Interview with Ilana Gershon
In your book, you persuasively argue that the social media producers you studied are not dupes conned into promoting others’ brands, but rather are involved in a system that provides “dubious reward structures” (221) for producing this kind of social media content. What does your book reveal about the dubious reward structures that shape the ways in which these people labor?
On a near-daily basis, I come across media/pop culture articles that hype social media-enabled “dream jobs” and celebrate the lifestyles of (pro) bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers. These individuals are the beneficiaries of the social media economy’s seemingly meritocratic talent system and its most dazzling prize: a career where you can “get paid to do what you love.” However, the cultural fascination with digital fame draws attention away from a much larger class of social media content creators who aspire to turn their talents into a lucrative, and fulfilling career. They produce creative content (often repackaged to flow across platforms) and promote themselves in earnest. But, of course, only a few achieve such staggering fame and entrepreneurial success.
The book focuses on the feminized creative industries—including beauty, fashion, styling, and design—and most of the social media producers I interviewed were young women. I learned from them that investments in time, energy, and even money serve as prerequisites for success in these fields. Certainly, it takes strategy, creative vision, and dedication to build up one’s digital brand: creating and editing content, ratcheting up followers and likes, generating “buzz.” All of these activities require sufficient leisure time: amassing—and maintaining—tens of thousands of followers is no easy feat.
Aspirants, moreover, are encouraged to attend industry events and parties (scholars describe this necessary networking as “compulsory sociality”) and participate in various kinds of instruction/training (I recently came across this how-to guide) to prepare themselves for an imagined future. There’s even a summer camp for aspiring YouTube stars! These activities require sufficient economic—and often social—capital, so it’s important to keep in mind the role that class plays in shaping content creators’ opportunities. Time and money are necessary to stage, shoot, and edit visual content. One of my interviewees explained that while the blogosphere is “a free domain,” it requires various resources: “You’re really spending your money on clothes and your camera equipment, and I know some people hire photographers…”
Despite these preconditions of economic, social, and aesthetic capital (looking the part!), I reject the “cultural dupe” argument (that is, the argument that people are unwittingly exploited). After all, the promises of the aspirational labor system propel the activities of so many of us (in the epilogue, I draw comparisons to the work we do as scholars in the digital era). In the popular imagination, at least, any of us can vie for success.
What I find especially concerning about the current aspirational economy is the extent to which it requires us to keep consuming and promoting—all while producing new content that ultimately benefits retail brands and platform owners. This lopsided system amounts to what Andrew Ross described as a “jackpot economy.” Model workers, Ross argued, are obliged to be “self- directed, entrepreneurial, [and] accustomed to precarious, nonstandard employment”—all in the hopes of “producing career hits.” Yet as with any jackpot, the “glittering prizes” are won by only “the lucky few.” The system succeeds both despite—and because of—profoundly highly lopsided nature.