It's old hat by now to say “you are the product” on social media. Often, that bon mot is used to explain why social media is free to access. But that’s just barely scratching the surface. After all, this idea of intangible goods, bound up in the self, didn’t even begin with the internet, but with the 20th century turning our very psyches into a strip mine. Today, we’re not just eyeballs delivered up for advertisers, we are the Main Character of the internet’s deepest libidinal needs: the day’s villain, hero, romance interest, or incomplete story. Sometimes we get to be “Bae.” Sometimes we’re, well, West Elm Caleb. A viral tweet or a sudden surge in viewers for your YouTube or Twitch channel or an especially witty Tok may see you confronted by thousands of people deeply invested in what you say and do next. Why is it like this?
In the past 20 years we’ve entered a phase of capitalism that is thriving on products that redefine unreality. A universal market of the fake. It is this agora of artifice that yokes the maladies of streamers collapsing under the unbearable weight of their fans’ parasocial relationships to the “financialization of everything” that is the dark promise at the heart of cryptocurrency and NFTs, to loot boxes and micro-transactions in video games. Although the global economy still depends on real, tactile resources and products, the evolution of capitalism has demanded that more solids be invented for the sole purpose of being melted into air.
It's not just that you’re the product. You’re also the laborer, the factory, and the logistician. You’re also the resource. And your boss is crowdsourced.
The nearly 40-year-old concept of “emotional labor” has been smashed by social media’s particle accelerator, ensuring that the phrase is used to describe, say, the exhaustion of listening to a friend’s troubles when you don’t really want to, instead of being given its proper due explaining the relationship of our very personalities to capital. Ironically, the internet has cheapened the concept to such a degree that we now struggle to use it to name the cause of our digital afflictions.
Coined in the early 1980s by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, “emotional labor” was nothing less than a radical update to the Marxist concept of alienation—the idea that a worker was “alienated” from the product of their labor rather than owning it. Except this time, it wasn’t a widget the worker was alienated from but her very soul. For Hochschild, emotional labor was the “management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value.” In a word, it’s service with a smile. You’re selling an emotional state, you’re selling your personality. You are the product.
“The company lays claim not simply to her physical motions,” Hochschild wrote of the flight attendants she studied, “but to her emotional actions and the way they show in the ease of a smile.” Now, workers sell their personalities along with their bodies.
The great burden that Hochschild identified was that one’s very livelihood was tied to the expropriation of one’s emotions by those who were paying you. What she could not have foreseen was the way this ouroboros of manufactured authenticity and existential doubt would leak out of titled and salaried service professions and into the ever more precarious world of the internet of gigs, where it would become a way of life for millions. Emotional labor is inevitable in the gig economy, in which some 16 percent of Americans have worked; that number rises to 30 percent for Latino Americans. In gig economy jobs, you don’t have one boss that you must please; you have an audience of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands. Your “boss” is crowdsourced.
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“Feeling can become an instrument,” writes Hochschild, “but whose instrument?” When that answer is “thousands of people, including Mark Zuckerberg,” it’s no wonder so many people feel exhausted and drained by the demands of this neo-service economy.
Twitch streamers, for example, find themselves working incredibly long hours to harvest and churn subscribers, then satisfy the ones they have by being a “character” that other people can enjoy; LARPing for an unsteady income, while letting it leak into every part of your life, whether you’re online or not. Every streamer you like, every influencer, every Twitter personality or viral TikTok star, is operating in an economy of incentives that demand actual emotional labor from them—sometimes 24/7. Lindsay Ellis’ video on how YouTube streamers “manufacture authenticity” remains essential viewing; it’s a grimly apposite irony that Ellis herself was run off of the platform late last year because she couldn’t cope with the ongoing harassment from people who criticized the way she handled a controversy that spiraled well beyond any sense of proportion. This is all part of the grim harvest of capitalism’s newfound lust for the intangible.
Capitalism can only ever exist to maximize capital, and it cannot be stopped by trivial matters like limited mineral wealth or climate change. So as capitalism consumes ever more of the world’s tangible resources, which are inherently finite, a need for intangible goods rises in the quest to create new markets. The best part is that, unlike oil, lithium, or coltan, intangible goods are seemingly inexhaustible. It’s why gaming studios are making a killing off of selling pixels on a screen in the form of cosmetic items and the like sold piecemeal. And it is that swirling economy of intangible invisibles that we participate in when we market or manage our personalities on social media; influencer culture has already become inextricably bound up, of course, with everything from cryptocurrency to micro-transactions.
Every iPhone produced has a base cost in resource extraction, parts, and labor. But imagine an online game that sells a magic unicorn mount for $4.99. Think of the labor that went into its production: There had to be an artist/designer, a programmer, and a 3D modeler involved, and so on. Real work was done. But once the asset is created, our digital unicorn is infinitely reproducible for next to nothing. Hawk it through the enthusiasm of a streamer who’s providing your game with free advertising through the emotional labor they commit to their streams, and you’re golden.
Speaking of gold, the crypto gold rush has reached a fevered pitch through the emotionally driven pitches of various celebrities (including, lately, Dolly Parton). At bottom, cryptocurrency, and the NFTs created to give people something to buy with crypto, are simply capitalism creating nonsense goods to financialize. They bear no relationship to anything real or tangible, and instead exist purely for the sake of being collected and traded. There is no better way of understanding an NFT except as an ostentatiously empty non-thing that is imbued with titanically inflated value by sheer will and shitposting; indeed, it might be considered the pure apotheosis of this phase of capitalism. Capital maximizing itself until the heat-death of a billion overclocked graphics cards.
