Category Archives: Andrew McKinney

Disruptive Labor or the Monetization of Mass Amateurization

Below is the text from my talk at the #DigitalSociology mini conference at this year’s Eastern Sociological Society annual conference. We got a relatively inopportune 8:30 am time slot so I thought I’d let more than the 4 people who showed up and my co-panelists bear witness to it. This is a sliver of my dissertation research on the feedback loop between the American sports industry and its fans and the profit this feedback loop has birthed with the help of the Internet.  I should make it clear that Bleacher Report is clearly not the only Internet outlet involved in the kind of practices I outline here, they just happen to be the case study I’ve worked on the most. In addition, part of my argument in this talk is directly related to the previous work I’ve presented at the 2014 Digital Labor conference and at the 2014 Cultural Studies Association conference on disruption theory, a portion of which you read here. Thanks for reading:

Bleacher Report, from its origins as a small San Francisco based start-up to its $200 million acquisition by Turner Sports in 2012 to its current status as the fourth most popular sports website on the Internet, has continued to utilize two interlocking narratives about itself. First, its founders and boosters proclaim it as a “disruptive” force in sports media and media in general because it harnesses the passion of fans to unseat the incumbent, professional class of sports media producers. Second, it has sold itself as a place where aspiring writers and sports media professionals could get a foot in the door, building a resume while getting the exposure the site afforded. Both of these narratives have been actively challenged by major competitors, independent sports journalists, and former writers. Today, I’ll argue that these interlocking narratives served to justify a kind of primitive accumulation of value from exuberance in desperation wherein fans with aspirations toward making their passions their living became the digitized raw material of a content production empire.

Bleacher Report was until very recently the most reviled site in the sports media world. Founded in 2006 by four college friends (3 of which are from Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley), it was primarily a crowd-sourced content farm before being bought out by Turner Broadcasting (a division of Time Warner) in August of 2012 for an undisclosed sum around $200 million. Bleacher Report’s primary business model in that era was the kind of slideshow, aggregated content, and #hottake journalism that we’ve come to expect from born digital outlets like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. Boasting a monthly unique visitor number above 14 million before the buyout, its explosive growth was met with accusations of SEO gaming and open hostility towards the its content. And with good reason. The rampant misogyny present in such popular slideshows as 20 Most Boobtastic Athletes (which as of a 2012 San Francisco Weekly hit piece on the site tallied 1.4 million views) and the generally low quality of writing in non-slideshow content was worthy of derision.

After the buyout, the tenor of critique began to shift away from quality and onto its institutional structure as their disruptive model had filtered up into the mainstream media, making millions of dollars for its founders while it continued to pay only 1% of its 7000 contributors. The anger at their labor practices stems not just from a lack of payment (payment for writing on the Internet in general is in a deeply degraded state) but because Bleacher Report had positioned (and sometimes still does) itself as a gateway to the world of sports journalism. It maintains a “Writer’s Program” that seeks to be an “An amplified outlet for writers whose unique voices were routinely drowned out by cookie-cutter analysts and celebrity “experts.” The writer’s program is primarily a vetting system for new writers, a way to place you into it’s system of measurement draped in the language of pedagogy. Once “graduated,” each writer has his own profile that keeps a running tally of his or her (mainly his) popularity vis a vis other writers on the site and their total pageview count. As a writer gets further up the chain they can attain “Featured Columnist” status. In an article published on Deadspin entitled “The 200 Ways Bleacher Report Screwed Me Over”, former Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Tom Schreier explained how the Featured Columnists themselves are tiered: “you were a FCI, FCII, FCIII, or FCIV. On a page titled “Writer Rankings,” Bleacher Report wrote that the Featured Columnist I got “Featured placement on B/R Team pages; Eligibility for media interviews and credentials for major events.” At FCII, writers got “a free B/R Featured Columnist hooded sweatshirt.” Level III Featured Columnists got “an interview for a B/R staff job,” and FCIVs received “access to a custom-built, author-specific publishing template for all articles.”” In this gamified system, note that missing entirely from here is any mention of payment. Schreir detailed the manner in which BR’s business model systematically worked to short writers on pay while keeping the carrot of possible full time employment in play until the very end. Comments on the article were predictably harsh, but a comment from a fellow former BR writer posting as “mets31” mirrored Schreier’s experience. Of note was his very clear distillation of the young writer’s lack of expectation for payment and the importance of attention: “I was getting big read counts. I had several articles top the 50,000 mark and a couple over 100,000. I could go tell my friends, “Yeah 100,000 people just read what I wrote today.” That was almost, in my eyes, as good as being paid, and it would assuredly lead to me getting a job.”

