The Exploitation of Free Labor at the Huffington Post

01. July 2009

On February 7, 2011 AOL bought the Huffington Post for 315 million dollars. The news website was cofounded by Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer in May 2005 with a business model built around a few employee contributors, the free contribution of bloggers, and attributed content from other news media. In the six years since its founding, the Huffington Post has developed a reputation for progressive media and as a place where up and coming bloggers can gain recognition. The number of bloggers and photographers who contributed content for free number nearly 6000, making up the mass majority of its content providers. Many have denounced the sale to AOL, with its inevitable shift of content to the center, as selling out to mainstream media. Yet the true atrocity in the sale is not whether the website will desert its progressive origins but the fact that in doing so, Arianna Huffington has sold out her 'army of bloggers' -- and has paid them nothing in return.

The sale has created uproar amongst bloggers and traditional journalists alike. Tim Rutten, writing for the Los Angeles Times, scolded Ms Huffington for her decision, comparing her and Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, to pillaging pirates. "To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates (Rutten)." For Rutten, this a clear example of employee exploitation reminiscent of older economic models: "the fact is that AOL and the Huffington Post simply recapitulate in the new media many of the worst abuses of the old economy's industrial capitalism — the sweatshop, the speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers." (Rutten) These claims, however, are based upon the assumption that the bloggers are being exploited in the first place.

In the current post-fordist economic model, where information creates value, the concept of free labor and exploitation is one we must carefully parse. If the bloggers, in allowing the Huffington Post to use their work without compensation, were conceding complacency to their own exploitation then is their current outrage appropriate or hind-sighted greediness? The incentives involved in the blogger's decision to write for the Huffington Post were apropos that no one, not even Arianna Huffington, was profiting from their work. The sudden factor of millions of dollars, however, radically changes the co-productive relationship between the bloggers and the company. Hector Postigo, in his analysis of yet another exploitation involving AOL and their volunteers in the 1990s, states that there are three factors that are required for a successful co-productive relationship: "the perceived reasonable compensation on the part of volunteers, social factors and attitudes towards work such as a sense of community, creativity and a sense of accomplishment." (Postigo 451) The current situation at the Huffington Post mirrors that of the AOL volunteers in the early 1990s. In analyzing the case of the AOL volunteers we are able to determine what exploitation means in today’s immaterial labor force and to what extent the Huffington Post bloggers are being economically and personally manipulated.

America Online Volunteers

In the 1990s, America Online, now AOL, managed 14,000 volunteers. Their jobs included being forum monitors, ensuring Terms of Service (TOS) were being followed in chat rooms and creating original content. They were not employees, but they did have time sheets, staff training and working manuals that were upwards of sixty pages. From the origins of AOL until 1996, the volunteers happily worked in this co-productive arrangement. In 1996, AOL’s restructuring of its internal configuration and policy changes lead to a depreciation of the volunteers — in their tangible rewards (volunteers had originally been rewarded with credit hours for their time online, but in 1996, AOL switched to a flat rate system, voiding any credits and a fair system of compensation) and in the level of respect and responsibility held by the volunteers. The original success of the volunteer co-productive system was dependent not on the credit hours but on the sense of community that AOL had strived to build for the volunteers. The true demotion that was a result of the corporate restructuring was in the loss of control and community.

Prior to 1996, volunteers were trusted with upholding the face of AOL, were encouraged to make friendly connections with their forums and even to make changes to original content as they saw fit. The community created by and for the volunteers was in part responsible for the welcoming face of AOL at the time. It was their job to make new users feel welcome and to encourage customer loyalty. As a result, the relegation of duties to mere TOS enforcers was a blow to many volunteer’s pride. This shift, more than the discrepancy in compensation is why the co-productive environment failed at AOL. Volunteers created content but their true task was to foster a certain mood in the chats that AOL then used as their selling point. Huffington Post relies on bloggers to build not only content but also a higher quality of writing and photography. Which allows Huffington Post to stand apart from competitors online as well as increasing their market value. The Huffington Post’s price was set in part due to the value created by its users, the commoditization of their interactions created in the "social factory mediated through digital networks." (Dyer-Witherford) The idea of value based off of immaterial labor leads us to content. Rutten’s disapproval of the Huffington Post’s format is their de-emphasis of information and journalism and their focus on data and content. "Information is data arranged in an intelligible order. Journalism is information collected and analyzed in ways people actually can use... AOL and the Huffington Post... actually provide "content," which is what journalism becomes when it's adulterated into a mere commodity." (Rutten) This commodity, when discussed in such simplified terms, requires direct compensation ¬where as true co-production journalism and work can be remunerated through a variety of incentives. This distinction is exemplified in the shift at AOL in 1996. When the volunteers provided a community around their free labor the personal rewards offset the discrepancy in tangible pay. Yet when that co-productive community was removed and replaced with a commodity their rewards were insufficient.

