Media Work and Play

Media Work has been out a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been getting the first responses from people who’ve been kind enough to read (parts of) it. Those words, coupled with some of the excellent feedback I have been getting on the road (in Norway, The Netherlands, Finland, England, and the USA), prompted some critical considerations. Please bear with me as I try to make sense of this here.

The fundamental conundrum in media work can at times be reduced to the "I can’t believe I'm getting paid to do this"-credo one hears so often out of the mouths of media workers in film, TV, games, and (perhaps to somewhat lesser extent) in journalism and advertising. Work in the cultural industries tends to mean much more than a paycheck or something you do inbetween real life. Work is fun. Work is play.

Work is play is something that gets reflected quite directly in the design, physical infrastructure and cultural makeup of the media workspace. More often than not, media workspaces are playful too, featuring colorful designs, open platforms, informal dress codes, and hip accents, sometimes including above-par quality coffee machines (not unimportant), bathrooms with showers and other amenities, relaxation rooms (with boardgames, pool tables, or videogame consoles), free food, "quality of life"-managers (especially in game studios), sports facilities (basketball courts, soccer field, fitness room), and so on.

Several scholars of media work have suggested that people initially delighted by such "work as play" jobs and workspaces often found that the very factors that first appeared so attractive - individual autonomy, flexibility, a "cool" corporate context or even a distinctly anti-corporate work culture – can be also seen as a smokescreen to hide the exploitation of the enthusiasm of young professionals. Furthermore, one could point out that two of the defining characteristics of young workers are: they’re cheap, and they are much less likely to protest or collectively organize than their more senior, long-term employed colleagues.

So when I report on my data or present my book, I often get the question: but what about corporate power and exploitation? Over time I have developed several answers, none of which discount the above mentioned problematic context, but hopefully serve to add a bit more complexity to the analysis of media work and creative labor.

First, media companies – whether large or small – are just as dependent on talent as media workers are on some kind of supportive and secure employment in order to deliver high-quality, cutting edge and innovative work. What I found in our interviews and in the literature, for example, suggests that labor exploitation occurs throughout the industry, but is not beholden to "big" corporations or to smaller, much more invisible businesses. It is therefore crucial to focus our attention also to working environments and conditions that are more appreciative of the talent within the organization rather than the technologies that augment their work.

(if I for example talk at trade conferences or do workshops with media professionals, I emphasize a "Talent not Technology" formula for longterm business success)

Second, the work of economic geographers in particular suggests that power in the media world is not particular to money. And even if it is at times, one should not forget that media companies increasingly have less and less control over financing, as such arrangements get transported internationally (through co-productions often involving governmental as well as commercial partners), are co-opted by private equity firms or hedge funds, or are subcontracted by smaller firms that hire and retain networks of colleagues in other businesses that they have come to know directly – developing distinctly social solutions to economic challenges.

Power in media work also has to do with timing – with freelancers in journalism or indies in game development having more power in times of crisis (breaking news, or the introduction of next generation consoles). With the global taste for media shifting and fragmenting as fast as it does – or as it is perceived to do by managers and marketers – media businesses today often sense they're in a constant state of crisis. Beyond the threat of job cuts and other narrow-minded risk-reduction strategies, this also means all kinds of avenues for wielding, sharing or subverting power are opening up to media workers (including managers).

Ultimately, a problematic aspect of the exploitation argument is that it is often made based on a simplistic and rather unreflective notion of "us" (the hardworking, earnest artists, creative laborers, media workers) versus "them" (the evil megacorporate behemoths). If anything, my work and that of others shows a much more complex and messy relationship, and the empirical evidence if anything suggests that today's global media environment is more, rather than less competitive. Competition, that crucial element of the capitalist project, opens up numerous ways for exploitation and innovation, for creativity and commerce.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I am not arguing media work is a happy-go-lucky free-for-all. In fact, one of the reviewers of the manuscript saw in my work “a timely corrective to the popular dream that is cultural employment” (comment on the back cover of the book). I for one am looking to do more studies with graduate students (and by the way, if you and your friends are interested, be sure to apply at our graduate program here at Indiana University…) – on what it exactly takes to make truly creatively autonomous and secure work in the various media industries. I am also looking at projects to identify the fate of “older” media workers – that is, those over the age of 35 years or so.

As always, I invite and look forward to any kind of comment you may have, and thanks in advance for your time in checking this post (and perhaps the book) out!

PS: here's some food for thought about quality of life issues in various media industries: motion pictures and television; advertising; computer and video games.