My project, NetWorker, is a publication that takes the common aesthetics, tropes, and features of tech media and applies these elements to coverage of digital labor and laborers who would likely never be found in typical tech publications. Drawing from publications like Fast Company, TechCrunch, and Inc. — to give a few examples — NetWorker uses bold headlines, a “clean” aesthetic, and a familiar interface, but puts a surprising twist on the content by broadening the range of “tech work” that’s covered. NetWorker takes familiar formats like workplace tours, thought leader profiles, or morning routine rundowns, but not in connection with the Silicon Valley executives, founders, or “gurus” we’re used to seeing. Instead, NetWorker might run a feature on the workspace vibe at a data center or an in-depth interview with a customer service representative. The morning routine of an Uber driver, an interview with a community manager, or the habits of highly monetizable Facebook users: all within the range of coverage that NetWorker might provide.
While speculative in origin, stemming from questions like “What would it look like if…?” and “What if there were a magazine that…?”, the project also aims to be a user-friendly site that provides real stories and information. Everything on NetWorker comes from real research, reporting, and interviews. The aim is to surface stories that are often overlooked and to bring stories, insights, and existing academic and journalistic work on digital labor and the tech industry into conversation with each other. To this end, NetWorker content includes both original material and aggregation and annotation of media and texts that often live in disparate places online. Initial articles on NetWorker include a profile of an Amazon Mobile Turker and digital labor advocate; interviews with a stock footage reviewer, an Apple retail/consulting specialist, and the founder of a company that trains Uber drivers in customer service; explorations of the affective labor of Airbnb and the mini-work involved in looking for a job in 2015; and annotated links to relevant hashtags, an open academic reading list, and a BuzzFeed article on a new LinkedIn product’s labor implications for employees who use the product.
In building this kind of publication, my goal is to intervene in discourse on digital labor and what work in “the tech industry,” writ large, looks like. As Silicon Valley and the jargon associated with it — algorithmic culture, innovation, automation, and so on — increasingly serve as metaphors for 21st-century work, and more broadly, 21st-century life, broadening the lens and presenting alternative views of this rhetoric become particularly relevant. It’s especially important to present stories and information that surface the human perspectives and efforts that are behind much of what is frequently presented as “cleanly” algorithmic or automated, and to emphasize that the tech companies that permeate so much of our daily lives run not just on the work of machines or of innovative leaders, but also on the work of people from factory workers to users producing data. In conceptualizing how best to tell these stories in a way that would constitute a generative intervention in digital media, prompting users to think critically and speculatively about tech-industry narratives, I was drawn to the format of a tech publication. Why not play on the narratives and imagery that shape how we perceive “tech work,” but widen the scope to show the complex network that’s truly implicated in these depictions and understandings? By using journalistic techniques, including reportage and one-on-one interviews, to tell real stories, I wanted to build stakes into the project and make these often-overlooked stories as accessible as the stories that dominate so much of tech media.
Given this focus on accessibility, the audience for this project is a general audience, but the project is particularly aimed at people who follow discourse in tech business and/or use these technologies in daily life and may be performing labor, or drawing from others’ work, without fully realizing it. By presenting a website that mirrors the aesthetics, language, and content associated with other websites that cover the tech industry, the project provides an entry point, but puts a turn on users’ expectations. Beyond bringing an audience to overlooked stories, a significant goal of the project is to create a community around the content and to bring together disparate strands of conversation, critique, and human narratives. Journalism, academic work, personal narratives, social media discussions, and other texts often occupy different spaces on the web and offline, and I hope that these strands will be able to cross-pollinate and generate conversation and collaboration via NetWorker.
In developing NetWorker, I have been influenced by a range of theory and work. One of the initial sparks of influence came from the significant body of work on affective labor, such as Michael Hardt’s “Affective Labor,” and digital labor. I particularly mined CUNY’s Digital Labor Reference Library and this collection of readings in thinking through the framework for NetWorker and the ways in which affective, immaterial labor permeate the networked contexts of our daily lives. Outside of academic work on digital labor, I also read many journalistic and first-person accounts of the sharing economy and under-discussed aspects of the tech industry, like Susie Cagle’s “The Case Against Sharing,” this Wired piece, and this New Republic piece (to give just a few examples). Particularly when I put academic work on digital labor into conversation with journalistic explorations of these topics as seen on the ground, I was eager to foster more interplay between these modes of inquiry through NetWorker. I was also influenced by work like Lisa Nakamura’s “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture” in thinking about the approaches that would effectively provide insight into digital labor and the broad spectrum of “tech work.” Her article helped push me in thinking about the roles that historicization, research into obscured human stories, and, as a slight extension of this, journalistic work — simply telling stories that haven’t been told, and putting these stories into conversation with broader phenomena and narratives — can play in this area.
I was also influenced by work on a range of topics related to the tech industry and the networked technologies we use daily, from platform studies to readings on big data. Especially useful context and framings for bringing some of these ideas together came from sources like Ian Bogost’s articles in The Atlantic, particularly “The Cathedral of Computation” and “Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User.” These pieces, along with work by a huge range of journalists, scholars, and others (everyone from researcher danah boyd to BuzzFeed journalist Caroline O’Donovan), helped me contextualize my work and push me in new directions in terms of thinking about what metaphors like “algorithmic culture” obscure, who helps shape the technologies we’re so used to, and the implications of our networked interactions with and within these systems.
As I’ve built NetWorker, I’ve aimed to use common tools and methods. I used Wordpress for the site itself, finding a theme that I thought echoed many of the elements of tech media sites and customizing it as needed. While I was already relatively familiar with Wordpress, the real learning curve for me came with the response I got to a call for contributions I put out as I began to prepare the project. To my surprise, I got quite a few responses, both from people who wanted to share their own stories and from people who were interested in contributing through advising, writing, or other kinds of help. As is to be expected, some of these initial interests faded or got lost in the midst of other commitments, but the launch of the site has ended up involving quite a number of contributors. This has meant that in addition to conceptualizing the project, building the site, and doing my own research, reporting, and writing, I’ve also been coordinating with others, editing work, and doing project management. This has all been a great learning experience, especially as I’ve been able to build unexpected collaborations and plan to continue to run the site in the weeks and months to come — I already have more posts lined up and am excited to keep sharing stories with NetWorker’s audience.
Essentially, conceptualizing and launching NetWorker has been a project in itself — I think just its presence is an intervention in tech dialogue and, hopefully, an interesting provocation for thought. Now that it’s launched, I’m eager to go further in building its role as a place where the elements we’ve come to associate with coverage of the tech industry can be used in connection with a broader range of stories and perspectives, “disrupting” our familiar narratives and assumptions. I’d also like to invite you to collaborate, contribute, or just get in touch: you can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’d love to hear from you as I keep growing this site of conversation, cross-pollination, and community.