SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University Library.
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: So I'm sure that most of you are well aware of the profound and complex ways in which digital and social media are really changing the nature of work. And so this is especially true in the media creative industries. And these are the career fields which I have spent close to a decade focusing on. So, apologies. I'm going to stay close to here because I have my signal up here.
And so, increasingly, creative laborers have these opportunities-- or maybe more likely, this incitement-- to burnish their digital brand on sites like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. They peddle their wares on Etsy. They scout out gigs on these news sites like Upwork. And they can also solicit fans, and even money, on new platforms like Patreon.
We've also witnessed the emergence of these new career fields that seem to have sprung up over the last decade, where we see young people being thrust into the spotlight as bloggers, vloggers, digital content creators, and the more nebulous term "influencer."
Does anyone recognize her? So this is Chiara Ferragni. I hope I'm pronouncing her name right. She is the blogger behind a site called The Blonde Salad. And I think this is the third year in a row she has been ranked the number one influencer in the world. Her salary over the past few years has been estimated to be around a staggering $9 million. Yeah. It's kind of this moment you gasp.
And there's many other examples of this rise to fame and these tales of success. Essentially, what they do is, they valorize self-enterprise, and they reaffirm this idea of digital meritocracy. That is, if we have this idea, if they're good enough, if they are creative enough, then we can succeed in the online economy.
And so when I first heard about these new sort of proto-industries or proto-professions, I was curious about who succeeds and how. How do participants make meaning and experience their digital content creations. Put simply, why are people motivated to go online not just for leisure, but also for these very calculated activities?
And I wanted to learn more about what cultural and political economic factors seemed to shape or constrain their possibilities. And so, as a feminist media scholar, I was struck by the fact that around the time I started this project, there was a lot of research on digital labor-- the idea that we create content online, and it's providing free work, essentially, to corporate brands without us even knowing it.
And for me, I found it really important to bring gender into this conversation, especially because it tended to be ignored. And so I chose to focus on the realms of fashion, beauty, styling, and design, which are these areas where women tend to cluster. And they're also perceived as very glamorous.
And so over the span of about three years, I conducted more than 55 in-depth interviews with fashion bloggers, YouTube vloggers, DIY designers, and people who now would most likely associate with the term "influencers." And the questions we talked about included kind of learning about their education and background, their professional experience, if any.
Wanted to learn more about their employment and career aspirations, how they saw the outcome of their sites. I talked to them about their online and offline interactions with other bloggers, vloggers. I spent a lot of time trying to learn what the processes of content creation, distribution, and promotion look like.
Essentially, what are these people doing? I think there's this idea in popular culture that they're just uploading content and getting rich quickly. So I talked about what goes into this, their self-presentation strategies, as well as, increasingly, the relationship with advertisers and sponsors.
I conducted participant observation at a number of fashion- and social media-themed events. Most of them were held around New York City. As you can imagine-- kind of these creative clusters. Conferences like BlogHer, which is for female-oriented bloggers. The Fashion Forward event. Went to Tech Week. Spent some time in New York Fashion Week. And finally, I wanted to see how workers were being socialized, kind of the larger discourses behind this.
And so I drew upon a range of professionalization resources. These are a few of them here. I also was involved in observing the Independent Fashion Bloggers Network, which was this very vibrant community of aspiring bloggers. And perhaps not surprisingly, as soon as I sent the book off to press, I've seen a number of more recent versions of this kind of socialization text.
So this I actually picked up-- you can get this at Urban Outfitters for just $12.99. You can read this if you want to be Instagram famous. If you're camera shy, you can learn how to grow your pet's Instagram to 50,000 real, organic followers. And there's all these kind of buzzy titles along these lines.
But so, in drawing attention and kind of focusing more on the interview component of this, I learned much about the very complex experiences and aspirations that tend to drive these online activities. Content creators view their work as these sort of passion projects that will be fulfilling, and in time, will be compensated.
And I use the term "aspirational labor" to describe the very calculated nature of these social media activities. So aspirational labor is a mode of mostly uncompensated work that's propelled by this much-venerated ideal-- as you can tell by the talk-- getting paid to do what you love. And it's a practice and a worker ideology that shifts workers' focus from now, the present, to the future, dangling this promise of a career where labor and leisure kind of bleed together.
And aspirational laborers expect that they will one day be compensated for their creative productions. But in the meantime, they remain suspended in this highly gendered consumption and promotion of branded goods. And so in the book, I kind of draw out to the continuities and the trajectory from aspirational consumption to aspirational labor, where we really see our identity closely tied to how we brand ourselves on the labor market.
