Between Digital Labour, Leisure and Liberation

As a Lecturer in Digital Media Studies at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture (Cardiff University), my work focuses on issues regarding identity, inequality, ideology, media and the marketplace.

My research involves exploring how and why social media and online content-sharing platforms are used in people’s lives, such as their experiences of labour, leisure and pursuit of liberationist goals. I also examine how brands (mis)use rhetoric and (re)presentations associated with social justice activism, but as part of inherently capitalist activity in the form of depoliticised marketing campaigns (“woke-washing”).

Drawing on such research, on the 5th of November 2019 I delivered a seminar—Unrecognised Digital “Work(ers)” and Brand “Woke-Washing”—at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law. The session presented a chance for me to consider how dimensions of my work connect to aspects of critical legal studies.

The claim that “anybody and everybody is a content creator now” is a common, yet, contested one. Still, what seems indisputable is that “user-generated” content can be very influential in media and marketplace contexts, sometimes in ways that are more impactful than institutional output created by industry professionals. What is “digital work”? Who is identified as a “content-creator” or “digital creative”, and why? How do interlocking inequalities affect these matters? The research seminar was guided by such questions.

During the session at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, I discussed the rise of “digital remix culture” which involves the repurposing and remixing of existing visuals, written text, audio and video recording, to create new content that communicates a specific message and moment in time which is typically tailored to a target audience. Relatedly, I reflected on examples of the changing landscape of digital media and associated forms of leisure, labour and activities intended to support working towards liberationist goals—from online viral trends and efforts to unionise meme creators, to the use of social media as part of activism, and the emergence of corporate roles which focus on GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) curation.

Digital developments have changed how people create, communicate, campaign and work. However, contemporary discourse concerning labour sometimes fails to account for certain digital activities and experiences, particularly those of people from structurally marginalised demographics due to the interconnections of systemic ableism, racism, sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other entangled forms of oppression.

At the seminar I emphasised the need for research and advocacy endeavours to ensure an expansive understanding and establishment of the rights of digital workers, especially those of individuals whose work is often systematically trivialised, dismissed and co-opted. I spoke about changing views and experiences of content creation, cultural commodification and digital work—foregrounding the production of memes, GIFs and viral videos—while recognising that not everything people do on the internet is a form of labour, leisure or embedded in liberationist struggles.

I was glad to have the opportunity to take part in interdisciplinary dialogues about different understandings of the intentions of digital content creators, some of whom produce work that is collectively owned or created to be shared in ways that move beyond notions of ownership and property which are steeped in capitalist and colonialist legacies. As legal and policy spheres attempt to keep pace with technological advancements and changing digital communication processes, it is important that questions to do with interdependent structural inequalities and the rights of people online are considered in nuanced ways.