The Huffington Post’s structure differs from that of AOL’s in that there was never any pretense of reimbursement beyond the personal incentives. There is no equivalent to credit hours in the Huffington Post case. Yet the initial incentives are quite similar: publicity, the potential of employment and a sense of belonging to a community. In both cases it is not just about compensation — it is more accurately about control over work and a notion of reasonable alternative rewards. The passion that drove the free laborers in the first place would have been enough if they had been acknowledged for their role in the company's community. When a group of blogger’s reacted to their depreciation by declaring a strike Arianna Huffington apathetically responded, "Go ahead, go on strike."

Ten years after the AOL volunteers filed a class action lawsuit against AOL they received damages — fifteen million dollars. If the same case were to be argued for the Huffington Post bloggers, however, they would most likely lose in court. The business models of AOL compared to Huffington Post varied in such a way that AOL’s exploitation was explicit and undeniable while the Huffington Post’s, while unjust, is less substantial. AOL volunteers were essentially employees who were being exploited — they had time cards, and at least originally there was a direct correlation between the works they did and the credit hours they received. Huffington Post bloggers, on the other hand, are more like freelancers in that they do not have the same dependency on Huffington Post, and Huffington Post never made promises of compensation. The difference is such: AOL was intending to exploit free labor. They took advantage of their altruistic community. Arianna Huffington, however, created an altruistic community in the beginning without the immediate intention of profiting. This betrayal, in part, is why the sale to AOL has been labeled as selling out.

Motivation and Pleasure in a Free Labor System

As the commoditization of our social interactions become more and more evident we must examine whether or not free and immaterial labor follow the same exploitive models as we’ve seen in more conventional labor systems. The free labor system of immaterial labor in a post-fordist information economy negates the need for tangible value of workers. A worker loses personal value and is valued as a group. "The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working for free." (Carr) Huffington post was sold for $315 million not for her few paid employees but for her army of bloggers. Facebook's value is dependent on the number of million users and the data they provide as a collective, not as individuals. "People contributing to's consumer reviews and 'list mania', Microsoft’s most valuable professionals (MVP) program, contributors to YouTube and MySpace and other countless users are part of a network-wide system of free labor." (Postigo 463) These networked factories have made it so we, as individual laborers are devalued while our mass gains a value set beyond our group intellect. The few have exploited the many throughout history and our transference to the digital realm has not changed the fundamental labor structure. "We live in a world of digital feudalism. The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land is essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land" (Carr) The platforms of power online have reduced us to mere data. When our value is being assessed on such a large scale, the exploitation of the individual becomes less apparent. Enjoyment and the gamification of labor placates the laborers into a sense of compliance — submitting material to Huffington Post or accomplishing tasks on Mechanical Turk is not unenjoyable. But enjoyment and the gamification of the many lead to the prosperity of the few. "Free labor is [not] necessarily exploitative... people are not dupes and that they are cognizant that their work is valuable even as they choose to give it away. There is enjoyment as well as exploitation in the process (Terranova)" (Postigo 463). Postigo is expressive in his point that exploitation and pleasure are not mutually exclusive — in fact the one often leads to the other. "The greater power to enjoy is always on the verge of being turned into a laboring task." (Virno) The role of pleasure in labor has often been an incentive for labor. In this post-fordist economy in which the tasks often associated with free and immaterial labor are no longer objectively measurable, pleasure plays an important role in distinguishing a task’s value.

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