And so I just want to give you a few examples of what these aspirational labor narratives look like. And so these are some quotes from my informants. Stephanie was interested in turning her work into kind of a full-time career through advertising sponsorships and marketing affiliate programs. Essentially, she wanted to be an influencer.
And she drew upon the ideal of flexibility to explain why she wanted to go pro. She said, "I think any girl would want to be a full-time blogger. It's a wonderful thing to do. It affords you the ability to hone in on something you love and have the flexibility to do other things."
Jesse, meanwhile, focused on what might happen after her blog disappears. And so she explained, "It's a great platform for any experiment you want to do in fashion. It's something creative with my name on it." It shows my style and my writing attributes, kind of like a creative portfolio. "It gives me a voice to expand upon and puts myself out there."
And she went on to say, if I wanted to do TV hosting, or if I wanted to do styling, people can read my blog and essentially know what I'm all about. They know what I'm putting out there. And so she went on to say that she sees herself as a full-time freelancer, essentially.
And this idea of kind of spreading out your talents across this cross-media landscape is very much a form of risk management similar to the kinds of venture labor Gina Neff found among the Silicon Alley crowd. And so this idea of developing herself into a brand is essentially a way to contain the anxieties of the employment market.
Other aspirants understood their creative activities as sort of this launching pad to gain a career in the traditional media and creative industries, be it advertising or entertainment or journalism or fashion. As Megan confessed, "My dream, dream job is to be a fashion editor at a magazine, someone like Anna Wintour."
Yet most of the young women I interviewed seemed to share this view offered by Hillary, who said, "I think getting paid to do what you love is the coolest idea ever." And this rhetoric of "do what you love" has become so pervasive that Miya Tokumitsu, in this great Jacobin piece a few years ago, called it "the unofficial work mantra of our time." We see this absolutely everywhere, this "do what you love." It's even at Wegmans.
And so I found that, despite kind of these variances, there are four features of aspirational labor which seemed to cut across my category of informants. First, the myth of relatability, where establishing one's ordinariness or authenticity is a way to obscure existing markers of privilege.
Compulsory visibility, this directive that really normalizes the blurring of public and private space in a way that presumes of feminine subjectivity. The deployment of affective relationships-- essentially, the idea that our friendships can be commoditized and monetized. How many likes do we have, how many comments, how many followers do we have, is directly linked into our value.
And finally, what I call "entrepreneurial brand devotion--" essentially, this idea that we can ride off the coattails of another brand. If we hashtag a brand and they discover us, we can kind of ride the fame wave with them.
So given timing, I figured I would just talk through the first two features and then go for questions. So I'll start with relatability. For two decades now, we've heard digital evangelists talk about new media as this great equalizer. The internet can democratize information and education, or so we're told. It can challenge resource inequalities.
And this narrative of digital democratization has found a welcome home within the fashion blogosphere. Mainstream press has thus celebrated the genre for democratizing fashion, enabling ordinary people like you and I to contribute to the international fashion conversation.
And we've also seen the emergence of bloggers and influencers that, in a lot of ways, lie outside the Western beauty aesthetic. So plus-sized bloggers, Muslim bloggers, "age 40 and over" bloggers-- which is so funny. That's how they define old, is 40 and over, which is pretty depressing. But they've essentially amplified these narratives by suggesting that this so-called "glamor industries" are so much more permeable in the digital age.
And so there was this emphasis on being "just like us." And not being just like us, but presenting the self as "just like us." So my informants often drew upon these themes of realness and relatability to describe the standards that steered their creative projects.
So Stephanie said, "I think it's important to be attainable and blog about things the everyday girl can wear. I mean, who doesn't love a Chanel handbag? But not every girl can afford a different Chanel handbag every single day. So I think it's important to bear in mind that the majority of your readers are going to want to read something a little more affordable." So she kind of drew upon these allusions to excessively, excessively-priced goods.
Erin, meanwhile, said that "I think of my blog as essentially a beauty lifestyle blog for" what she called "the everyday woman." And she said, I don't have a personal trainer. I don't have a personal chef. I don't have this lavish lifestyle. And so she's essentially inoculating herself against these critiques of class privilege, but she's also shoring up her own brand identity.
This imperative to reconcile one's own social class position with that of the reader's was very clear through this whole idea of, again, the "everyday girl" reader, which is, of course, a construction. So Danielle brought this into stark relief. Danielle was a little bit unique among the individuals I interviewed.
She actually had a full-time blog as a pharmaceutical rep. And she blogged for a short time, seemed to get a lot of followers, and then when I followed up with an interview I guess about a year later, she had quit blogging. But during our first interview, she said how important it was that she showed items that her bloggers would buy.
