Blogging, Digital Labor, and Institutional Gender/Race Inequality

Presented at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Milwaukee.

This paper is intended to focus on some of the economic and structural issues that have contributed to the lack of funding for women of color digital media ventures in an age where women of color, specifically black women, are hyper-visible as targets for online harassment, and the voices of women of color are often used as fodder for online think pieces but without accompanying payment or employment. I presented a similar talk over the summer at AlterConf, that focuses on inclusion in the technology industry.

Returning to this topic since initially writing about it in August has been interesting because there have been some significant developments since then. A women-published/edited, woman-VC funded media venture called The Establishment launched in October (The Billfold); HelloGiggles, the millennial women-focused website co-founded by Zooey Deschanel was purchased by Time, Inc. for $30 million; and xoJane was also purchased by Time, though the terms were undisclosed. (TechCrunch)

This past summer, Vice started a women-focused vertical called Broadly. There’s also been a broader public discourse on social media and publications (like the Atlantic, Vox, and the New Yorker) about the nature of funding and pay at media startups and content farms, and how race and gender inequality has remained a constant element of both print and online publishing.

But to be perfectly honest, it was hard for me to come back to this topic since originally writing about it a few months ago. Mostly because I am tired of talking about it. I am not a terribly emotional writer, and for me, this kind of writing draws from an emotional well of almost two decades of struggling with internal and external battles for recognition, pay, and employment in publishing. It is personal, and it is raw, and there are plenty of people who are writing about this now, much more eloquently than I could.

Moreover, I am neither a women’s studies scholar or a political economist. I am a writer and small-potatoes digital publisher who went to grad school 10 years ago to study media economy. I thought, perhaps I’ll just take a seat and go back to writing about the mobile web industry and YouTube. But this is not a topic that is likely to find a solution anytime soon: The woman VC-funded publication Establishment is doing great work but still only is one publication and one funder; as and of this writing, pay rates for women-focused digital publications like Bustle and HelloGiggles hover at around the $25-$75 per article range, according to the website Who Pays Writers. There is still so much more to be said, and carefully interrogated.

So the story is this: we all know that online publishing draws lower comparative salaries and funding than other tech-based fields. What’s not always discussed are the dovetailing and clashing forces that informed the development of the current online publishing environment: this stems from both the utopian ethos of hacker and open source culture that came of age in the 80’s and the subversive, personal focus of 90′s print zine and early blogging culture.

Even so, there’s a convergence between digital media and traditional media that I think exacerbates an economic divide along race, gender, and class lines when it comes to the industry of digital media.

On one hand you have well-funded digital media entities like HelloGiggles, XO Jane, and Buzzfeed, currently valued at $850 million. On the other hand you have the threadbare economics of personal and niche blogging, which has traditionally known to be the entry point into digital media for many underrepresented groups. A 2013 study by Velocity Media states that 14% of bloggers earn a salary through blogging and the average annual income for personal bloggers is $24,000. Most smaller, niche oriented websites, even those that generate the 100-200k pageviews usually expected for the low-end of success earn a couple of hundred dollars per month from advertising. (Autostraddle)

Last year, Latoya Peterson of Fusion and Racialicious wrote a string of tweets that she later Storified, entitled “Why Isn’t There a Hairpin for Women Of Color?” She talked about the struggle to secure funding for her blog Racialicious and how at the time (around 2009), online content about race and gender were viewed as niche and not scalable. (Racialicious)

hellogiggles_logo“Big ad dollars go to big platforms” she wrote, and now we can say the same about venture capital. Online publications have struggled for years to find long-term monetization strategies (and still do) but in the past couple of years, venture capital investors have gravitated to the media industry as funding prospects. Digital news and media companies raised $813M in 2014. In 2013, startups in the space raised $331M. (CB Insights). On the other hand, the work of women of color, queer and trans women is hyper-represented in “personal experience” writing that is popular and cheap to produce and scale by these larger, well-funded publications. People from these groups are often underrepresented in feature writing, investigative journalism and the like (the kind of writing that primarily pays more and is more the realm of full time staff writers).

