Digital labor

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The tweets above are by our cat, @Teh_Mewzor. Teh Mewzor is of an existential bent. As I type, he is curled up in my lap, preventing me from reaching my tea. If I were to tweet his thoughts right now, I would tweet, “NO. WHAT IS TEA. AND WHY.”  It makes me very happy to tweet as our cat, and I’ve been doing it on and off for a while. What happened above, when my cat began tweeting couplets from the 1711 edition of the Essay on Criticism with a punctilious care for line breaks and the long ’s’ alike, was a result of a mixup in TweetDeck.

By no stretch of the imagination is my project of tweeting the Essay on Criticism a large one. It’s just me. Thanks to my institutional affiliation, I could download a pdf of the edition I wanted at no cost. I am remediating it without the assistance of a UI designer, an RA, or a stack developer. And yet, it languishes.

From time to time, someone comes across an entry on this blog and sends me an email about it. That happened recently from a scholar I admire about the Essay on Criticism project. Was I, he asked, still doing it? I wasn’t, but prompted by his email (and a delay of six weeks) I scheduled two weeks of tweets, including the errors you see above.

The Essay on Criticism project is, although infinitely less impressive than most, like a lot of digital humanities projects out there. It’s done without institutional backing and exists more or less at the whim of its instigator, who only sticks with it out of a conviction that there’s real value to the work and a hope that other people will enjoy it and come to share my conviction.

The only things that my project costs are my time and my attention. And there’s the rub. The rewards of this project are, like those of this blog, slight and mostly personal. Whatever paltry or even imaginary intellectual capital I might accrue from either is far outstripped by the personal benefit I feel from both. People have argued that having a blog is necessary, now, for a young academic, as though if you did not have a blog People would assume that you didn’t know what one was. But this blog was originally started on the back of such anxieties about the necessity of public self-fashioning.

I think there is a broad consensus that digital self-fashioning is now necessary—voluntary labor that non-TT academics need to perform in order to improve their chances of selling their labor as TT academics. You have to perform that labor with the appearance of sincerity, or the labor will not be valued. Insufficiently thoughtful writing isn’t good enough; there’s plenty enough of that online already. Which means it is actually less work to truly mean it all and invest in it all than it would be to only go through the motions and pretend to be invested. So the logic of free digital labor done on endless spec in order to maximize the chances of imagined later remunerated labor leads also to that digital labor being personal and sincere and recognizably yours. To be worth doing, it must be a product that only you could have created, that in some way bears your distinctive mark. And here we hit a crux.

The self that you mediate in that labor must be acceptable; you must be showing yourself to be a docile body, after all, otherwise all your spec-work will be for nought. And then we teeter on a very sharp edge. Be sincere; be salable. The necessary compromise is to be sincere in showing only those parts of yourself that are salable. What to do with the non-salable parts? If all digital self-fashioning is a kind of speculative labor, and if Facebook and Twitter are arenas of digital labor, what do we do with those parts of our selves that are not condign to the workplace? Do we honor them, and be less salable, or efface them, and be less sincere? The second, obviously.

In the grand scheme of transgressions, it doesn’t get much smaller than having my cat accidentally collaborate on my Twitter project. But it threw all of this into relief; that there are fewer and fewer acceptable places for digital non-labor, that the opportunity cost of not thinking about all digital content you produce as labor might be too high to bear. What about the other costs, then, of doing that labor? How are they to be borne?

tweeting mew

Above: Teh Mewzor’s contribution to this post


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