She said, I'm fully aware of the fact that I've been working since I got out of college for the same company. I do well in my job. And a lot of what I purchase, other people can't. So I want to be conscious of that. She said, I know this is unachievable for many people. She said, but I don't want to seem like I'm not approachable, or that I live in this place where I can afford all these expensive things. She said, I want to be approachable and relatable.
And so I argue that her emphasis here kind of indexes the significance of one's class markers-- again, one's social position in constructing realness. And so she's swapping out her high-status indicators that she would normally purchase for lower-cost goods, not necessarily because she likes them, but because she thinks her readers will respond to that. And so her comment also deflates this idea of creating a blog as this individualist self-expression, because she has a very clear sense of who the audience is, the imagined reader.
And so while social media creators drew very steadily upon these discourses of ordinariness or relatability, these ideals kind of unravel a little bit when examined through this lens of class relations that I've been reflecting on.
In many cases-- and certainly not all, but in many cases, those who have been especially successful at channeling their passion projects into this creative, fulfilling job have some form of privilege, whether it's social capital, who they know, economic capital, or even aesthetic capital, what they look like.
So Siobhan shared that the story of a friend who was, so-called, a "big blogger" living in the South US. And she kind of disclosed, well, actually, she came from the sort of family that enables her to do with this to begin with. I don't even know how much money she actually makes.
And Rachel, meanwhile, reflected on kind of her own financial situation. She recalled how a friend advised that she asked brands for payment to avoid, essentially, doing free labor. She said, but I was in college. I didn't need money. My parents supported me and everything. So I guess I didn't really care about it. And again, not really caring about money is certainly something you would not necessarily expect from someone trying to make a living here.
And such comments seem to unsettle this narrative of digital democratization that I alluded to earlier by suggesting that existing reserves of capital play a central role in providing, again, a launching pad for someone's success. So as the visible enactment of one's style, fashion blogs, logically, they necessitate participation in the marketplace-- buying clothes, buying accessories, buying beauty products.
And certainly, top bloggers and influencers are gifted products as part of this mutual incentive structure that we can talk about later. But they still engage an conspicuous consumption to provide fodder for their sites. And it's not just the clothing and accessories. Aspirants must have access to the technologies for producing and distributing their content, photography equipment, editing software-- especially YouTubers.
There was really much this emphasis that audiences would call out the YouTuber if they didn't have the newest equipment, if they weren't showing a clear image, and so forth. And certainly, these technologies not only require you to purchase them, but they also require the leisure time or the expertise in order to understand.
As a result, I argue that it's not necessarily a level playing field for those trying to break into the industry. Alana reflected on this to me. She was talking about her experience at Fashion Week. And she said, It's stressful. There's tons of other bloggers. It's a saturated environment. I'm competing against younger people, those who have been the industry longer, those who have more money than me. It's hard to keep up.
She said, a lot of people think, oh, it's just a blog. It's free. She said, but you're spending your money on clothes and camera equipment. She said, I know people hire photographers, and I don't have these resources. I mean, there's even a funny YouTube video about "the Instagram husband" and what he all has to do. Because there is this assumption that you have a photographer.
And aspirational laborers are not just encouraged to purchase material products, but there's also this narrative of "invest in yourself--" attending blogger conferences, local and regional meet-ups, even New York Fashion Week. There was this emphasis on, make sure you go to New York Fashion Week so you can be seen and get photographed. One of the resources I was drawing on even said, organize an event into your house and invite bloggers and designers, too.
And so these directives to engage in what scholars call "compulsory sociality," the idea that we kind of have our networking and non-networking time bleed together. It's not necessarily available to ordinary people. Instead, it requires sufficient resources to be able to participate in these events. Even the fee structure. I mean, Summer is supposedly little as $200. They go up to $800, even $1,000 for amateurs.
And so aside from the inherent problems of just barriers to access, meaning who can join the ranks, we also see how this unevenness can lead to a systematic industrial devaluing of work. Brands are going to be less likely to pay people if people don't need the money and aren't pushing for that.
So Alice provided a firsthand account of how this system works. And she was talking about her interactions with publicists and advertisers. She said, Some of the PR representatives reach out and ask us to show their product, but they don't know what we're doing is actual work. They think it's free to ask us to write whatever.
They send us an email and say "hey." They don't even put your name in the email. And she offered the example of one million-dollar company who asked her to share promotional material. And she said, what about compensation? And they said, we don't have a budget for that.
YouTuber Gabby made a very similar statement. She said, companies and digital producers-- and Gabby's a YouTuber. She was saying, they don't compensate us for our worker's image. They think YouTubers are stupid and that we don't have lawyers. And so young people can get taken advantage of.
