Sarah Gram, “The Young-Girl and the Selfie”

During the Labour video dialogue, there’s a moment when Wajcman is discussing technological-economic change – the dominance of tech companies, the globalisation of labour markets, that sort of thing – and Balsamo asks her to go into how this affects feminism, or why feminism is relevant to this. This is the point where the discussion turns towards affirmative action, a choice of focus that another component has already discussed. Similarly, Terranova’s article on free labour in the digital economy was fascinating (and has an alchemy metaphor!), but isn’t explicitly concerned with gender or feminism. Gram’s “The Young-Girl and the Selfie” makes that connection; it analyses the selfie as an example of the labour of self-production that is disproportionately required of and concerned with the bodies of young women and teenage girls.

Bringing the two pieces together, along with Gajjala’s discussion of the fluidity of identity in the digital economy, one gets a sense of the significance of feminist economics in discussions of the digital economy. In an environment permeated by social networking, the production of marketable individual identities plays a crucial economic function. Social networking is a form of affective labour, a form which generates the content and the traffic that platforms require in order to secure advertising revenue, whilst simultaneously exposing individual identities as more-or-less marketable and employable. Central in the latter operation is an individual’s ability to perform gender in conformity with the expectations of their culture, and – especially for women – to produce their body and behaviour as conventionally attractive. In doing so, they will also play another economic role as consumers; of technology, of media, of clothing. The possibility of their succeeding at constructing a marketable self will be constrained by factors such as literacy, wealth, and appearance; it will be affected by class, race, age, disability, body shape, as well as by sexuality and the habitability of the expected gender for an individual in the first place. Those without access to social networking don’t exist outside this system; rather, their exclusion may constrain the possibilities available to them, reinforcing their position as marginalised within the dominant discourse. Social networking confers recognition, success, privilege; and it does so, broadly, according to one’s ability to market oneself – as intelligent, funny, attractive – within a patriarchal system.

These standards aren’t instilled top-down; they are produced within cultures, and they vary widely. Whilst much social networking extends and emphasises the conventional demands of patriarchal capitalism, digital technology also enables the formation of alternative networks with different standards of performance, allowing its members to produce alternative selves that may not be associated with their offline or conventional identities. Here the relationship between specific technologies and the formation of online identities becomes very apparent; facebook and Google, both ubiquitous, permeating their user’s work lives, family lives, local social lives, and synched with everything, work to expose online behaviour to scrutiny – by employers, siblings, school mates. In contrast, blogging platforms such as tumblr allow for the production of multiple identities in a space that need not be associated with one’s workplace. Nonetheless, these networks are still often constructed around the work of self-production; it’s just that the standards expected by that environment are different. And these identities are still providing the content for that platform, and successful – popular – production of content and identity can still have an economic impact on the producer. Gender is still a factor here; but it may operate in less predictable, and often less patriarchal, ways.

To summarise! The ubiquity of social media means that individual personae, and therefore characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, have a very visible economic role. Online identity has an impact on an individual’s economic success; the construction of identity within capitalism involves acquisition of appropriate material goods; and the production of such personae is economically generative in creating content for social networking platforms and advertising space. As such, digital capitalism has an interest in, and provides systems for, the regulation of bodies and behaviour according to the standards of patriarchy – because patriarchy sells. So whether or not this applies disproportionally to women, it is a feminist issue.

(However! I’m sure it’s not the only or the most important discussion to be had about feminism / feminist economics and digital capitalism. What else should we be thinking about?)

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