Some of these large media companies pay writers (disproportionately women of color, queer/trans women, etc.) miniscule amounts of money to mine their own personal trauma to generate the kind of viral attention that often generates thousands, if not millions of pageviews quickly. xoJane’s “It Happened to Me” series is one example; routinely, the people writing these kinds of articles are queer, trans, women of color, survivors of varying levels of sexual and racist trauma. Topics like  “My Bikini Waxer Told Me She Couldn’t Believe I Was ‘Clean’ Because I Was Black” are the norm there. (NY Magazine)

Just to be clear, my intent here is not to shame the women who write these pieces, or even the staff writers and editors who work for these publications, but to critique a model that generates millions of dollars in revenue from this kind of content without providing the writers with the kind of compensation or professional infrastructure that staff writers enjoy.

Those that write these kinds of personal essays are usually not staff writers, and usually less than $150 an article to do so. It’s a model that we see adopted not just by startup media companies, but by legacy media companies like Washington Post, The Guardian, and now adopted by companies by Time, Inc, through their new acquisitions.

For all of the new fascination by mainstream media with “black Twitter” and marginalized voices, online culture’s reliance on distributed labor and the hyper-commodification of creative labor is the exact same work and institutional culture that has traditionally marginalized women of color, women, queer/trans women and disabled people from both traditional media and Silicon Valley while also profiting from them.

In the anthology Digital Labor, theorist Tiziana Terranova describes the low-wage and unpaid digital work that generated revenue in form of internships, freelance/contract work and volunteer community management and content work. As far back as 1996, Terranova points out, AOL generated more than $7 million based on the volunteer labor of community managers. She later makes the connection between the disproportional representation of women in these low-wage media jobs to the global rise of women in low-paid manufacturing work. She says:

“The workers that service either end of the chain are drawn from quite different strata – one is educated and urban, the other unresourced and migrant – but they share the existential condition of radical uncertainty that intermittent work begets”

In Alice Marwick’s 2013 book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, the chapter “A Cultural History of Web 2.0,” describes the parallel cultural histories that contributed to the social/digital media culture we currently participate in. She says that Web 2.0 culture was rooted in Silicon Valley’s neo-liberal view of democratic media, that idea technology would be the conduit to “free” information, while at the same time embracing the libertarian ethos of the free market and elevating the status of venture-backed startups.

Ostersund, Sweden - August 9, 2015: Close up of WordPress website under a magnifying glass. WordPress is a free and open source blogging tool.
Ostersund, Sweden – August 9, 2015: Close up of WordPress website under a magnifying glass. WordPress is a free and open source blogging tool.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the ideal of tech utopianism was a dominant one; digital media was considered a tool to transcend the structural power dynamics of sexism and racism. Those years also saw the rise of blogging as a personal medium, and more personal extension of the online communities on USENET, and other message boards. Advent of niche blogs in the early 2000’s, particularly the rise of political blogs like Daily Koz/Netroots, Huffington Post, etc. led to a shift in blogging as a form of news dissemination and curation independent of traditional news media outlets. During this time, as ad revenue was dwindling and jobs were cut due to media consolidation, media companies were persistently reluctant to invest in digital ventures or staff at the time because it was pretty much seen as a money drain. Web 2.0 was viewed as ”citizen journalism”, rather than traditional journalism, since a lot of the original bloggers from the Web 2.0 era were either dot-com workers doing this writing in their spare time or after getting laid off under-employed journalists passing the time while trying to find paying work.

Running parallel to this is the grassroots print/e-zine media scene of the late 90′s print zine culture and early blogs/message boards emerged around the same time: mostly non-profit print zines and publications like Bitch Magazine, Clamor, Hues (Hear Us Emerging Sisters) Make/Shift, and Bamboo Girl. A handful of those publications made the shift to digital (most notably Bitch), but many of them no longer exist. The rise of Live Journal, Blogger, etc. inspired a lot of the writers who would otherwise be writing for these publications to launch their own blogs. Yet when the mainstream media fervor over blogging started to bubble up in the mid 2000s, it was mostly white-male run political blogs that garnered legitimacy and early hires into mainstream media, even though women and people of color had been blogging for personal websites and niche websites the entire time.

We’re seeing something very similar happen now, as the creative labor of “black Twitter” and other marginalized groups is viewed as having a level of profitability as a content focus, even though it’s not translating into an explosion of hires or funding for media projects owned by people of color.

