The digital labor of queering feminist Web TV
First Monday

The digital labor of queering feminist Web TV by Carolyn Elerding



Abstract
Episodes in two queer and feminist Web TV programs, Orange Is the New Black and Her Story, feature ambivalent representations of labor and social reproduction. These narratives suggest implications for digital economy, particularly its algorithms and its connection with the disruption of conventional social and economic categories. This comparative analysis mobilizes theories from feminist media studies and cultural studies to present the viewing of queer and feminist Web TV as forming networks of care and, potentially, resistance in addition to producing economic value.

Contents

Introduction
Theorizing networked immaterial social reproduction
Her Story and the rearrangement of social and economic categories
OITNB: Algorithms in the integrated circuit
Conclusion: Economies of ambivalence and ambiguity in queer and feminist Web TV

 


 

Introduction

Provocative socioeconomic themes are by no means rare in cultural production. Due to the portability of Internet-enabled devices, Web TV — that is, television created specifically for Internet distribution — is frequently consumed with greater privacy than cinema or broadcast TV, in viewing environments posing fewer risks to queer, feminist, and otherwise politically progressive or socially marginalized viewers (Scanlon and Lewis, 2017). However, in Web TV programs that center diverse feminist and queer perspectives, socioeconomic issues, like class, exploitation, and resistance movements such as labor organizing, receive notably ambivalent and ambiguous treatment. These contradictory post-industrial economic narratives resonate with conceptualizations of digital, post-industrial, and “immaterial” labor and social reproduction proffered by feminists and other theorists of political economy.

This article investigates the complexity and societal centrality of social reproduction, the frequently unpaid or underpaid and also gendered and racialized work of caring for life. Materialist feminist media theorists have explored the digital implications of those dimensions of social reproduction that are more cultural, as distinct from primarily physical or biological [1]. These include providing education, entertainment, and affection and are often described utilizing Autonomist Marxist theories of “immaterial” labor exploring the role of cultural production in political economy [2]. The present essay argues that viewing Web TV, like participating in social media, constitutes a digital form of immaterial social reproduction as well as labor, though important differences between social media and Web TV are also pivotal to the analysis [3]. This understanding of digital social reproduction builds upon Dallas Smythe’s well-known theory of the “audience commodity” (1977), a concept updated for the Internet era by Autonomist Marxists Tiziana Terranova (2000) and Christian Fuchs (2012) in their formulations of digital labor. Diverse theoretical sources, including British cultural studies, provide complementary points of departure. The essay combines these various conceptual resources for considering digital labor and social reproduction to suggest that the pronounced ambivalence characterizing economic narratives in queer and feminist Web TV points to possibilities for political resistance through networks of care.

Relationships among digital labor, social reproduction, and Web TV also involve algorithms. Increasingly tight “circuits” of communication between audiences and TV production have evolved from Nielsen broadcast ratings [4] to the well-known impact of Internet-based fandom on shows such as The X-Files (1993–) and The Walking Dead (2010–) (H. Jenkins, 2013) [5]. Currently, proprietary algorithms track the viewing behaviors of audiences watching commercial, as opposed to not-for-profit, Web TV (T. Jenkins, 2016). Like social media, commercial Web TV deploys algorithmic data capture systems that feed back into the customization of audience experience and generate marketing revenues by maintaining a platform’s branding, as well as in many cases selling the data.

Most significantly for the purposes of this essay, even on profit-driven platforms incorporating algorithmically determined Web TV, content oriented to social justice and progressive politics, such as queer and feminist critiques embedded in popular narratives, points toward new forms of cultural and socioeconomic politics in addition to diversifying social identities represented onscreen. While the shift toward algorithmic audience tracking may invoke the sobering specters of automation and surveillance, it also inaugurates a noteworthy form of digital agency — less direct than the copious generation of content by users of social media, but similarly reflecting the cultural milieu surrounding the marketization of users’ data. This potentially pivotal juncture in mainstream cultural politics indicates a widespread desire to better understand the socioeconomic system of capitalism and its links with gender and sexuality, even pointing toward what Jose Muñoz (2009) describes as queer utopian potential.

By comparing an algorithmic commercial Web TV program with a non-commercial example, the essay highlights the significance of this intensified circuit of audience participation. Algorithmic commercial Web TV distributed by platform subscription is exemplified by Netflix’s most popular original fiction series, Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) (2013–), created by Jenji Kohan. OITNB is widely celebrated and criticized for its edgy, but ultimately mainstream, representations of racial, gender, and sexual diversity in a women’s prison, and one episode in Season 3 also addresses socioeconomic issues like class and labor in a politicized manner. In contrast, Her Story (2015), created by Jen Richards and Laura Zak, is an independently produced and freely available fictional series of short episodes about lesbian and trans women in Los Angeles. Although socioeconomic themes figure prominently throughout Her Story, the essay focuses on the first episode due to its importance in establishing the show’s setting.

 

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Theorizing networked immaterial social reproduction

The sharper understanding of viewers’ political agency that emerges from comparing Her Story and OITNB is is achieved by means of a complex theoretical lens. In a close reading of Leopoldina Fortunati’s (1995) analyses of both unpaid housework and the folding of feminist thought into theories of immaterial labor (2007), Kylie Jarrett (2014) locates a cornerstone for utilizing feminist theories of social reproduction in media studies. Also referring to Terranova’s seminal insights into the early public Internet as an economy sustained by “free labor,” [6] Jarrett demonstrates how feminist inquiry into digital labor and social reproduction can more deeply elucidate economies of user-generated online content (Jarrett, 2014). Produced on an unwaged and arguably voluntary, though frequently unknowing and unintentional, basis, such content includes ratings and posts, as well as incidental data reflecting social identity (gender, income, age, and so forth) used for customizability, branding, and marketing. Jarrett’s account reveals analogies between the valorization processes characterizing conventional “women’s work” and the digital labor of user-consumers online today [7].