It’s no wonder that sites like Bleacher Report either publicly report their writer’s analytics or give them to their writers so as to fully cement the notion that the recognition that a writer receives is in fact “something.” The quantitative nature of this “something” allows for the hope after accumulating enough of this “something” a tipping point will be reached that leads to paying, full time employment. The speculative nature of this labor is akin to what Gina Neff has referred to as venture labor in her ethnography of late 90s Silicon Alley, only in the intervening 10 years of start-up culture, the stakes have changed. Crowdsourced labor, or what Trebor Scholz has evocatively referred to as crowd-milking, combined with the declining prospects for entry level positions in the fields best suited to crowdsourcing (journalism, publishing in general, media production in general), has created a massive surplus army of venture laborers. Bleacher Report built a structure to scoop up this labor. They benefitted from a saturated labor market and squeezed it like a sponge. Young people raised on lowered expectations, both from the medium and the economic reality were utilized in order to run a “lean” start-up. BR’s content production model utilized an ideological atmosphere that normalizes the radical extraction of value from workers in exchange for the opportunity to be recognized as doing work. BR successfully applied this model to sports fandom by further capitalizing on the devaluation of writing about objects of fandom and by selling itself as a platform where fans had a voice to rise above the “cookie cutter takes” of mainstream sports columnists. Scheier notes that he wrote for BR initially since it positioned itself as locally focused in a way that other large sites wouldn’t or couldn’t. Again, the reward here is recognition, not just for you but for the relevance of your team. In addition, BR leveraged a sense of “community” in these fandoms. This community rhetoric folded into the recognition system, allowing writers to build prominence within their own niches. This is a publisher scraping off the top of an excess of desiring subjects whose desire is for recognition, a recognition that works as a credit system (an IOU) for a eventual payment, a desire that makes their labor particularly easy to exploit.

That the featured writer’s in-house recognition does not culminate in payment is illustrative of this situation. There, in a seeming paradox, the taint of having written for Bleacher Report (of having helped build the brand), decreases your ability to be paid for writing at Bleacher Report.   The Bleacher Report stigma must be overcome by both the writers and BR’s management strategically moved towards outside hires and a rebranding made possible by the buyout. However, daily uniques and page views could not maintain their steady growth without a consistent influx of new content. Hence, some kind of work force had to be retained that could cover local teams and produce the slideshow page view juggernauts like the aforementioned 20 most Boobtastic Athletes article. The community centered Newsletter that beat writers like Schreir manually assembled was replaced by Teamstream, a mobile app that aggregates AP, ESPN and major newspaper beat writer content. The Writer’s Program continues to exists, though, as does its rhetoric of uplift and resume building without an increase in paid positions.

BR representatives have made numerous attempts to address the issues of payment and in house promotion. The founders generally argue that Bleacher Report’s model has been adjusted numerous times. Founder and now founder of ill repute Bryan Goldberg theorized one such adjustment: “At launch, it was an open platform. Today, it functions much more as a true media company, while still opening the door to some talented contributors.” Following the internal logic the term “open platform” is elucidating. By using the terminology of “open” and “platform,” Goldberg means to describe a website and CMS that is owned privately and funded by venture capital with the aim to monetize the content (platform) but takes submission from unpaid (and possibly unvetted) content producers (open). Goldberg’s use of “open” is akin to what Evgeny Morozov has identified as the Trojan horse of a neoliberal regime on the internet. By claiming “openness” as a value, the radical accumulation of wealth from the activity of unpaid labor appears as the fostering of opportunity, the “open platform” is the space from which a career can be launched. Beginning as an “open platform” was necessary because the funds were not available to pay writers. The money that they had was spent on things like the platform itself and on putting together an ad sales team. That is, on an infrastructure that allowed for the “openness” of the platform.