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But there’s a final piece that needs to be fitted to this puzzle, which the Twitch example is the paradigmatic case for: It’s the fact that we’re all watching each other do this.
“Sousveillance” was an idea coined by Canadian engineering professor Steve Mann to describe a kind of “surveillance from below,” where a camera might be in the hands of an informal actor or private citizen, rather than perched high up on a pole keeping a watchful eye for the state. It was liberating and even utopian in its ideal, promising a sort of inverse surveillance where the masses might watch the powerful. The advent of smartphones seemed to be the great technological leap that would make it all possible—and, indeed, the way smartphone footage has been used to shame the powerful, including police, soldiers, government officials, and abusive authority figures, vindicates the potential for sousveillance. But the fact remained that the camera could be pointed anywhere. And more often than not, it’s aimed horizontally, rather than up at those in power.
The singularity of the traditional service economy and the digital one collapsed into sousveillance capitalism recently with the advent of a viral TikTok trend: users leaving notes for Amazon delivery drivers asking them to dance for Ring cameras, then posting the results as Toks.
Think of this as a subset of Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism,” which emphasizes the role of information-as-resource—monitoring, analysis, marketing, data aggregation—in our current phase of capitalism. To speak of “sousveillance capitalism” is to place the emphasis on the method of extraction, rather like thinking about the difference between mining and factory production. They’re both part of the same system, but they require somewhat distinct analytical tools.
Thus, the emotional labor economy of the internet intrudes on delivery drivers’ lives even when they’re out on route, burdening them with a demand for authenticity as their job hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, the Ring owner gets to harvest this performance for their own clout on a platform like TikTok. For brief snatches of time, when you control the camera and point it at someone, you might get to be their boss, just as those Ring owners were for their delivery drivers, controlling some sliver of their income and leveraging that power through the lens.
The downside is that the camera can be pointed right back at you. The risk of this, naturally, decreases the further up you are on the traditional socioeconomic ladder. Full-time bosses have the privilege of being immune to the whims of part-time, crowdsourced ones. Usually.
But for most, you’re always “on” now, whether you want to be or not. You’re always at risk of being spotted by some other rando’s camera. Then it simply gets smothered all over with a helping of online harassment. The woman who had been spied on to harvest all the “Plane Bae” content, for instance, was doxed and abused by her “fans” when she didn’t play the part expected of her.
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Capitalism is never far away here, either, of course. The comedian who livetweeted the Plane Bae saga won the attention of T-Mobile’s CEO, for instance, who immediately sought to profit from the attention and gave the woman a free credit on her T-Mobile account; rather cheap advertising, certainly. And now, West Elm Caleb’s transmutation into the melted air of memery led to him being the butt of jokes by a mayonnaise company. Truly an ignominious fate if ever there was one. But you see the flow of capital here: viral sousveillance proliferating in an attention economy that benefits large tech firms, further exploited by traditional advertisers as “relatable” content. “As a social media manager, the job often requires replying quickly—and with humor—to capitalize on a viral opportunity,” writes Katie Hicks at Marketing Brew. Whatever else may be said, she’s right. This is the new economy.
So you can’t completely escape, but can you cut back on social media use? Yes, at a cost. There’s an old joke among those of us who do freelance cultural work and are told to work for “exposure”: People die from exposure. That can literally be true, as harassment campaigns can and do endanger people’s lives—they’re the result of that online attention economy with all its perverse incentives. And yet you need exposure to thrive in many professions these days. I hate Twitter, and yet I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t made a significant chunk of my income over the years from promoting my work there. Participating in the Discourse of the hour, being terminally angry online, and partaking in the sousveillance and bossing of others can help you go even further. Harvest likes, shares, followers, donors, and you too might be able to have some vague approximation of a living wage. To try and opt out of this economy is to deny yourself a potential income stream.
That’s what so many of us, left behind by global austerity, are scrabbling for: a way to shake a few cents out of the panopticon. But, to return to Hochschild’s original definition, you may note something is missing from some of the actors I described earlier: They’re not being paid. Most don’t even want the attention. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work was radical because it updated classical theories of labor for the 20th and 21st centuries, and it relied on the idea that the emotional laborer was working for wages in the marketplace, specifically selling their emotional states. That’s what separates real emotional labor from, say, having to call your parents when you don’t want to.
The purpose of surveillance is, in no small measure, to enforce your will on the surveilled, compelling them to change their behavior before your almighty lens. But in order to crowdsource this in the way that surveillance capitalism demands, to generate unlimited data and #content, the dream-turned-nightmare of sousveillance is absolutely essential. What mobile technology affords us is the opportunity to momentarily become the surveiller, coercing others before our lenses, even becoming their boss—with power to coax real emotional labor from them, power to threaten their livelihoods, power to bend them just a bit toward our will. Just for a moment. All this, even as you contort yourself to be pleasing before everyone else’s sousveilling cameras and web presences: watching, always watching.
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That, indeed, is the future envisioned by some at Meta: a 24/7, immersive virtual world where we’re constantly performing for one another while buying entirely made-up, invented “goods.”
The internet has brought us to the brink of such a world, but it also started to bleed money out of the equation. Now, in this game of economic musical chairs, sometimes you’re not the product but the raw material. You’re the thing being extracted for someone else to refine and maybe sell. Maybe. Perhaps even they can’t make scratch from it. But some mayonnaise company just might.
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