Cultural contributions to social reproduction have conventionally been overlooked or dismissed — undervalued — along with women’s material contributions as house-workers [8]. Today, as Jarrett points out, the immaterial use-values that circulate through Internet economies are of the same kind that social reproduction feminists have observed as crucial to non-digital social reproduction: “affect, care, love, education, socialization, communication, information, entertainment, organization, planning, coordination, [and] logistics.” [9] By showing how the exchange and valorization of these immaterial use-values occur, Jarrett’s account delineates how communities of care take shape. Jarrett (2014) insists that cultural production’s immateriality renders its use-values inalienable in the Marxist sense of remaining inseparable from the digital laborer’s embodied experience. As digital laborers, users of social media participate in networks of care by creating, exchanging, and retaining lasting use-values such as emotional support or the sharing of knowledge, central aspects of maintaining life. Jarrett highlights the contradiction that exercising consumer choices and expressing tastes online in commercial social media feels enjoyable and even liberating — empowering — despite that it reinforces a prevailing socioeconomic system functioning against the needs and interests of most people [10].

Another contradictory tension emerges in that immaterial processes also carry out a “disciplining” function that reinforces, but can also disrupt, the reproduction of society’s dominant order [11]. Jarrett’s theory overlaps with those of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who argues that at any stage in the “circuit” of media communication — the “linked but distinctive moments” of production, circulation, consumption, and technological reproduction — the coding and, especially, decoding of meanings may reinforce or, alternatively, resist societal norms [12]. Before the “Web 2.0” capabilities of interactivity, customizability, and webstreaming became prevalent, researchers utilized Hall’s conceptualization to investigate the agency of consumers of digital media, noting how fandom and “cyberculture” shaped one another: “fans learned how to use new media resources to increase their visibility and expand their influence over popular culture” (H. Jenkins, 2006). In algorithmic Web TV, as the comparative analysis of OITNB and Her Story will explain, audience agency is enhanced by its power to discipline future programming through the viewing data it supplies to the distribution platform.

Though the algorithmic tracking of viewers on subscription-based Web TV is clearly inspired by social media’s success in extracting added value from incidental user data, it also negotiates value of a different kind — the cultural values of shared understandings of meaning and ethics. The affective rewards that social media users receive for their ranking activities — or that members of Web TV’s niche audiences may obtain through consuming increasingly astute representations of their ethnicities or sexual orientations after decades of stereotyped depiction or none at all — create inalienable use-values, including a sense of legitimacy that perpetuates the platform’s popularity as well as enriching its shareholders [13]. The company uses the data to decide which niche content to purchase or, as is increasingly common, to guide the production of its own original programming in order to improve subscription sales and otherwise expand its markets. Thus, particularly in the case of queer and feminist and otherwise politicized programming, the distribution (and production) company participates in a contestation of controversial socio-cultural values in which audiences hold considerable power to communicate their preferences [14]. Through these inalienable and disciplining use-values, Web TV can encourage the formation of a nexus of shared ideas and supportive relations among viewers in a comparably powerful though less direct manner than social media. Such communities are related by the cultural values they consume and influence. The disciplining effects of these networks of care can orient to resistance to the prevailing socioeconomic order as much as identity validation within it.

Synthesizing multiple strands of cultural studies of media as well as feminist thought on economies of care and resistance, Elise Thorburn frames media and communications technology as “means of social reproduction” reflecting digital capitalism’s tendency to virtualize — render immaterial — conventional socioeconomic processes and systems [15]. Thorburn demonstrates that communication and the technology it relies upon, including the Internet, are fundamental to maintaining life, because it is largely through them that the social relations necessary to survive and thrive are now organized as well as sustained. Thorburn also stresses, however, that this “integrated circuit,” by constituting digitalized social reproduction’s intense marketization, functions to suppress the development of networks of care in digital culture, contributing instead to the growing “crisis of care” threatening lives and livelihoods globally [16]. It is crucial, then, that Thorburn also includes practices for developing relations of political resistance among the cultural aspects of “networked social reproduction.” [17]

Closely reading queer and feminist Web TV using a lens integrating insights from Jarrett, Hall, and Thorburn shows how Web TV, like other more or less interactive digital cultural production, involves digital labor in multiple forms that facilitate networked immaterial social reproduction. First, Web TV viewing is networked in the broad and straightforward sense of being online and participating in processes of communication, but also in that communities (networks) defined by shared social identities and political perspectives significantly shape Web TV’s niche audiences (Lotz, 2014). Second, the process of viewing Web TV is networked in the sense of being more immaterial or cultural than material or physically tangible. Put differently, Web TV generally involves creative, affective, or cognitive efforts and results more than manual work and physical products (Lazzarato, 1996). Finally, as already explained, Web TV mediates and facilitates processes of social reproduction.

Part of social reproduction’s great importance lies in sustaining the life that is the basis of any socioeconomic system, including capitalism. Hence, forming networks of care, like labor movements, can constitute a significant form of resistance to both disenfranchisement from and participation in the system itself [18]. The following analysis considers the ambivalent and ambiguous socioeconomic narratives of OITNB and Her Story in terms of immaterial networked social reproduction as well as digital labor. It explores how Web TV occupies a politically significant cultural position poised between reinforcing and resisting capitalist norms, including those linked with differences of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. This tension evokes fundamental questions about post-industrial digital economy, corresponding in particular to two major topics: the renegotiation of categories of social difference and the socio-political significance of algorithms.

 

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Her Story and the rearrangement of social and economic categories

As research on immaterial labor demonstrates, digitalization has encouraged deepening class stratification as well as a concentration in the global North of so-called creative labor — primarily cognitive and white-collar labor in services and marketing, though it can also include the arts [19]. Immaterial labor is also described as feminized, due to its generalization of previously gendered forms of socioeconomic exploitation, as exemplified by the increasing abjection of the world’s less privileged of all genders to underpaid and precarious care and maintenance work [20]. Conditions once considered marginal are increasingly recognized as typical of the present era in general. If profound precarity is now common throughout society, particularly on the margins in the wake of the digitally propelled financial catastrophe of the late 2000s, it has never been rare among women, ethnic minorities, the differently abled, immigrants, and LGBT. As a socially marginalized group of identities, LGBT have often been among those most adversely affected by socioeconomic upheaval [21]. If such inequality is intensified and generalized by industrial computerization and the digitalization of communications, the Internet and social media nevertheless amplify marginalized voices. Much like the importance of “women’s work” to capitalism and to understanding online economy, LGBT experience coincides with previously overlooked aspects of post-industrial and digital economy.