Another blogger who had been doing this-- I believe since 2008-- and she had a similar experience where she would say, companies would all the time just send her products unsolicited. And if there was a product she really liked-- and there was this whole narrative of, I have to really love the product-- she would reach out to them and say, OK, what kind of deal or, what kind of payment will you offer me to promote this among my followers?
And they said, the expectation is, oh, we'll send this to you, and just do us a solid. Give us the publicity we want. And so in instances such as this, the brand's offer of visibility rather than through material rewards kind of ironically renders their labor invisible.
And so this brings me to this second feature I want to talk about, this idea of making oneself visible. And we're in this era where practices of self-branding have taken center stage. We all are encouraged to think of ourselves as a brand.
And, certainly, many of the young people I spoke with talked about these directives to put yourself out there, get your name out there. These foundational elements to getting a gig is, again, being visible. And this aim was articulated through the display of these presumably private moments and sentiments with one's followers.
And it was markedly gendered, calling for a dissolved boundary between one's personal and professional lives in ways that tended to assume a traditionally feminine subject-- adorning and displaying the body, participating in this sort of confessional culture, and sharing one's life and career through the prism of what one of my informants called "the Instagram filter."
And so this form of labor must be understood in its proper context where traditionally, though-- in a lot of ways, problematically-- constructions of public and private have been demarcated along gendered lines. But increasingly, we're seeing young people participate in these kind of individualized economies of visibility, which Sarah Banet-Weiser argues has actually supplanted any kind of collectivist forms of politics.
And these directives to show your brand, to really show your personality to your followers, generated some ambivalence, as you can imagine, among the people I interviewed. So some young people, like Rachel, felt that this mode of personal sharing was specifically a way to-- let me go back here. Yeah. This way was kind of an accepted-- she even found it a sort of gratifying element of the profession.
She described the documentary style of production. She said, "Bloggers are our own brand." We have to sell our lifestyle. And so there's a lot of work that goes into it." And she went on to say, I've been dating the same-- I've been doing this since high school. So people know who I've dated, they know about my relationship status, they know about my father's battle with cancer, they know about my own health issues. And so this documentary element, again, she found this somewhat gratifying.
But at the same time, she reflected on what the limitations are of this system where you always need to be in front of an audience. And so she was experiencing some dissonance between her own self-concept and the social media brand she created. And again, remember, she started her blog when she was at high school.
She said, my readers and followers, they see me as this cute little girl in college who puts Barbie stickers on everything and is the size of a doll. I know what my style is. I know what my fans like to see. And she goes on, but sometimes in my real life or whatever, I don't look like the character.
I feel like these images are not me anymore. And so it becomes hard because I think, well, my followers probably want this cutesy stuff. And so she expresses this tension between sharing a seemingly authentic version of herself and this brand persona that she had so deftly created.
I think this is something a lot of people can maybe identify, this blurring of personal and professional that happens in social media. And so a lot of the bloggers, again-- because success is financially tied to this-- they bemoan the blurring of their public and private selves.
After all, their career relies upon having moments for a clever Tweet or Instagram post. So Helene was only a full-time blogger for a short period of time, but she was talking about the sense to which this sense of being on really impacted her. And I guess her husband-- so she was a newlywed.
And she said, we went on vacation to some tropical island or something. And she's like, even when you're on vacation, you can't be like, OK, Instagram is not going to be part of my life. And so she was saying, on our honeymoon, she kept having to have her husband take her picture because she knew she had to upload it. And he's getting annoying. And she goes through the whole story.
And so Helene was not the only one who found this kind of idea of time off to be something of a misnomer. Heather talked to me about how her vacations were shaped by a nagging sense of what scholars call "presence bleed." So Heather was a mommy blogger. And she would go through-- she talked to me a lot about the implications this was having on her family life.
So again, as a mommy blogger, she was very successful. She's been hailed "the queen of mommy bloggers" in the early aughts. But she said she had these brand sponsorships, and she had to appease the brand that were paying your bills. And so she talked about her little kids not wanting to have peas for dinner, but a pea company is sponsoring their food.
Or they don't want to wear Old Navy clothing, but that's who provided the clothing, and so forth. And then she talked about, I didn't take a vacation, but if I did, I have to do all this pre-posting. And so she described this story where they're on vacation, and her kids are in the pool and she's up in the room trying to get Wi-Fi.
And so this notion of being always on was a common refrain among my interviewees. And sorry, I don't know why it's so goofy-looking, but it's a hamster wheel, as you can imagine. And she said, it's just so exhausting when you have to mine your life for content. She said, this career is a hamster wheel. It's the fastest wheel possible. You don't ever get off. There's no rest. You're always on. Always new content. Always, always, always updating.
