There is a contradiction at the heart of digital media. We use commercial platforms like Facebook or Twitter to express our identity, to build community and to engage politically. Social media sites are increasingly implicated in our sense of self and our relationships with others.
At the same time, our status updates, tweets, videos, photographs and music files serve as free content for these sites. In our online interactions, we are also generating an almost endless supply of user data that can be mined, re-purposed and sold to advertisers. In the field of Digital Media research, these practices have increasingly been seen as labour, work we undertake for free that benefits large media companies.
As users of the commercial web, then, we are socially and creatively engaged in producing various kinds of meaningful sociality, but also labourers who are exploited by the companies that provide our communication platforms. How do we reconcile these contradictions and understand the economic and social significance of digital media?
According to Dr. Kylie Jarrett from Maynooth University Department of Media Studies, the solution to this conundrum lies in the work of Marxist feminists and their theories about the role of domestic work in capitalism. In her new book, Feminism, Labour and Digital Media: The Digital Housewife (Routledge), Dr. Jarrett argues that models of the economic and social importance of reproductive labour offer mechanisms for theorising the role of consumer labour in digital media.
She uses the figure of the Digital Housewife to demonstrate how feminist perspectives expand our critique of commercial digital media. In particular, they challenge the binary thinking underpinning long-running debates about whether consumer labour is productive or unproductive and also whether such work is alienating or a generator of social agency.
Dr. Jarrett says that, “unpaid domestic work has a contradictory role in capitalism in that it is both socially meaningful and economically vital. Consequently, it offers the complexity needed to understand the value we are producing when we update our Facebook status or instagram our breakfast.” Applying this model, she says, also overturns some assumptions about the organisation of labour in contemporary capitalism.
For Dr. Jarrett though, the book is about more than identifying a critical model for understanding consumer labour. “It is startling to me that valuable and obviously applicable tools such as those offered by studies of domestic work have been so neglected in this field. The absence of feminist thinking from the exploration of digital media user’s labour is more than a little disturbing. An unashamed goal of The Digital Housewife is to return feminist inquiry from the margins and place it at the heart of critical digital media analysis.”
As commercial digital media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Google continue to shape our online life, this book offers a timely and unique perspective from which to reflect upon their role as mediators of our identities and values.