A number of potent socioeconomic insights surface in closely reading the first and, so far, only season of Her Story, an Emmy-nominated, semi-autobiographical, short-form Web series about the daily lives of trans and lesbian women in Los Angeles, created by a trans-centered cast and crew [22]. Although Her Story can be watched through a YouTube display embedded on the production collective’s Web site instead of on Youtube, it is notable that YouTube (a commercial platform that relies on providing user data to marketing firms) was chosen over other less profit-driven possibilities, such as Vimeo. Viewers must turn off YouTube’s restricted mode to view the program, an indication that YouTube collects and marketizes data for which the creators or production collective may receive a minor compensation. Many of Her Story’s cast, crew, and characters, in their art as well as in their lives, occupy layered politicized social identities, virtuosically performing and reinventing numerous overlapping roles in their communities and socioeconomic contexts. The narrative represents and exemplifies the creators’ gendered and racialized experiences and strategies of resistance in contemporary capitalism. In a non-profit-driven production that uses the free affordances of the Internet and social media for its distribution, the creators, cast, and demonstrate a network of care more than a corporate production and distribution entity based solely on relationships of exchange and profit. Her Story is networked immaterial social reproduction about networked immaterial social reproduction.

Her Story depicts economic ambivalences and ambiguities characteristic of digital post-industrial reconfiguration or queering of capitalism’s gendered social and economic categories. Two major consequences emerge as most salient. First, this process of socio-cultural negotiation facilitates the generalization of work throughout the temporalities and spaces of daily life, requiring great flexibility and precariousness and demanding new extremes of emotional and creative labor. Second, the blending and overlapping of economic categories present potential opportunities for resistance through the formation of queer networks of care mirroring those enabling the production of the show itself.

Deconstructing normative gender categories is central in queer thought and practice. Examples include anti-oppression strategies like demanding gender-neutral washrooms, as well as works of theory on the ambivalent and ambiguous materiality of gender, such as Judith Butler’s (1990) Gender trouble. Deconstructing gender furthermore proffers significant resources for critiquing and resisting capitalism during the current era of feminized labor and disintegrating socioeconomic categories. In this age of digital disruption, binary oppositions dissolve between work and non-work, waged and unwaged, and production and consumption, as well as male and female. Work and leisure, for example, have become difficult to distinguish from one another, due to the increasing demand for flexible labor that networked digital devices allow immaterial laborers to perform anywhere and any time. Unlike the ongoing project of queer cultural politics, many of these socioeconomic processes of structural deconstruction proceed without catalyzing the development of progressive alternatives, as attested by the expansion of openly racist, cis- and heterosexist, nationalist, and anti-immigration politics, as much as by unprecedented economic impoverishment under neoliberal capitalism. LGBT, particularly those less privileged, are disproportionately affected by the risks imposed by these intertwined tendencies toward the deconstruction of categories as well as their reactionary reinforcement. Yet, within the narrative of Her Story, queering categorical distinctions from a marginalized LGBT position becomes a technology of survival and empowerment. Characters’ negotiations of these categories demonstrate the fundamental importance of social differences to the socioeconomic system of capitalism, a point repeatedly emphasized in feminist social reproduction theory, though frequently without consideration for LGBT [23].

The first scene in the first episode of Her Story illustrates the conjunction between emotional and creative forms of precarious immaterial labor in trans experience. Violet (Vi) serves drinks in a Los Angeles bar, the diverse clientele of which includes solitary, apparently straight men, as well as self-identifying gay women sitting together. In addition to the manual labor of taking orders and carrying drinks, Vi performs emotional labor in the sense described in Hochschild’s (1983) The managed heart, a study on the self-estrangement resulting from the emotional routinization demanded by service jobs. Like the airplane hostesses and debt collection agents in Hochschild’s research, Vi’s success as a server depends on managing her gender identity and emotions in response to those of others. Vi must provide tipping customers with gratifying experiences, such as making them feel attractive, welcome, attended to, and conventionally masculine. The latter, especially, requires Vi to pass as cisgendered by providing a compelling performance of a particular version of femininity, which viewers understand when Violet later mentions two trans friends who would lose their livelihoods as actresses and models if outed. The labor of passing involves increased effort in geometrical proportion to perceived or experienced queerness — that is, divergence from entrenched socio-cultural categories of binary gender normativity. Later episodes make clear that due to marginalization and wage inequality, Vi performs the same role in her oppressive living situation, where her heteronormative male partner’s professional salary provides for them both, as her earnings at the bar cannot cover her own cost of living. Not only do Vi’s circumstances reflect a range of exploitative contexts in which social reproduction work is underpaid or unpaid, but it also shows how much more flexible and precarious any socioeconomic status can be for those identifying or identified as female or femme. In addition to historical contingency, class standing depends on marital and familial status, which can change drastically and suddenly. For most women, the boundaries between the poor, working, and middle classes have always been porous, all the more so for transgendered people rendered precarious by cis/heterosexist exclusion. These are only some of the valuable resources for critique, the first step toward catalyzing resistance, offered by Her Story’s depiction of LGBT experiences.

Another early scene in the episode explores consequences of the unstable boundary between production and consumption in the digital post-industrial era. It begins by centering on two characters in their roles as customers apparently enjoying leisure time together: Allie (Laura Zak), a writer and lesbian, and her friend Lisa (Caroline Whitney Smith), a feminist activist and lesbian who administrates a women’s shelter and holds transphobic views. Both Lisa and, particularly, Allie labor in this scene, though in more privileged and less physical ways than Vi (Jen Richards), demonstrating the socioeconomic exclusion faced by trans people and also the ubiquity and continuousness of laboring throughout the class structure in digital society. One of the figures that feminist theorists of media interested in social reproduction have adopted from Autonomist Marxism to describe post-industrial and social media economies is the image of the “social factory.” [24] Writing in the pre-digital twentieth century, Mario Tronti influentially developed the figure of the social factory to illustrate how capital is valorized throughout everyday social life, rather than solely through factory production. Jarrett and Thorburn similarly refer to the Internet as part of the social factory, and the concept also offers traction for interpreting Web TV. In Her Story, queer characters, like house-workers, labor constantly and in multiple ways simultaneously [25]. Though the characters in Her Story are rarely depicted in their formal places of work, they are always shown laboring in some sense — that is, whether earning wages or not, they exchange their time and energy to procure resources for survival, their own as well as their community’s, while entities shaped by capitalism and patriarchy extract value.