And so other young women talked about kind of the angst they had from feeling like they have to put their selves out there. Some were concerned about how those in their existing social networks might react. So Emily said that she didn't want her friends to know she had a blog. And she said there was a lot of apprehension of, that they might be judgmental if they knew she was a fashion blogger. She said it wasn't part of her "life life."
But then, a few years down the road, she had retooled her blog and made it public and told people that she had this blog. And she said, I kind of regret keeping it a secret, because I felt like the people who had been successful at this-- the people who've been successful started their blogs at the same time.
And so she kind of like internalized this guilt, saying, well, if I had shared this, then maybe things could have been different. And so an individual's failure to be visible becomes an impediment to their career success.
Alana made a similar content. She said, I was super private on social media. I made myself hard to find on Facebook and Myspace. But I realized, I'm in the digital space. I should put myself out there. But she said that's really hard. It's easy to compare yourself to other people. And here we begin to get kind of the implications of this obligation to be visible.
And that's something Christy and I talked a lot about Christy became a blogger after she submitted a bunch of her work to these contests and she won this blogger conference. And she started to get a lot of followers, and started to get rather successful, and she said it became too much.
And one of the reasons was what it did to her own feelings of self-worth. She said, I've never been more overly-- she was recalling this. She said, I was never more overly concerned about my body than when I was a blogger. Which is weird, because I was like, we need people of all types out there. I'm not into hating on models. I think they're gorgeous and so on.
She says, but all of a sudden, it turned me into this person. It was like, oh, my god, I need to lose weight. She said I was so overly concerned about myself because, again, all of a sudden, I'm out there. And so these comments reveal how this much-vaunted imperative to put yourself out there can be really fraught with contradiction. Is, people have to toe this line between visibility and vulnerability, especially for women in these highly public spaces.
So do any of you know about this site "Get Off My Internets?" It's terrible. Yeah. I mean, it's awful. But it's basically-- there is a community of people, a rather vibrant community, who target specifically internet personalities and bloggers. And the idea that they're targets of internet trolls because of their culture of putting themselves out there.
And it was launched in 2009 and dubbed "the craziest destination for blogger hate." And a lot of the time they spend kind of mocking this micro-celebrity behavior, but it essentially-- by calling these people web celebrities, it deflects any criticism.
And it argues that, by putting themselves in the public eye, they're open to this. They're opening themselves up to this. And so essentially what they do on this site is, they do a lot of policing of body, of content. And it's essentially been described as kind of a grown-up Mean Girls.
So the very real dangers of mediated visibility did not go completely unnoticed. There was a Teen Vogue feature on how to make it as a fashion blogger and said, you have to deal with public criticism, or confront cyberbullying. Yet these practices were kind of rationalized as just an individual side effect of social media ecology.
In a Teen Vogue article, Leandra Medine, who's the author of The Man Repeller, said, success induces judgmental comments. I ignore them. Most of them are rude. But these narratives essentially rationalize public evaluation and judgment as a necessary part of the job, and something that should remain outside the professional sphere. And so they're individual this rather than looking at kind of the structural realities that make this possible.
And so I want to close here to make sure we have time for comments. But in this presentation, I've mapped out some of the key features and conditions of what I call aspirational labor. Again, participants believe it has the potential to pay off, but at the same time, ensures that we as consumers are suspended in consuming and promoting branded goods.
And so in a lot of ways, it redefines gendered hierarchies. And I spend time in the book thinking about how this reproduces the structural conditions that leave so-called "women's work" either unrecognized or-- and uncompensated. And so even though we think of laborers as cultural producers, we also have to understand how they're straddling the producer-consumer boundary.
These conclusions do not belie the fact that a lot of the features are shot through with contradiction and nuance. And so we take the case of celebrating real women, which productively obscures forms of economic and social capital. And again, I argue that the time, the money, the investments you need to participate leaves this system highly uneven.
Those most likely to rise above the din are very similar to the types that have long dominated the media and creative industries-- those with sufficient networks, the capital, or who simply look the part. Moreover, participants are encouraged to work not for money, but for exposure. And so by cloaking these discourses in visibility, corporate brands essentially capitalize off the activities of the aspirational labor market.
So in closing, what can this aspirational labor system teach us about more widespread trends in media work in this unfolding digital economy? And so we've certainly seen the idea that kind of the emphasis on social media enabling creative enthusiasts to monetize their passion projects and overturn traditional markers of expertise.
A growing number of people believe their investments will pay off as they get discovered or become an entrepreneur. And it's the same manic rhetoric of getting discovered that has fueled a vast system of unpaid internships, unpaid freelance work, and user-generated content.