The “open” platform stage of BR is the first stage of the disruptive technology model, one constantly evolving and slowing only when a stable, paid workforce emerges.. In this first, disruptive phase, Bleacher Report built a “product” that allowed for the publication of “content” without the need for the official employment of the “content producer.” This element of the CMS (the product) is a very common issue in contemporary media organizations as they adjust to the dominant employment policy of precarious freelance contracts. The New York Times, legacy print company of all legacy print companies, has said as much about its new CMS, Scoop, that it rolled out in mid 2014. Bleacher Report’s platform, like a lot CMSs with strong role control and user friendly interfaces that restrict access to only the most basic of functions, can swiftly collect a mass of content that can be pushed out continuously, again and again, without having to have every author in office or have any direct contact with the editorial staff. However, one of the primary indicators of a “disruptive technology” in the literature is a certain lower quality of the technology itself. It offers fewer features or services, and is, at least at first, of far less quality than the product it seeks to disrupt. Often the technology could be described as aiming down market, at a group of consumers who do not offer enough profitability to warrant attention and R&D outlays from the larger incumbent firms in the industry. The lower-quality, down market character that disruption theory’s founding father Clayton Christensen outlines as the necessary marker of the disruptive technology (more on that here) in this instance is less the platform itself (the product) but both the type of content it allows for and the type of writer who produces that content. This is what could be called“disruptive labor” or the marshaling of lower quality workers who can produce a lower quality product that will appeal to a nascent audience. This is the monetization of mass amateurization built upon this formula: enough people who produce out of “hobby” or “passionate interest” would be enticed into by an “open platform” that the open platform itself can be the site of monetization.

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What I’ll Be Reading When the Digital Labor Day is Done

We here at the DLWG love a good screed and there are very few doing it better than DavidGolumbia right now. I was very fond of his recent talk “Cyberlibertarianism: The Extremist Foundations of Digital Freedom” (available here) and am very excited to read his new, related piece for Jacobin “Cyberlibertarians’ Digital Deletion of the Left” on my way home.  Here’s a sample:

When computers are involved, otherwise brilliant leftists who carefully examine the political commitments of most everyone they side with suddenly throw their lot in with libertarians — even when those libertarians explicitly disavow Left principles in their work.

This, much more than overt digital libertarianism, should concern the Left, and anyone who does not subscribe to libertarian politics. It is the acceptance by leftists of the largely rhetorical populist politics and explicitly pro-business thought of figures like Clay Shirky (who repeatedly argues that representative democratic and public bodies have no business administering public resources but must defer to “disruptive” forces like Napster) and Yochai Benkler (whose Wealth of Networks is roundly celebrated as heralding an anticapitalist “sharing economy,” yet remains firmly rooted in capitalist economics) that should concern us, especially when they are taken up as if they are obviously positions the Left should favor. It is the boastful self-confidence of engineers and hackers that their advanced computer skills inherently qualify them to say a great deal about any part of the social fabric to which we are lucky enough to have them contribute, regardless of their understanding of politics or society.

Wonderful to see someone critiquing the libertarian impulse in the ideology of “hacking” that isn’t just sniping at Glenn Greenwald from a VC funded perch.

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Content Management Systems, Value, and the Interface as a Site of Production

Below is a section of a paper I gave in two different versions at the this past year Cultural Studies Association Conference and Left Forum entitled “The Top 5 Ways to Make Money Off of Fans: Turning Passionate Sentiment into Value on the Internet” which is an admittedly awful title but a wink and nod towards both the (one of the subjects of the paper) towards the listicle and the title of several critiques of it.  This is the last half of the paper, the first half consisting mainly of a explanation of Bleacher Report itself and synopsis of its critiques, which is done more effectively here, here, and here.  To be fair, there is some sense that Bleacher Report’s model (pay virtually no one, pump out content as fast as possible) has changed a bit as they have begun to hire a number of higher profile writers that they have lured away from more established outlets (not without a significant amount of turnover). But, their rise to prominence and $200 million sale to Turner Sports was built off that earlier model, so I still stand by what I’m saying here.  This is still a work in progress, however, so enjoy despite or maybe because of its in media res-edness:

In exchange for a place to be active online, one offers oneself to the platform as value.  However, the question is begged of any Marxist (or Ricardist or Smithian for that matter): if there is no “labor” how is “value” produced?  It is my argument that, as Jonathan Beller has argued in his book The Cinematic Mode of Production, attention, or what I’d like to refer to as “presence,” (for reasons I’ll get back to) is the source of value on the Internet.  In the case of Bleacher Report, what is rhetorically structured as help and facilitation is in fact a way to turn value production into a process that is as cheap and as infinite as possible. The site endlessly renews passionate sentiments, filters them through an interface that transmutes them into metrics of abstract attention (measured as eyeballs and click-thrus), and then uses that attention as the basis for a very particular exchange: money from ad companies for the attention of its visitors and users. Ultimately, the work of both writers and readers is valuable merely as presence, produced by and for the interface. And it is the interface, or interfaces, that bear particular investigation.

