Much of popular internet content aggregator Reddit was blacked out last week by unpaid moderators to protest the firing of Victoria Taylor, best known for coordinating the website’s popular “Ask Me Anything” features. No reliable sources have confirmed why the firing occurred, but the popular theory on the site is that she refused to go along with changes desired by CEO Ellen Pao to make the site more profitable.
The discourse on the site surrounding the shutdown of many of its “subreddits” is familiar to anyone who spends time monitoring internet message boards. There’s a lot of thinly veiled racism, with Pao being repeatedly compared to Kim Jong-Il for seemingly little other reason than that she’s of Asian descent. There’s hyperbole, poorly wrought theorizing and sometimes disturbing turns. Godwin’s Law, which states that any argument on the internet will inevitably trend toward someone/something being compared to Nazis and/or Adolph Hitler, has been reaffirmed dozens, possibly hundreds or thousands of times since Taylor’s firing.
However, warts and all, this is the first shadow work strike (that I can find anyway) and as such some attention should be paid.
THE INTERNAL LOGIC OF SHADOW WORK
The phenomena of “shadow work” is ubiquitous right now. Whenever you use a self-checkout you are doing unpaid labor. Worse, when buying things on the internet like bus tickets, the user is frequently actually charged money to do this unpaid labor under the sham of the “convenience charge.” Much of the internet runs on the work of unpaid moderators and admins. Most of the content that furnishes popular websites like Reddit is provided by users who are never compensated for their work.
As neoliberal policies continue to be implemented this trend will only grow. The internal logic of neoliberalism in its current phase does not work in the manner of capitalism prior. The model before was underpaying someone else to paint the fence and pocketing the remainder. Neoliberalism however is full Tom Sawyer-charging the kids for the “fun” of painting the fence.
THE NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL PARADIGM OF LABOR
Part of why the Reddit shutdown isn’t being talked about as a strike is that from the outside it doesn’t resemble prior strikes. It’s confusing and chaotic. The fight isn’t over money but control of the website. No one is looking for wages or financial compensation. Some commenters are actually against compensation for moderators because they feel they’ll lose the independence they have in the current set up. Acceptance of wages equals a loss of freedom. This is not an unreasonable assumption.
The manifestation of that belief within the shadow worker community of Reddit is not developed into a mature or coherently articulated ideology yet. The shadow worker is confused whether they’re actually a worker or a consumer. In post-structural terms: the producer/consumer identity binary is collapsed.
Self-definition of the strike by the community has rallied around the symbolic image of the pitchfork and the associated archetype of the angry mob, not the picket line or striker. The strikers on some level aren’t aware they’re on a labor strike.
But they are. This is a new type of labor strike. It’s in its infancy, it’s not a clean or clear manifestation yet. But it won’t be the last one. And to miss the opportunity to study the success or failure of its tactics would be a waste.
Guest post by Daniel Levine. His first book, Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead is available on his Etsy store.