And so does it pay off? I'd argue, only for a few. A writer for The Independent Fashion Bloggers shared stats-- and these are from a few years ago-- that fewer than 15% earn a salary from their sites. The majority take in less than $1,000 annually. This was from 2005, in terms of who actually pays influencers.
We hear all the time about influencers, but how many are getting paid? You can see the 69% are admitting to paying influencers "rarely or never." And so, again, they're paid in this always-deferred promise of exposure. Again, brands promise visibility, but that ensures that labor remains invisible. So we might conclude that aspirational labor doesn't pay off if the benchmark is the type of compensation by someone like Chiara Ferragni.
But I'd argue that it has succeeded in other important ways. It valorizes the kind of work that keeps us going around the clock all hours of the day, and it rouses us to keep tweeting, updating, posting, since increasingly, we are all only as good as our last tweet. Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: So we'll open it up to questions if anyone has a question.
AUDIENCE: First, thank you. This was just really fascinating. I look forward to reading the full book. And my question is probably about something that you might address in the book anyway. But you produce such a powerful and multifaceted critique of this world. And it seemed like, in terms of the women that you were interacting with, they're kind of positioned at various points in that, where some of them are able to produce that critique themselves.
Others aren't. Or parts of it they can produce, parts of it they maybe can't produce. And so I was wondering if you could just say a little bit more about your relationship with them. They're so into exposure. But in your interactions with them, did they not want their real names used? Or a lot of the images that you had there, were they coming from them?
And then subsequent to publishing the book, have you had any reaction from them? And also just, when you were sort of engaging with them, to what extent do you just really listen for their own voice and critique, but also maybe help them reach some of the kind of critical conclusions that you arrive at?
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. Am I OK if I stand here?
SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE]
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. Thanks for that. So it's something, as a researcher, I continue to struggle with. And I think it's a constant negotiation. But in this case. I'm very explicit at the end of the book that I have tremendous respect for the people I've interviewed. And my critique is really waged to kind of the larger structural incentives, and a lot of the brands that aren't willing to pay.
And I've talked to some about some of them about this. There is this moment of, am I being duplicitous when I email someone and, say, interview you for a book project? Because they're interested in kind of the fame and visibility. And, I mean, I've had weird experiences where someone's agent has reached out to me and asked me if I could interview them for the book.
And it was such a pitchy-- this is this term, the pitch, that Catherine [INAUDIBLE] uses-- where people who are socialized to work in the media and creative industries, including many people here, are socialized in this kind of advertising language. And so you get kind of a different sense of the self-presentation moment than you would by someone who has no exposure to this logic of the pitch. And so I gave everyone-- when I first interviewed them-- oh, this is OK? OK.
When I first interviewed them, I asked them about using their name, and if they'd prefer a pseudonym. And then before the book came out, I asked everyone again. Because a lot of people were in different stages in their lives. And so I think only maybe three people had asked that I change their name. And I sent the book to a lot of them. And so far I think the responses have been positive. No one's been incredibly angry.
But it is really scary, when you are issuing a critique, that it's not taken personally. And the layers you can kind of peel back, and how far you can really get at the truth, I don't think that's anything we can ever really get at on a larger issue. But thinking about how they position it, how they understand themselves, their own level of self-reflexivity.
AUDIENCE: So is the ultimate goal of being paid to do what you love achievable? It seems like it's not that realistic for that many people. I'm thinking of what this would be before the age of media, how when I was growing up, a bunch of people wanted to be on American Idol, and they wanted to become famous that way. Is this another way to become famous, or is it really-- I'm just wondering, the realistic part of this being a job in a future.
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. And that's-- again, it's so interesting, because there's a lot of dismissal of these activities as fame-seekers. And the people I spoke with, I mean, they have creative talents and aspirations. But in terms of the big goal, I think there's such an emphasis now on being an entrepreneur, being your own boss. I mean, there's all these really interesting hybrid terms like "mompreneur," and "Etsypreneur," and "fempreneur," and "girl boss." And it's celebrating this independent work style.
And there are certainly benefits to being independently employed. But what this does is, it glosses over a lot of the problems, which are lack of benefits, lack of stability. It's all on you. And so the last chapter, I profile those who, from the outside, would look like they have tremendous success, but have really struggled.
And so Heather was one of those cases, the woman who said she's on a hamster wheel and she feels like she can never get off. Because in a way, it seems great to get paid doing what we're just ordinarily doing, but it becomes work. And I think the second you start thinking about an audience that whole dream of creative, individualized self-expression is suddenly focused so much more on the external self that it can't help but dwindle.