But first, a definition of what I mean when I use the term interface in general and some thoughts about content management systems (CMS) as interfaces specifically. In Florian Cramer and Matthew Fuller’s definition of the interface from Software Studies: A Lexicon, they suggest that software functions as an interface to hardware by acting as “tactical constraints to the total possible uses of hardware . . . In other words, they interface to the universal machine by behaving as a specialized machine, breaking the former down to a subset of itself.”   They go on to say that interfaces “are the point of juncture between different bodies, hardware, software, users, and what they connect to or are a part of. Interfaces describe, hide, and condition the asymmetry between the elements conjoined” (149).  The content management system used by Bleacher Report, as  a software package that is both a software to software interface and a user interface, is a point of numerous asymmetrical junctures: between software that manages images, video, and other content from across the web; between the writer and the company that “employs” him or her; between the writer and the fan; between the writer, the fan, and their object of passionate interest; between the reader/user and the software that records their presence and movement; between that analytic software and the advertiser; etc. This CMS actively makes visible and invisible, conditions and describes (as languages do) these conjunctures. And these relations are a part of every CMS, from Open Source versions like WordPress and Drupal to proprietary systems like Kentico and Bleacher Reports. These asymmetrical conjunctures, these object relations, are the power imbalances implied in the everyday life of the internet, and it is through this imbalance that monetization is possible.

In a way, what I’m attempting is akin to the calls by a number of scholars like Ian Bogost,  Fuller, Lev Manovich, and those who call for the critical interrogation and theorization of code, software, and platforms. However, what has been lacking from this literature is critical analysis of content management systems themselves. We talk of the ontology of hardware or the poetics of code but the software packages through which the content of the Internet must pass before it is seen/consumed/valued have received little critical examination, sociologically or otherwise.  A search in academic databases for “Content Management System” turns up only one article that attempts a critical analysis: Michael B. McNally’s “Enterprise Content Management Systems and the Application of Taylorism and Fordism to Intellectual Labor.” Appearing in Ephemera in 2010, the article focuses specifically on business workflow software and the rhetoric employed by the companies that produce them, analyzing ECMSs through a relatively straightforward deskilling argument that leans heavily on Harvey Braverman’s 1970s thesis from Labor and Monopoly Capital.  In short, McNally makes a claim for the continuing relevance of Braverman in the age of “immaterial labor” or “cognitive capitalism” and foregrounds the negative impact on the worker control of the labor process by technology. To be sure, management as a technology of labor organization is certainly still alive and as obsessed with the efficiency of movement (both human and non-human) as ever. However, arguing about this through the lens of “labor” in the sense of labor in an office is perhaps a dead end at this point.

In the case of these blog networks, and the Internet in general, what is value producing is not “labor” as such but, as I’ve said, presence. A being-there that is measurable, that is coded as value.  Contra Beller, whose term “attention” is by nature a phenomenological category which assumes consciousness/focus as its a priori, I look toward “presence” as the basis of value production on the Internet because it denotes the unimportance of the specificity of activity which the concept of attention hints at. In this way, I’m arguing that presence as it is structured by interfaces like CMSs becomes a kind of abstract labor, or more specifically, presence is the quantitatively homogenous metric that makes qualitatively distinct labor exchangeable.

However, does presence even need to be understood as labor? Qualitatively different activities, some understood as labor (some even waged), some understood merely as fun, some not even understood as anything other than browsing or surfing, is all made to be valuable through a universal metric.  What these CMSs, these interfaces, do is to transmute all the activity they make possible into this metric.  However, I don’t mean to be equate presence as I theorize it here with other theories of valorization in contemporary capitalism which argue that the introduction of the computer into the labor process reduces all that it touches into a homogenous relationship to the means of production. The issue is not that the work itself becomes homogenous through an interaction with the interface. The subjective experience of the interaction remains heterogeneous and in fact any CMS has built in relations of access (admin, author, subscriber, commenter, etc) which make sure that qualitative differences remain. The issues is that the CMS employs “tactical constraints”, management techniques, that structure all of the activities possible through them (reading, writing, clicking, analyzing, watching, etc) as valuable presence, abstracting them into a value producing unit. In the last instance, everyone becomes an “end-user.”

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