Her Story shows how the queering of social structures combines with the layered ubiquity of work and the difficulty of distinguishing it from leisure. Allie, through discussion with Lisa and by strategizing to interview Vi, continually labors upon her new idea for an article about trans people, drawing Lisa, and particularly Vi, into her labor process as well. Allie’s article requires Violet’s voluntary unpaid labor as an activist educating the public about trans issues to combat prejudice. As Vi explains, this exhausting work includes processing her often painful experiences of marginalization aloud. Vi’s emotional productivity involves multiple risks, since it also exposes her to abuse from her partner. Furthermore, not only does Allie continue developing her article concept while socializing in an ostensibly leisure capacity with Lisa, but she mentions that she first formulated the idea while participating in a speed-dating event. It would be impossible to accurately gauge the time Allie spends working, as opposed to the amount she retains for ostensibly non-marketized leisure or free time [26].

Similarly, Allie and Violet’s first extended conversation in a later scene on a restaurant patio, another superficially leisure setting, takes place while Vi lunches with a friend (Paige) who is also her “sponsor” and legal consultant and therefore, in a sense, working. What is more, Allie’s precise work status is never revealed in Her Story: she writes regularly for an LGBT magazine called Gay L.A., but whether she freelances or earns a steady salary is unspecified. Nor do viewers learn whether she writes at home or at an office workspace. Indeed, all the audience sees is that, in hopes of attracting more paid work as a cultural producer, Allie works anywhere, all the time, wherever she may be and whatever else she is doing as a member of the queer community’s networks of immaterial social reproduction: supporting, resisting, and so forth. As an established center of global cultural production, Los Angeles has never struggled to attract “creatives,” but the strong association between LGBT and culture in Her Story and other LGBT programs like The L Word (also set in Los Angeles) remains noteworthy [27]. Allie’s flexible and precarious, yet prestigious — though hardly lucrative — work-life exemplifies the controversial figure of the post-industrial urban creative, as do Richards, Zak, and many other members of the cast and crew off-screen [28]. Allie’s immaterial labor also requires constant access to Internet-enabled devices and is therefore digital labor. The societal marginalization of LGBT and their subsequently high concentration historically in precarious creative industries suggests a novel socioeconomic insight. The figure of the queer creative is so entrenched in cultural imagination and practice that it is easily appropriated for purposes aligning with government and corporate interests rather than popular well-being. Only recently have such entities begun to integrate LGBT in mainstream markets and extend to them the civil rights that other social groups enjoy, such as marriage and protection from workplace discrimination. A painful fact is effaced: the risky and innovative economies of arts and entertainment have often proven relatively welcoming to talented LGBT facing rejection in other economic sectors. The celebration of creative work in neoliberal discourse as well as the critique in labor movements of blurred boundaries between work and play both constitute relatively privileged perspectives, in light of how, for many LGBT, blending these categories and pursuing work in precarious and flexible creative industries is and has always been a necessity more than a choice. Today, however, with the multiplication of Internet-enabled portable devices used for both work and play, these elements of LGBT experience describe digital culture generally.

Her Story also illustrates how queer networks of social reproduction, such as the relationship forming between Vi and Allie, produce difficult-to-measure as well as inalienable use-values. Such use-values, explored and expanded on a qualitative basis, are difficult for institutions like corporations, schools, or the state to control, a crucial point feminists have argued in defending the value and significance of social reproduction work [29]. As Vi and Allie’s queer solidarity develops into a friendship and romance, a nexus of opportunities emerges for resistance in the form of sheltering one another from the socioeconomic status quo, even as their mutual support also furthers their ability to produce the economic value that reinforces it. Her Story demonstrates strategies of survival and resistance, enclosed and commodified by market-based technologies though they may be [30]. Constantly entangled with relations of resistance as well as commodification, exchanges of emotional labor involving friendship, sexuality, love, parenting, and caregiving are shown as integral to social reproduction — both survival and quality of life. Arguably, the LGBT characters of Her Story, unlike members of less marginalized communities, cannot afford to pretend otherwise. Indeed, the man that Violet lives with recognizes the potentially subversive power of networks of care in a regressive way, as evidenced by his systematic obstruction of her ability to develop relationships with others.

Her Story’s cast and crew exemplify this power of networked immaterial social reproduction through their own relationships of care, resistance, and non-profit-driven cultural production, all of which often require digital labor using communications technology for long-distance maintenance. In addition, the cast and crew, like the characters, demonstrate the creative and flexible labor typical of digital, post-industrial, gendered, and racialized experiences of competition under capitalism. Like Richards (Vi) and Zak (Allie), who are the co-writers, co-executive producers, and starring castmembers of Her Story, many others on the production crew are also accomplished artists in multiple mediums, in addition to being successful activists and organizers as well as managers of notable non-profit organizations promoting gender and racial justice through arts and culture. To thrive, let alone survive, as individuals and as communities, they balance a plethora of socioeconomic roles, excelling in multiple precarious and marginalized settings that demand brilliant performances of belonging: the arts and living as queer and especially transgendered. The latter, much like the undervalued work of caring for others, demands round-the-clock attention to matters of survival. The semi-autobiographical nature of Her Story illuminates these experiences and their significance. For instance, the character Paige, played by Angelica Ross, is an African American trans woman and successful legal advocate for trans justice, whose ability to pass as a cisgendered woman ironically renders it difficult for her to find male partners who do not feel threatened by her accomplishments and intelligence. Off-screen, Ross leads a parallel life as the executive director and CEO of a creative design technology firm serving trans communities, a business she developed without conventional institutional support and from a socially marginalized position as a trans person of color. Ross is also a noted singer/songwriter, spoken word performer, photographer, and writer.