So I hate to boil it down to kind of this traditional framework of creativity versus kind of constraints and challenges. But when you're thinking about an audience, when you're thinking about an advertiser-- which is the same thing media industries have always relied on-- I can't help but kind of see the whole echoes of looking at this through the work world. Yeah. Thanks.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for the very thought-provoking discussion. My question is, while you were interviewing, did you encounter any of the girls-- particularly, let's say, Instagram or beauty bloggers-- express feelings of guilt of perhaps instilling some values with young viewers that might not necessarily be as realistic or as approachable as they seem?
Perhaps young viewers don't realize the amount of Photoshop they use or the way they edit their images. And I wonder if there were any discussions of that topic, the blur between reality and what's fake and what's real.
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. So the most, I guess, ardent critique of this was the woman I mentioned, Christy, who-- she kind of fell into this by winning this contest, and all of a sudden she was tasked with blogging for this particular brand. And because she started this in 2009, 2010 when this was really rising, all this sudden she's going to these influencer events, and she's surrounded by people that's industry.
And, I mean, she basically said it just really took its toll on her. Because she said something exactly along those lines. This is not the message I want to be putting out here, where I'm shilling corporate brands and emphasizing physical beauty, and all of these things that I thought, blogging was challenging. And so I think we do see some level of more diversity just because the field is so much more-- is just sprawling.
But the fact that it relies on the same industrial logics and anesthetics of traditional media. And so, yeah, I think there were a few. I mean, Christy was, again, the one I really thought of, that it was too much for her. And so she completely left it. She abandoned social media for a while.
And then she just reached out to me when I sent out the book. And she's like, I don't know what to do. So she's getting more success as an Instagrammer, but she's a travel photographer. And she doesn't show herself at all, she just shares these incredible images. But that kind of sense of putting yourself in contributing to this larger industry which has been deemed problematic for decades.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. What a wonderful and dense presentation. I just came up from Ithaca because I had heard-- I saw the sign in Olin and thought, oh, well, here I am in midlife, dealing with the challenge of trying to do what I love. And thought maybe there would be a little career talk aspect of what you're talking about now. No, but--
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Derailed. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: But I also am trained in media ecology. And so what you've given in that realm is so strong and so universalizable. It seems-- I mean, what did you say, that "do what you love" was the unofficial work mantra of our time? We're all subject to the snares and temptations of that.
Not just women, not just young people, and not just creative people. All of the labor market is surrounded in this, in the digital marination of our time. So I would ask how you're inflecting this work beyond academic ghettos into larger and larger discussions about our time.
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Well, it's funny you kind of-- the last comment about the academic ghettos. But one of the things that which was surprising/really weird for me was realizing, in a lot of ways, how similar-- in some ways, how similar what my informants do to what we do in the Academy. And so I actually wrote an epilogue. And it was such a-- it was the first time I wrote something this self-reflexive.
But what happened is, I was talking to someone who-- she was one that she started blogging really late and had gotten a ton of followers. And she's like, well, I follow all these tips thinking about the timing of my tweets. And I was like, oh, interesting. In my back, I'm like, should I be doing that? And I was like, what is wrong with me? What am I thinking? And then thinking more about the overlaps.
And so as a scholar, it doesn't matter how many Twitter followers I have or how many Facebook friends. But thinking about the other metrics that drive the Academy, and thinking about-- and somebody mentioned this before-- it's so true-- but this idea of, at an academic conference, I mean, how is that different than these blogger conferences? They're this curious hybrid of socializing and networking and these boundaries that are all blurring together. And as a junior academic scholar--
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah, I feel like I'm constantly-- yeah, the whole meritocracy, and thinking about the labor pool, and hyper-inflated job market with not enough jobs and a lot of talent. I mean, it's kind of surprising, the similarities. And I think a lot of academics would agree. We don't do it for the money, we do it because we love doing this. But it is-- and, I mean, there's no off-switch. I joke-- I think most students for this semester are gone. But if we just turn email off. Yeah. Yeah, thanks.
AUDIENCE: So I guess my question-- and I'm looking forward to reading the book-- but it kind of started out with the talk of authenticity. And so I don't know if you address this in the book, but why solely focus on women and not, maybe, how men-- because there are men fashion bloggers.
And I think this idea of how women, their account is their real life in a sense, they're still kind of performing. So I think-- would you consider studying men? Why didn't you consider studying men? What kind of insights do you think studying men bloggers could offer in this idea of work and authenticity and kind of why they do it, too?
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. I did, at the time, interview just a handful of men. And since, I've kind of reconnected and with a few of them. And there are certainly overlaps, but I think one of the main differences is the saturation of the market, just how much emphasis is out there. And another difference, which-- I've been talking with one of my students, and she's actually doing a project on it.
