopherson and Storper 1989). Subsequently, the film as well as virtually all other audiovisual and digital media industries convene their laborers together solely for the duration of a single project. Under contract laws, work-for-hire laborers sacrifice job stability, benefits, and all rights associated with their creations. Similarly, weakened labor laws have spurred the boom in freelance and internship markets in order to increase the flexibility of employers. Writers, photographers, designers, and a whole range of workers involved in digital techniques and applications now act as their own employers in taking responsibility for their own welfare and job safety. Although very few media laborers work solitarily to create a product or content, the national legal structuring of employment may render some media labor forces atomized both physically and politically.
Media laborers have had to cultivate strong external social networks to stave off the feast-or-famine cycles now associated with short-term, project-based, and oncall jobs. These networks have supported some labor organizing across industries and nations, such as the Freelancers Union and the International Game Developers Association, but these formations can be fragile, and even undermined by governmental interference, industry co-optation, and internal gatekeepers. More tactical approaches have prevailed to promote diversity within media production cultures or to develop ethical codes, not just to safeguard membership in the labor force, but to share resources and encourage mutual solidarity. Web designers, for example, developed collective standards for ensuring the accessibility of their sites to users with disabilities (Kennedy 2012).
Although mass media industries typically promote the visibility of those workers located at the tops of their own organizational hierarchies—the director/producer, the publisher, the mogul—the vast majority of media labor is invisible—a term with multiple connotations. In most cases, media labor is invisible to those who consume its products. Gamers, for example, sustain an illegal labor force of “gold farmers” who are forced to play online in the developing world to help players in the developed world buy virtual goods or achieve game levels. More generally, data and information jobs dominate all stages of media production today. Yet the public is still largely unaware of the scope and scale of media workers dedicated to big data capture, collection, and curation. Media labor thus frequently involves not only those workers who are not found in a media spotlight, but also the invisible “free labor” of the public writ large who contributes their data to media production processes (Terranova 2004).
Similarly, much of media labor is invisible to employers and the state because it involves tasks or skills that are never remunerated or part of a wage structure. This invisible media labor tends to coincide precisely with voluntary practices or labors of love that drive people toward their jobs in the first place. Historically, the responsibility of most immaterial labor fell to women who fell outside of formal employment markets (Fortunati 1995). This legacy has functioned to “feminize” certain media labor tasks, which then are assumed to not be as valuable as other achieved skills or credentials, and even stratify some media labor markets by the gender presumed best suited for the invisible requirements of their jobs (Mayer 2011). Invisible media labor in this sense can result in the unequal treatment and payment of workers who participate equally in media production processes, but whose labor is valued according to different cultural standards.
Finally, media labor is often invisible to fellow media laborers. The neologism “precariat” speaks to the precarious working conditions that connect the majority of media laborers with those across other sectors of the global economy. These conditions hinder the formation of a broader media labor movement, much less the formation of a working class in and for itself—“the proletariat.” This notion of invisibility has political connotations for the future of media labor. The formation of syndicates, unions, guilds, and other professional associations relies on the mutual recognition of their members as media laborers. From there the solidarity of media labor may make itself not only visible, but powerful in shaping the balance between labor as a means of exploitation or actualization.