In addition to exploring immaterial labor and social reproduction as well as mercurial distinctions among socioeconomic categories, Her Story shows how creative work, a survival strategy conventionally available to the talented, skilled, and lucky among LGBT, is now a generalized demand in post-industrial economies of precarious flexibility. Such density of critique and skilled representational politics, among the most crucial tools for immaterial social reproduction in networks of care and resistance, would have been largely unthinkable in broadcast TV throughout its history due to its reliance upon mass conservative and privileged “family” audiences for its advertising markets. Even online, as the contrasting example of OITNB demonstrates, such astuteness is far less feasible in commercial Web TV than in non-profit-driven contexts like Her Story’s, though this may improve over time through the audience agency supplied by proprietary algorithms.

 

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OITNB: Algorithms in the integrated circuit

Netflix, among the most successful Silicon Valley enterprises and the source of more than one-third of all data downloaded in North America in 2014 [31], has used algorithms and big data strategically since its inception, perhaps most famously by tracking viewing habits to generate recommendations [32]. The predictive capacity of algorithmic approaches involving large data sets has defined Netflix’s strategies for competing with extant distribution systems, including cable TV, movie theaters, and video stores. Netflix recently introduced a new tactic also grounded in algorithmic audience research, one that has quickly influenced the Web TV industry: commissioning exclusive original online content and releasing entire seasons at once rather than weekly, resulting in the rapid normalization of the new audience phenomenon of marathon viewing [33].

A discussion of the role of algorithms in the digital labor of Web TV might focus on their significance as automation, the replacement of the living labor of paid employees by mechanization. Indeed, on the topic of automation, much could be revealed through a cultural analysis of the taggers employed by Netflix, paid laborers who manually categorize videos for the platform’s increasingly nuanced algorithmic recommendations system [34]. Finn describes the Netflix algorithm as a “cyborg” with both human and digital parts that has effectively replaced and outpaced the labor of video store clerks [35]. It could also be argued that the Netflix algorithm supplements the unwaged rating labor of subscribers, while extracting ever greater value from the audience research data that users produce inadvertently. However, reading Web TV as networked immaterial social reproduction suggests that the audience research algorithms of Web TV platforms such as Netflix are not only of use for increasing corporate profits.

Although Netflix’s webstreaming service is not free, its exchange relationship with audiences is far from straightforward. Like social media, it could be described as exploitative in that, in addition to paying subscription fees, viewers arguably provide more value than they receive. The user-viewer, often unawares, is required to perform the passive and unwaged labor of providing consumer feedback and other data of great marketing value, and according to Tricia Jenkins (2016) this arrangement explains the low cost of subscription [36]. However, commercial Web TV viewing also exemplifies a different scenario, what Thorburn describes as the integrated circuit of networked social reproduction. Web TV in general, but particularly the algorithmic video texts of Netflix and other webstreaming sites, constitutes a further intensification and shift in the long-term trend of audiences gaining increasing control over popular cultural production [37]. Algorithms shape the content of programming in conjunction with audience actions, though this viewer agency remains partly obscured due to Netflix’s refusal to share its proprietary data. What is clear is that algorithmic texts leverage a new type of interaction with audiences, different from previous configurations in radio, television, cable broadcasting, and Internet media. This integrated circuit is characterized by a process of implicit questioning between text and audience: Are viewers satisfied with trans characters played by cisgendered actors? Will they accept programming that naturalizes heteronormativity, racial prejudice, or the exploitation of house-workers? Because the algorithmic audience research embedded in Web TV programming asks questions of audiences, and because the questions are often socio-political in emphasis, the answers that viewers provide represent new political opportunities on a cultural level. In the case of OITNB, this labor of viewer response oriented to queer and feminist cultural politics is also a form of networked immaterial social reproduction, due to the inalienable immaterial use-values it circulates, potentially promoting political resistance. Due in part to Netflix’s notorious algorithmic system, OITNB constitutes unique possibilities for reproducing — in Jarrett’s language, “disciplining” — society, differently or as the same [38]. Yet, in contrast with the implicit but focused critiques and strategies in Her Story, OITNB boldly expresses profound cynicism and disorientation with respect to socioeconomic themes and tactics — hardly empowering to socially marginalized viewers.

Since Netflix currently refuses to release its audience data, the precise depth and nature of its databases remain uncertain, although the intention of gathering ever more refined information on viewer preferences and habits is beyond question [39]. Netflix records the number of viewers watching, as well as what programs they watch and when, from what geographical locations, and on which devices, collecting increasingly precise data contextualizing the points at which viewers fast-forward, rewind, stop, or pause their watching. Based on the problematically simplistic assumption that viewers will continue to watch and even rewatch appealing content while stopping or skipping material they dislike, the Netflix algorithm correlates aggregated viewing data with particularities of content and style associated with almost 80,000 genres (76,897 to be exact, pushing the definition of genre as stylistic category to its limit) [40]. Netflix then uses this data to strategize the development and licensure of programming. Most significantly, these renegotiations of conventional systems of Hollywood narrative genres rely increasingly on systems of social categorization. Netflix algorithmically links viewer behavior to genres defined by social differences, such as gender expression, sexual orientation, and apparent races and ethnicities of characters: “LGBTQ dramas,” “comedies featuring a strong female lead,” “African-American movies based on real life,” and so on. Analogous to the product placement with which consumers and critics of TV are familiar, Netflix in a sense offers a politics of commodified social identity [41]. Much of the content the platform now streams online is a product of algorithms and big data used to determine the overall premise and casting. Netflix’s popular original political drama House of Cards was its first text of this kind. The following analysis explains how algorithmic Web TV reflects society by addressing viewers on the basis of social differences, presented via a machine that simultaneously and automatically assesses and interprets viewing practices [42].