And this is anecdotal, but what the accounts look like. And so thinking about the female fashion blogger account, who seems to display, again, more of herself, more of her body, versus the corollary, the male blogger is showing more of the products and the styles. And I have just heard that there are some disparities in terms of salary for gender-based influencers.
But in terms of who are seen as the key influencers, I think women-- it's based on this historical assumption that women recommend things to other women. And one of my former colleagues had this fantastic idea. He called it the labor of devotion. And it's this idea that marketers assume that if a man likes a product, he buys it. If a woman likes a product, she shares it with their friends.
And so a lot of this influencer economy, I think it's highly gendered for that reason. If you look at the trade press of digital and social media, there's this emphasis on, women love social media, and it's based on these very, very gender assumptions and gender biases. And so there's an overlap. But then you also see the emergence of technology bloggers. And another corollary which I've heard, in the masculine realm, are the video game-- the headset-- what are they called, the commentators?
AUDIENCE: The YouTubers?
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. The YouTubers. And so there are some corollaries that-- yeah. I think it would be interesting. I haven't come across anyone who's studying the male fashion bloggers. I think I saw a study recently, but I can't recall where it was. Yeah, thanks.
AUDIENCE: So it sounds like, with the low pay rates and such, there's probably people leaving this as quickly as people are coming to it. What do they do afterwards? Do they try and go to something else where they can try and get paid for what they love, or do they take this over into working in social media or advertising, or what?
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. So I would say, I don't know, maybe 20%-- total guess. But maybe 20% the people, by the time we follow it up, they had gone into different career paths. Most of them were-- except for the pharmaceutical rep, most of them were centered on the creative industries. And so one actually went to work at an influencer marketing firm. And you can see how they would really kind of scout out that talent.
Another had-- actually, two of them had kind of succeeded-- these are the ones I profile later-- in becoming their own self-brand in terms of, they were doing TV hosting and so forth. But I think more common was the fact that they found more stable employment. And so if you're not getting really successful and this doesn't pay off, you need to find something that does offer you kind of a longer lifeline. So I think it varies.
But some said right at the beginning that they were doing this for portfolio building so they could get this traditional creative career and they could see what their aesthetic looks like. So that's why-- a different project, I've been talking to young people about kind of the Instagram aesthetic and, why are you paying attention to the colors and the looks? And a lot of it's kind of professional portfolio.
SPEAKER 2: A question? Is there one more?
AUDIENCE: Sort of-- it's a follow-up question. When you were talking about some of the bloggers who are doing this for the love of blogging, it reminded me of those bands-- musicians who are asked to, oh, come to my event and play for free so you have exposure.
But some of those musicians actually eventually make it and become famous bands and become rich. So do you see that in the future of some of these women who can actually really make it, and they don't need to go and find additional jobs in other areas but will be able to maintain it until, almost, retirement, just like musicians would do?
BROOKE ERIN DUFFY: Yeah. I mean this whole narrative of "work for employment," I think, is pervasive in various creative careers. Again, music is another example. Maybe it's modeling, or design, or anything that's kind of tied to independent creation rather than kind of a collaborative work.
And, I mean, there are always people who do rise to success in this. And what I think is so interesting is, so much of the media coverage of influencers focuses on the wildly successful. Again, the Chiarra Ferragni, who was a law student and started doing this, and now she's making the $9 million a year.
So there will always be success stories, but I think we tend to shine the spotlight on those and conceal everybody else. But, yeah I mean it would completely collapse-- if nobody ever made it, why would this whole system persist? Yeah, thanks. Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University Library.
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The new digital economy has brought many creative and enterprising women to social media platforms in hopes of channeling their talents into fulfilling careers. But in a search for more meaningful professions or “dream jobs,” many find only unpaid work. In her new book, Not Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work, Brooke Erin Duffy draws attention to the gap between the handful who find lucrative careers and those whose “passion projects” amount to free work for corporate brands.
In a Chats in the Stacks book talk at Mann Library on September 28, 2017, Duffy drew from her book to reflect on the work and lives of fashion bloggers, beauty vloggers, and designers, and what their story suggests for women’s career success in the new digital economy.
Brooke Erin Duffy serves assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, as a faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Inequality and as member of the Media Studies Initiative. Prof. Duffy’s specific areas of research and teaching include digital/social media industries gender, identity, and self-expression media and cultural production and labor and work in the digital age. She has authored two previous books including Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age, University of Illinois Press and published her work in a variety of academic journals. Prof. Duffy has also shared her work with the wider public with articles for The Atlantic, Times Higher Education, Quartz and other popular and policy-oriented magazines. She recently received the Emerging Scholar Award for Critical/Cultural Studies given by the National Communication Association.