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‘User-generated content, free labour and the cultural industries’

  • Hesmondhalgh D
    A dominant theme of recent critical analysis of digital media, user-generated content and culturalindustries is that they involve unpaid work (‘free labour’) on the part of participants. This theme has beendeveloped alongside other critical studies of labour in the cultural and IT industries, which focuses moreon professional and semi-professional work. Critiques of free labour have provided some stimulating andnecessary interventions against complacent celebrations of cultural-industry work, and of the relations between production and consumption in the digital era, but some significant conceptual issues concerningcapitalism, exploitation, power and freedom remain underexplored. In addition, these critiques potentiallyserve (unintentionally) to marginalise the political importance of the conditions of professional culturallabour. After locating the critiques of free labour in the context of autonomist Marxist thought, the articlea) argues that the frequent pairing of the term ‘free labour’ with the concept of exploitation isunconvincing and rather incoherent, at least as so far developed by the most-cited analysts; b) exploreswhat political demands might and might not coherently be derived from critical accounts of free labour (and argues that the internship system is by far the most significant example of free labour in thecontemporary cultural industries; c) assesses a previous critical attempt to address questions of unpaidlabour, involving the concept of the ‘audience commodity’, and judges that it takes a much more pessimistic view of populations than that of free labour, but shares a lack of engagement with livedexperience and political pragmatics; d) argues for the continuing political importance of the conditions of professional cultural production, against the implicit marginalisation of that importance in some versionsof the free labour debates, and summarises conclusions from some recent research on the subject.
    Journal Article