The industrialization of creative labor is another hold-over from the early days which has been refined in the Web. 2.0 and post-Web 2.0 era. The concept of donating labor, working long hours, and encouraging passion projects as a way to justify chronic underemployment and job instability is one that came of age with that first run of dot-com startups and now continues in the new age of digital publishing. And now, with the proliferation of media outlets that encourage marginalized people to write about their experiences for little pay and “exposure” we are seeing the more insidious elements of both web 2.0 culture and the news industry converging.

As someone who participated in the indie print ‘zine scene, blogged since 1999, worked in digital media for since the web 1.0 years, I’ve observed the connections and similarities between these scenes but never went to the trouble of articulating them. But it’s clear that monetization and funding is the hardest part for media projects; and while there are a number of foundation-based grant programs out there, they sadly fund a sliver of what’s needed to launch a publication, help it grow to be financially solvent, pay writers, and remain competitive with the big budget media outlets that have three times as much staff and produce daily, if not hourly content.

In an excellent November 2015 article in Autostraddle, editor Marie Lyn Bernard said:

“Most independent sites that attract niche groups like ours (queer women) will struggle to meet the demands of a populace whose zest for demanding better compensation for writers ignores the independent businesses who simply cannot without the financial support of that populace.”

As much as foundation-based journalism fellowships are important and welcome, they’re not going to move the needle as aggressively as needed when it comes to more media ownership and hires of marginalized groups; having diverse founders in digital media will make more of a difference on a broader scale.

The fight for inclusion in the tech industry and Silicon Valley is crucial to the fight for inclusion in media, because now more than ever, the funding is coming from the same place.

And now many of these digital publishing entities, are making some ostensible effort towards inclusion through diverse “verticals” like Buzzfeed’s Cocoa Butter (focused on black folks), or Vice’s Broadly (focused on women).

But representation is only one part of the fight, the other is much harder to articulate — and that’s the institutional exploitation of creative capital that still disproportionately affects women of color, queer and trans women, and disabled women in the digital industry.

The fact is, the projects that get usually funding and support are startup projects funded through limited networks of VC funders, not grassroots or independent ones. And in order for there to be an actual diversity in perspectives, there’s got to be room for both. To use a metaphor: We as marginalized women can fight to have a place at the table but if we’re ignored when we are there, it’s is not going to do much good.

So for me, the questions are as follows: How do we move that needle, get marginalized people seen and recognized by VC funders and others in the networks of finance and power that have the ability to start funding publications that are run by marginalized groups? How do we move more marginalized digital workers from a precarious career path based around low-paying freelance and contract work with content farms into full-time jobs, or more lucrative contract work that allows them to make a living from their content? I know one way to do this is for scholars, journalists, and digital workers alike to have more than just an dialogue, but a clear interrogation of the gendered and racialized structures that have created the digital media economy that we live in, and how the global struggles of media monetization and funding as well as, are exacerbated when it comes to the digital labor of marginalized people.

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Reference List

Marie Lyn Bernard (aka Riese), The “Who Pays Writers” Conversation Needs a Little Nuance, Autostraddle, November 9, 2015

Jordan Crook, Time Inc. Acquires Hello Giggles, TechCrunch, Oct 19, 2015

Nicole Dieker, Chatting With The Establishment About Paying Writers and Funding a Women’s Media Company, The Billfold, October 26, 2015

Alice Marwick, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale University Press 2013)

Latoya Peterson, On Media: – Or, Why Isn’t There a Jezebel/Hairpin for WOC?, Racialicious, January 22, 2014

Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor”, in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (Trebor Scholz, ed., Routledge 2013)

Todd VanDerWerff, 2015 is the year the old internet finally died, Vox, October 30, 2015

Venture Capitalists are Bullish on News: Funding to Media / Fat Content Startups Jumps 145% YoY, CB Insights, March 10, 2015


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[…] Blogging, Digital Labor, and Institutional Gender/Race Inequality “…focus on some of the economic and structural issues that have contributed to the lack of funding for women of color digital media ventures in an age where women of color, specifically black women, are hyper-visible as targets for online harassment, and the voices of women of color are often used as fodder for online think pieces but without accompanying payment or employment.” […]

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