Many have celebrated Orange Is the New Black, a popular algorithmically devised Netflix program, for its queer and feminist representations of agency [43]. Others find the program exploitative (Artt and Schwan, 2016) and postfeminist (Schwan, 2016) [44]. Some have argued that it models neoliberal multiculturalism, promoting a “color-blind” “post-racism” that erases histories of dispossession and appropriation [45]. Interviews with cast members discuss the groundbreaking yet often exoticizing and abjected depiction of such underrepresented and socially marginalized figures as a trans woman of color (Sophia, played by Laverne Cox) or a middle-aged butch lesbian (Big Boo, played by Lea DeLaria). They argue that in OITNB hierarchy and exclusion are reinforced at least as much as acceptance, understanding, equality, or social integration [46]. If Orange Is the New Black has importantly engaged race, class, gender, and sexuality, the only consensus is that, whether well enough or not, it has done so to a notable extent.

It has furthermore been argued that OITNB valorizes personal feelings over social struggle (Pramaggiore, 2016), despite its incisive depictions of the gendered and racialized prison-industrial complex. In Season 3, particularly Episode 11, “We Can Be Heroes,” social inequalities intertwine with socioeconomic struggles — much like in Her Story, confounding binary socioeconomic categories. However, whether or not OITNB successfully decenters cis- and heteronormativity or white privilege, in regards to socioeconomic themes, an intense ambivalence freighted with cynicism prevails in regards to socioeconomic themes, an ambience requiring analysis [47].

In this episode, two sub-plots trace economic themes. A group of prison guards re-hired after privatization begin independently to organize to restore the union representation that they lost with their new terms of employment. However, their hopes of re-gaining their benefits and full-time hours are soon undermined by a potential ally and leader, their supervisor (Caputo, played by Nick Sandow), who abandons and betrays them when he receives a promotion to a higher level of management. Numerous flashbacks depict times throughout Caputo’s life when he chose the well-being of others over his own self-interest, implying that his ethical integrity and commitment to networks of care undermined his personal development and his earning potential. Thus, his decision to accept the promotion rather than commit to the labor struggle is presented in a cynical light as a significant psychological breakthrough, a narrative that disciplines viewers toward acceptance of the socioeconomic status quo rather than resistance.

Concurrently, the show’s white, economically privileged, and bisexual central character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), assumes the role of a capitalist within the prison’s informal economy, with unwaged assistance from her network of care, mostly made up of her open and secret lesbian lovers (due to the absence of money in prison, relations of production and social reproduction are more obviously inseparable than in other contexts). Piper establishes a lucrative illegal empire by scavenging scraps of fabric and access to equipment from a women’s undergarment manufacturer leasing cheap space and labor inside the prison. Piper’s fellow prisoners assemble and process the undergarments, which are then smuggled out of the prison. Piper’s brother and his heterosexual partner tend the online mail-order distribution, emphasizing how incarceration emblematizes the social marginalization of LGBT more generally. The inmates tire of working for Piper in exchange for ramen flavor packets and, inspired by the politicization of the prison guards, organize a successful wildcat (lacking union representation) strike [48]. However, soon after Piper meets her employees’ demands by establishing difficult-to-trace digital bank accounts to share profits, she fires the Latina who led the strike negotiations. By making an example to deter further resistance, Piper also reinforces her class and racial privilege, as well as the show’s overall cynicism regarding resistance to the socioeconomic status quo.

Both subplots begin with hopeful characters embarking upon strategies of socioeconomic resistance. The guards meet outside the workplace for drinks in a bar, spontaneously singing lyrics from Les Misérables, the Broadway musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel about the Paris Uprising of 1832, an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. The strikers of Felonious Spunk (the name of Piper’s business) experience a sense of equality and liberation as a consequence of successful worker solidarity — for a brief time. And in each case, inspiration gives way to the deep disappointment and frustration of wasted time and energy as potential networks of resistance disintegrate, apparently inevitably.

The potential for resistance offered by the networked immaterial social reproduction of viewing OITNB must be understood as further limited by the profit-driven algorithmic market research that to a significant extent is the text. Algorithmic texts continue to make the same mistakes that empirical audience research has always made: asking too many questions at once using a crudely differential yes-or-no apparatus. Yet, these questioning online texts are much more than interactive brand development. To what extent, then, can the algorithms increasingly employed to develop profit-driven narratives be appropriated on behalf of social reproduction networks of care? [49] Web TV’s algorithmic texts, in addition to indexing suspense and other entertaining pleasures, demand answers to the most urgent contemporary socio-political questions: How feminist should society be, or can it be, and in what way? How diverse? How queer? How anti-capitalist? To what extent will viewers accept the commodification of the cultural values that determine social outcomes? And, where is the globalizing, gendered, racialized socioeconomic system headed? That these questions are posed and answered, even inadvertently and for marketing purposes, indicates viewer agency aggregated on a potentially massive scale. A further question, suggested by comparatively framing OITNB and Her Story in terms of social reproduction, is: What kinds of politics — of identity, representation, resistance, and opposition — might ensue, were algorithmic technology publicly owned and operated, unleashing opportunities to create new and different mainstream stories?

 

++++++++++

Conclusion: Economies of ambivalence and ambiguity in queer and feminist Web TV

Both OITNB and Her Story target queer and feminist viewers and express ambivalence and ambiguity related to social differences and their economic contexts, demanding that politically significant audiences perform the digital labor — that is, expend time and energy in a digital productive process — of critical interpretation that is crucial for catalyzing resistance, the effort to make social change. Yet, while both Web TV programs address interrelated socioeconomic issues in a conflicted manner, they express markedly differing stances explainable in part by their diverging economic and technological production contexts [50]. One disciplines viewers to acceptance, while the other promotes resistance, at least to a point. OITNB is a commodity, produced for maximizing market exchange, its production process shaped by Netflix’s deep investment in designing and securing its proprietary algorithmic system. The possibilities for liberation and empowerment OITNB explores are typically frustrated by the end of the episode or season, presenting oppression and exploitation as both inevitable and hopelessly complicated, and its humor trades largely in cynicism. Overall, its position regarding the gendered and racialized socioeconomic status quo might be summarized as jaded acceptance or even nihilism. By contrast, the independently produced, not-for-profit, and freely available Her Story suggests a politics of hope and effective resistance. Characters and, thereby, viewers gain queer and feminist resources for understanding and transforming gendered and racialized economies and addressing socioeconomic complexity. The narrative provides positive portrayals of trans and queer survival and well-being through building relationships of mutual trust and support — in the language of theories of social reproduction and feminist media studies, networks of care [51]. To summarize, in OITNB, the hegemonic force of oppressive and exploitative societal structures ultimately dominates, despite the viewer agency leveraged algorithmically from season to season, whereas in Her Story, using a non-profit-driven social media-based and activist approach to Web TV production, the social agency of resisting individuals and communities triumphs, at least potentially. Time will tell if audiences will discipline algorithms to leverage comparably progressive social change. End of article

