New Criticals

In this essay, I want to highlight platforms’ blackboxed inner-workings as a labor issue. This follows on the heels of rather well-developed discussions of the political dimensions of platforms wherein algorithms and incentive structures mediate, alter, or deform the public sphere [iii]. Likewise, I want to emphasize that the heightened “media participation” that platforms enable is, at the same time, an issue of labor. Recent discussions of digital labor focus on the unpaid work of users, arguing that all users produce a valuable good in the form of their attention (the “audience commodity”) [iv] or data captured by the platform. Instead, this essay focuses on the paid digital labor of YouTube “Creators” or content-producing users that earn substantial portions of their income from the platform such as the two vloggers above.

As is well known, YouTube and other social media platforms play role of audience surveiller and auctioneer, selling users’ eyeballs and data to advertisers. Above, the platform also plays the part of an inspector on the shopfloor that monitors the quality of the views manufactured by content-producers. If the views meet the platform’s standards, YouTube doles out fractions of a cent for each qualified view much like a machinist might receive a piece-rate for each machined part that meets pre-defined, relatively stable criteria. For the hypothetical machinist, these criteria could be known, seen, and understood. The production of fixed, largely material or “closed-box” commodities in a piece-rate system tend to be regulated by clear, mostly settled definition of what constitutes a piece.