Win Campaigns by Respecting Digital Labor

Guest Post by Kenzo Shibata

It’s a challenge to make the case that digital organizing is a skill that most people simply do not have.

Think of it this way. How often do you see a show with a cult following get canceled by the network and aggrieved fans feverishly write letters extolling the popularity of the show? Regardless of Nielsen ratings or lack of interest from advertisers, “If only the network execs knew how much this show means to me and my friends, they would keep it on the air for a million years.”

Everyone with a TV thinks they know better than a network executive. Everyone with an iPod thinks they know better than the record companies. Everyone who watches movies thinks they know better than film producers.

Naturally, everyone with a Twitter account or a Facebook profile thinks that if given the opportunity, they could write engaging content that would get more shares and retweets than anything someone paid to do the work can get.

This is simply not true.

In the universe of media, digital media is still brand new. The practices change as fast as the platforms do. New strategies are hashed out, tested, and either launched or abandoned every day. Digital organizers have to either adapt or watch their campaigns fall flat.

I was recently asked to write a case study on a digital campaign I coordinated five years ago and I turned in a chapter on the theory behind the digital strategy. My editor was expecting me to give a nuts-and-bolts account of what I did so that others can emulate me. Had I written what my editor asked, no one could have emulated me because none of the platforms work the same way they did five years ago. It would have been like giving instructions on how to fix an eight-track cassette player because you want to hear the latest Skrillex album.

Over those five years, I’ve read countless blogs, attended conferences, asked questions, and tried tactics that worked and others that failed. I’ve taken courses. I’ve taught courses. I’ve kept up with the changes and trends in the various platforms I’ve used.

None of these are things that the average person with a Twitter account has the time or interest in doing. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with those people, it’s just that they do not have experience or training to coordinate a digital campaign.

Digital campaigns are just that — campaigns. They aren’t a few tweets thrown at the end of an effort to boost the message. They take time and planning. The digital component of a campaign are tactics that should flow seamlessly through the traditional methods employed.

I often hear the complaint from traditional organizers that digital will never replace door knocking, phone calls, or face-to-face meetings so we shouldn’t devote much time to do.

I agree that digital will never replace traditional methods, but it is another tool in the toolset. If we as progressive campaigners ignore those tools, we give the other side a competitive advantage.

There had to be organizers early in the twentieth century who said that phone calls will never replace door knocking. And they were right.

Digital tools are not mutually exclusive from traditional methods.

Just like traditional organizing methods, digital organizing is labor. The folks who do the work may love doing it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time-consuming and taxing. Although the work looks easy since it’s mainly clicking mice and tapping on phones, when organizers are doing this work, they aren’t spending time with family, enriching themselves in other areas, or practicing self-care.

In addition, the work you don’t see — calling and visiting activists, attending meetings, testing new methods — takes up as much if not more time than actually producing the social media content.

That’s right — social media work is work that must be respected and compensated.

Jennifer Pan explains in Jacobin Magazine “The invisibility of the labor of social media has adversely affected even those who are paid to tweet.” Pan is describing the emotional labor that is extracted from digital organizers. Her analysis extends to people working in digital marketing and news media.

“Despite their lack of editorial influence, these social media workers must perform the emotional labor of fielding any fallout that results from the publication of controversial articles, often … contending with thousands of angry messages over the course of a few hours. “

So whether you work for a labor union, a pizza chain, or a national news outlet; this labor can wear down the person behind the screen. I know from personal experience, coordinating social media around a labor strike sometimes means answering the phone at midnight to talk to a nervous activist who thinks he may not have the ability to feed his family if the strike is prolonged.

Just like organizers who knock on doors and make calls, we digital organizers work with real people with real concerns and our ability to do so determines our effectiveness. Digital organizing may require a knowledge of technology, but technology alone does not fuel campaigns; people do.

Political and cultural critics who offer their ideas for free over social media as a means to be heard are arguably the most exploited for their labor. These critics spend years building followings through organizing and by honing their craft that requires their being both pithy and concise. Their ideas are often attacked by people whose mainstream platforms are threatened by this work, or even worse, stolen entirely with minimal if any credit given at all.

Julia Carrie Wong, writing for The Nation wrote about how some feminists of color have proposed locking their Twitter accounts from journalists and others who use their ideas to fuel their own. Wong, who has worked as a union organizer,  believes that locking out people who fish for ideas is much like traditional labor actions against wage theft.

A Twitter blackout could be viewed as a form of labor action, with tweeting cast as a form of work. That work is obviously unwaged. Are some Twitter users becoming an unpaid workforce exploited for their intellectual and emotional labor?

Maybe it would take a day without digital organizing for people to see how much labor intensive the work is. Imagine if your Congressman, or if the CEO if Taco Bell had to curate their own feeds.

Another way digital labor is dismissed and exploited are through lines like, “But you love doing this, I see you on your Facebook all day.”

Here’s a little secret. You know how digital organizers seem to be on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all day? It’s not just that we love doing it. We’re organizing you. We curate our own feeds to lead by example, to make personal connections with people we’re  organizing, to test out new methods, and to boost the message of the organizations and campaigns we work for.

Sure, I do love the medium and that’s why I chose this kind of work, but I also love my family. I love my friends. I love my hobbies. I cannot be fully engaged in any of these things when I’m coordinating a campaign.

Miya Tokumitsu calls this “but you love it” argument the “Do what you love” mantra and she warns,

Before succumbing to the intoxicating warmth of that promise, it’s critical to ask, “Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like non-work?” “Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?” Historian Mario Liverani reminds us that “ideology has the function of presenting exploitation in a favorable light to the exploited, as advantageous to the disadvantaged.”

When some asks an organizer to “just tweet between housecalls” or post content to Facebook between meetings, they are exploiting their labor. When a boss extracts additional labor from a worker without additional compensation, they are taking work away from someone else while wearing down their current employee. We as organizers, digital and traditional, need to push back on this.

Digital organizers have a skill and to be effective, that skill must be respected. Respect means devotion of resources. Respect means treating that labor like any other labor. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones because I get to do this work for a cause I believe in and I am compensated for my work.

I said this before, but it certainly bears repeating.

If we progressives aren’t on top of digital strategy, we’re ceding major ground to the people who are trying to crush us. If we treat digital organizing as an afterthought — that means treating the digital labor as free labor — we will lose.

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