 

About the author

Carolyn Elerding is a recent Ph.D. teaching on culture, media, and technology in the New York City area. A recipient of the Ohio State University’s Presidential Fellowship and of the Sprinker essay prize, Elerding’s research and criticism is published in journals including Postmodern Culture, Mediations, Reviews in Cultural Theory, and Communication, Culture & Critique.
Web: https://carolynelerding.com
E-mail: carolyn [dot] elerding [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewer of this article, the numerous readers of early drafts, and those who listened to a preliminary version at MLA 2017.

 

Notes

1. Examples of social reproduction work include such activities as providing physical affection, cooking, cleaning, and giving birth, though a comprehensive definition of social reproduction goes well beyond the important issue of unpaid housework. For more, see Federici (2004), Fortunati (1995), and Mies (1986), as well as the controversial (given its history of appropriating feminist theory) yet undeniably central role of Autonomist Marxist theory in contemporary Marxist feminist critique (on this, see Fortunati, 2007).

2. Jarrett, 2015, 2014; Thorburn, 2016. In the present context, the term “materialist” is used in a general sense to refer to a number of feminist currents, including Marxist feminism. For a discussion of the often vexed relationship between Autonomist Marxism and Feminist Marxism, see Fortunati (2007). To many readers, work and labor may seem like one and the same, and indeed, their relationship is close, though it has varied historically. However, for the purposes of the present analysis, labor should be understood as a subset of work differentiated by its specific involvement in value generation. For more on the implications of these categories, see Weeks (2011).

3. Such labor is digital in a number of ways. For example, it is carried out through online discussions such as blogs, social media posts, and publications. Most importantly for the focus of this essay, it is digital in the sense that the programs viewed are online.

4. Lotz, 2014, pp. 207–232.

5. The term “circuit” is intended here in the sense of Stuart Hall’s (1980) usage in “Encoding/decoding.”

6. Terranova, 2000.

7. Jarrett, 2014, pp. 19–20. Most citations in this article refer to Jarrett (2014), but readers are encouraged to seek out the more extended conceptual development in Jarrett (2015).

8. Jarrett, 2014, pp. 21–22.

9. Fortunati in Jarrett (2014, p. 18). See also Dalla Costa and James (1975).

10. Jarrett, 2014, p. 23. Like the market centrality of Netflix, the global significance of social media market shares should not be overlooked. Consider that Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, is at the time of the present essay’s composition one of the 10 wealthiest individuals in the world, a small group who own much of the world’s total wealth. Internet technology firms control vast shares of global markets. Forbes provides real-time rankings of the world’s billionaires at https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/#version:realtime.

11. Jarrett, 2014, p. 13.

12. Hall, 1980, p. 128–138.

13. As Lotz (2014, pp. 40–46) explains, with the introduction of cable and the Internet, television audiences have fragmented into increasingly specific niche markets targeted by networks, channels, and platforms on the basis of such social criteria as gender, sexual orientation, geographic location, language, age, and income, to name a few.

14. In Web TV and cable, subscriptions largely supplant the role of advertising in broadcast TV, though users’ viewing data remains valuable to the company for other purposes. See Lotz (2014, pp. 182–186).

15. Thorburn, 2016, p. 385.

16. Thorburn, 2016, p. 387. For an overview of feminist social reproduction theory that addresses the topic of crisis, though communications technology is not among its main foci, see Fraser’s (2016) “Contradictions of capital and care,” in which recurrent economic crises are framed succinctly as a matter of profits given importance over survival. For a contextualization of social reproduction feminism in the history of global capitalist expansion and its impacts on marginalized races and genders, see Federici’s (2004) landmark historical study, Caliban and the witch.

17. For a discussion of the relative merits of describing the Web as “2.0” or “commercial,” see Jarrett, 2015, p. 6. “Networked social reproduction” is Thorburn’s (2016) apt phrasing.

18. Numerous strands of feminism emphasize care. For a comprehensive discussion of an influential example, see Nash (2013) on “love” in Black feminism in the U.S.

19. See Jarrett (2014, p. 16). Michael Hardt’s various collaborations with Antonio Negri and Bifo Berardi in the first decade of the twenty-first century and Maurizio Lazzarato’s 1996 article “Immaterial labor” are among the most widely read critical elaborations of historical trends involving computerization and post-industrial labor.

20. On the generalization of gender inequity as a feature of global inequality in the contemporary neoliberal period’s economic reconfiguration of care, see Endnotes Collective (2013).

21. For historical research on queerness and class, see Sears (2005) and Henderson (2013).

22. See www.herstoryshow.com for cast and crew biographies. Most of the six episodes are less than 10 minutes in length.

23. See Federici (2004), Guillaumin (1995), and Endnotes Collective (2013), to name only a few.

24. Jarrett (2014), Thorburn (2016), Tronti (1966).

25. Indeed, one of Vi’s many socioeconomic roles is that of a housewife, although she is not married to her salary-earning partner. It is also worth noting that, although none of the other characters directly identify Vi’s arrangement as “sex work,” Lisa scorns her as “kept.” In a private conversation with Allie, Vi does however discuss paid prostitution that she performed formerly, inviting a comparison. For an analysis of social reproduction in relation to prostitution, see Fortunati (1995, pp. 33–46).

26. For an incisive mid-twentieth-century critique of leisure as reinforcing commodification and socioeconomic exploitation, see Adorno (2005).

