The social media economy benefits few, new book suggests

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Joe Schwartz

Fashion bloggers and Instagrammers seem to enjoy a coveted lifestyle, with jet-setting to exotic locales, couture clothing furnished by designers and countless other caption-worthy experiences.

Yet the attention lavished on these so-called “influencers” draws attention away from a much larger class of social media content creators: those who aspire to “make it” in the precarious, hyper-competitive creative economy, where they find only unpaid work.

Brooke Erin Duffy, assistant professor of communication, tells their story in her latest book, “(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work” (Yale University Press, June 2017).

The book draws attention to the gap between the few women who find lucrative careers in social media and the rest, whose “passion projects” amount to free work for corporate brands.

Duffy’s book draws on in-depth interviews with bloggers, YouTubers, Instagrammers and other enterprising women who hope to channel their talents into fulfilling careers via social media. Duffy learned that, often, these young women were motivated by the wider culture’s siren call to “get paid to do what you love.”

But their experiences often fell short of the promise; only a few rise above the din to achieve major success, according to Duffy. The rest are unpaid or underpaid, remunerated with deferred promises of “exposure” or “visibility” – even as they work long hours to satisfy brands and project authenticity to observant audiences.

A grueling balancing act is required, one that Duffy explores through the lens of “aspirational labor.” As a practice and a worker ideology, aspirational labor shifts content creators’ focus from the present to the future, dangling the prospect of a career where labor and leisure coexist.

Duffy connects the activities of these women to larger shifts in unpaid and gendered labor. She offers a lens through which to understand, anticipate and critique broader transformations in the creative economy.

The book closes by exploring the parallels between the work that social media aspirants do to create their own brands, and the “self-branding” academics undertake in contemporary higher education.

At a moment when social media offer the rousing assurance that anyone can “make it” – and stand out among freelancers, temps and gig workers – Duffy asks the reader to consider the stakes of not getting paid to do what one loves.

“This insightful account will resonate with anyone who has ever sought to turn personal passions into wage-earning employment, juggled multiple part-time gigs or struggled to fit pleasurable hobbies around a ‘real’ job or jobs,” Anna Clutterbuck-Cook recently wrote in Library Journal.

Duffy’s research and teaching explore the interrelationships between media, culture and technology. Her areas of interest include digital and social media; gender, feminism and identity; media and cultural production; and the impact of new technologies on work and labor.

Duffy is also the author of “Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age” (University of Illinois Press, 2013).


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