27. In The L Word, a popular subscription cable program running from 2004–2009 on Showtime, not only do most of the predominantly femme lesbian characters work in the arts, either as administrators or cultural producers, but many of them are, or have been, intimate with one another as well as with their patrons, employers, or supervisors, so that the categories of production and reproduction (here, erotic emotional labor), as well as work and leisure, are queered but simultaneously framed as potentially reprehensible, even as the transgression titillates. As the series develops, a pronounced ambivalence emerges in the relation between queerness, particularly femme lesbian queerness, and post-industrial creative economy.

28. Among the most well-known proponents of creative labor is the controversial Richard Florida, a North American professor of management studies who has written influential theories of urban development and recently circulated retractions of some of them. Florida urges cities pursuing economic regeneration to focus on attracting elite “creatives” (digital tech workers as well as artists and other cultural producers) rather than cultivating projects that might serve existing municipal populations more directly by improving and expanding institutions and infrastructure. Florida celebrates what he calls the “creative class,” a group he defines in part by its high concentration of gays and lesbians as well as white-collar Internet technology workers. Florida has been criticized on several fronts, ranging from his approval of government privatization, to insufficient data sets, social stereotyping, and promoting urban gentrification that pushes low-income communities, in which immigrants and people of color are overrepresented, out of neighborhoods as privileged creatives enter, able and willing to pay higher rents.

29. Fortunati, 1995, pp. 75–76.

30. In Her Story, organized political resistance is portrayed as ambivalently as other socioeconomic themes. In transgender literature, reticence towards organized activism based on experiences of exclusion is a recurring theme (see, for example, Juliet Jacques’ Trans). Allie’s friendships with politically active feminists and lesbians become strained once she develops a bond with Violet, because the friends are transphobic. In another scene, Vi’s cisgendered male partner becomes more abusive after reading a copy of Gay L.A. containing Allie’s interview with Vi on the subject of her trans experience. Publicity for a “May Day queer contingent” is visible on the back of the magazine, suggesting a connection between socioeconomic exploitation and the scene’s overall context of gender oppression, but also reinforcing the painful distance between many trans people and activism. Moreover, it is noteworthy that, in another scene, Paige’s date “calls her an Über,” which suggests that organized labor issues shaped by digital economy do not inflect the otherwise socially critical framing of the show (otherwise, characters might avoid supporting an Internet technology-based company that has displaced so many unionized taxi drivers).

31. Finn, 2017, p. 87.

32. The following section collates general background information about Netflix found in Finn (2017), Fritz (2012), and T. Jenkins (2016).

33. Marathon viewing is also known by a more popular but insinuating term (an implicitly body-shaming one, though such meanings can be negotiated and appropriated): binge watching, a label that overlooks the importance of concentrated viewing and paratextual discussion for catalyzing resistance (Silverman and Ryalis, 2016).

34. See Finn (2017) and Fritz (2012). For a more technical understanding of how online algorithms operate, see Finn (2017) and Mahnke Skrubbeltrang et alia (2017).

35. Finn, 2017, p. 88. A distinction must be maintained between quotidian understandings of the figure of the cyborg as opposed to the way in which Donna Haraway (1991) has used it in feminist science and technology studies to symbolize hybridity as a force of resistance against the strict systems of social categories supporting patriarchy and eurocentrism.

36. In this regard, it is significant that attempts to anonymize location and device by accessing Netflix through an Internet proxy result in an error message rather than the desired video streaming.

37. H. Jenkins, 2006, pp. 134–151.

38. Jarrett, 2014, p. 13.

39. The Netflix Prize was awarded to an algorithm that could not be used due to user security concerns flagged by the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), though it influenced the algorithm Netflix eventually adopted (Finn, 2017, p. 90).

40. For a feminist overview of the history of audience research, see Cavalcante et alia (2017). See also Moe et alia (2016) and Wilson (2016). Also see Lotz (2014, pp. 207–232) and Kosterich and Napoli (2016).

41. On product placement in the digital “post-network” era, see Lotz (2014, pp. 186–190).

42. Finn’s reading of House of Cards frames the frequent addresses made to the audience by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as a personification of the Netflix algorithm (2017, pp. 87–112).

43. For instance, see Fernández-Morales and Menéndez-Menéndez (2016) and McKeown and Parry (2017).

44. Symes (2017) argues that it presents lesbian lives stylized for voyeuristic heterosexual consumption.

45. For critiques of OITNB related to the ideas of color-blindness and post-racism, see Belcher (2016), DeCarvalho and Cox (2016), and Enck and Morrissey (2015). See Melamed (2006) for a thorough formulation of neoliberal multiculturalism.

46. See Goldberg (2016), hooks and Cox (2014), and Symes (2017).

47. The recently released Season 5 depicts a three-day riot in the prison, a clear act of resistance. Overall, however, it too tends toward ambivalence and cynicism. It would be worthwhile to analyze Season 5 in terms of social reproduction, since the inmates experiment (ultimately unsuccessfully) with system change, trying various organizational and political approaches to distributing resources and responsibilities for autonomously maintaining life within the prison.

48. Much more could be said about this particular plot-line using a social reproduction frame along the lines of Fortunati’s (1995) analysis of prostitution, since the informal economies involved are suggestive of sex-work.

49. See Terranova (2014) on deploying algorithms in strategies of resistance.

50. See Lotz (2014) on the profound impacts of technological and economic change on the content of TV programming throughout its history.

51. Though it is not a focus of this essay, the stark difference between these two series’ engagements with state-sponsored infrastructures for social programming and law enforcement should not be ignored. It would be worthwhile to examine the significance of community — as opposed to state-based — strategies of care, in light of such feminist theories as those of the Endnotes Collective (2013), Silvia Federici (2004), and Nancy Fraser (2016).

 

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Editorial history

Received 22 January 2018; accepted 7 February 2018.


Copyright © 2018, Carolyn Elerding.

The digital labor of queering feminist Web TV
by Carolyn Elerding.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 3 - 5 March 2018
https://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/8289/6652
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i3.8289





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