Digital overtime

How we’ve become constant workers for tech capitalism and why we need to resist

Several years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide. Days before she had posted on Facebook saying she was struggling and calling out for help. I saw her post and reached out, although I would later spend months upset at myself that I didn’t do more. After she died, several friends noted that her post hadn’t even appeared in their feeds. As one friend commented, “it feels weird that I didn’t see that because of an algorithm”. Indeed, there is something terribly wrong if an algorithm can silence a friend’s call for help. While our friend sought community in a time of crisis, social media companies didn’t provide it to her. What’s going on here?

The Internet, and social media, has often been heralded as a liberatory force. Tech CEOs love to talk about how their companies are supposed to bring a new wave of freedom, democracy and community. In his book on the founding of the company, for example, former Reddit-CEO Alexis Ohanian titled the first chapter ‘The American Dream Online’. Ohanian states:

The American dream is rooted in a country where anyone with enough talent and enough determination can accomplish whatever she or he wants. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, but a pair of undergraduates at the University of Virginia (himself and fellow co-founder Steve Huffman) once got lucky on spring break during their senior year, inadvertently playing a small part in the rebook of that dream, at least on The Internet.[1]

The Internet has certainly been amazing in many ways. It has dramatically increased access to information and the ability for many to participate in democratic discourse (although it is very hard to tell what influence that actually has on any policy). It has gone some way to break down many of the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge. Social movements use social media and other elements of the web to organise and mobilise. In the past years of the pandemic, the Internet has made it much easier for people to stay connected while having to be apart.

Yet, embedded within a capitalist system, this great technology has also been built and is being used for less liberatory means. Relevant to this edition, in this article I want to talk about what these changes have meant for work, and how this relates to the development of community, my friend, and what many others are seeking online.

There are obvious ways that the Internet has fundamentally changed our working life. I am sitting here, writing this article, on my couch, utilising the Internet to conduct quick and easy research. The Internet has made working from home so much easier, as we can stay in touch with colleagues and access documents and resources all through the web. The increased flexibility is incredible. Yet, this also comes with its own risks. With greater ‘flexibility’ has come an increasing intrusion of work into people’s home lives. Bosses can now access their employees 24/7, with the ability to work seeing a dramatic increase in working hours (which particularly rose during the pandemic).[2] Employees are also often forced to bear the costs of this ‘flexibility’, paying for home offices, furniture, and their internet connections.

In this article however I want to examine a less explored, but potentially more insidious way the Internet has encroached into our personal lives. The issue isn’t just that bosses can email people after work hours, although it is a big part of it. Instead, much of the infrastructure behind the web, in particular social media, is built upon unpaid work. In doing so we have all, unwittingly, become workers for social media companies, a practice that is increasing both exploitation and alienation of all of us. In giving our free labour to big tech companies, I argue we are becoming more alienated, both from our labour, but also from our own communities.

Social media as work

Ohanian’s excitement about the radical potential of Reddit, and the web overall, comes from a belief that it can radically democratise information through handing control over to users. The inspiration for Reddit came from Slashdot, a news website with heavy editorial oversight and moderation practices, and, a site which allowed people to bookmark websites, and which also included a sub-page which aggregated the most popular bookmarked URLs across the site at a given time. Ohanian and Huffman set out to build a site that merged these ideas, building a platform in which “readers, not editors, would determine the front page of what’s new and interesting by submitting links to be voted on by the community”[3]. Huffman and Ohanian were to create a ‘hands off’ platform, a space which allows for the broadest array of content. Ohanian articulates this ethos as such:

The Internet is a democratic network where all links are created equal. And when such networks get hierarchies forced upon them, they break. They start looking a lot more like the gatekeepers and bureaucracies that stifle great ideas and people in the physical world. That’s why we fight so hard to keep them the way they are – open – so any idea that’s good enough can flourish without having to ask anyone’s permission.[4]

Ohanian and Huffman were not alone in this approach, with giving control to users being core to the functionality of all social media platforms. The rise of social media platforms has therefore seen a fundamental shift in which users are increasingly being seen as both producers and consumers – ‘prosumers’[5]. Prosumption has long been an element of capitalist economies[6]. However, it has become more central to capitalism within the rise of the web, with prosumption being a way to exploit a new source of surplus labour – what Marx calls the ‘general intellect’[7].

Social media companies exploit our ‘general intellect’ in multiple ways. First, as users of a platform, we provide the very content that ensures it survives. Wikipedia, for example, would not survive without volunteer writers and editors. No one would go to a social media platform without others posting content – otherwise they would just be empty shells. Without our intellect and content, none of these places could survive.

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But we do not just provide content when we post on social media, but data as well (Srnicek, 2016). As cars are the product of a car company, data is the product of online platforms, with platforms becoming ‘data mines’[8]. Internally platforms use data to improve the services on the site, while externally data is sold to third parties for their use – primarily advertising[9]. Platforms collect specified data of their users and sell that to advertisers to allow them to target ads to specific audiences on the site[10]. We all know this intuitively – it is why we end up with often very specific companies targeting with ads that are eerily relevant to our interests or circumstances. This data collection creates a positive feedback loop. As more users appear on a platform they generate more data, which can then be used to improve user experience, which in turn attracts more users. As the platform has more data it can sell larger and better advertising campaigns, which creates more revenue. This in turn is used to improve the user experience, which again attracts more users, and so on[11].

Kylie Jarret therefore describes us users of the Internet as ‘digital housewives’[12]. The concept comes from a long history of feminist thought, which has argued that although it is unpaid domestic work is productive labour, which is just as important to capitalism as the labour of the factory. Domestic work is essential to capitalism as it provides for the care, reproduction and renewal of the labouring body, ensuring both workers can turn up to the factory, office or shop floor day after day and that there is a new generation of workers to come every year. This labour has historically been transferred to the nuclear family unit, a transferral that has allowed this integral work to be considered ‘private’ and primarily undertaken by women. In turn it is not compensated for, despite it being integral to the maintenance of capitalism.

Using a similar theoretical lens, Jarret describes the digital housewife as “the actor that emergences from the structures and practices of the ostensibly voluntary work of consumers as they express themselves, their opinions and generate social solidarity with others in commercial digital media while, at the same time, adding economic value to those sites.”[13] In other words, through our participation online – whether through posting on Twitter, editing a Wikipedia page, or moderating content on Reddit – we are acting similarly (in an economic sense) to what is taken to be the traditional role of the ‘housewife’. We are all providing free labour and content to capitalism, essential work that allows digital companies to survive.

Alienated from your labour

Similar to domestic work, digital work is different to the jobs we turn up to every day. As Jarrett argues, domestic labour is rarely experienced in the same way as organised, industrial, work. As she says “domestic work is often individually and socially enriching, and remains replete with use-values, despite its role in capitalism”.[14] Digital labour operates similarly. Social media has led to a revolution in communication, making it both easier to find information and to connect others online. In turn, in some ways, these places have become like an old town square – a place where essential democratic and debate occurs. In addition, people get genuine joy out of participating online, with many volunteering hours of their lives each week to keep their communities in digital platforms running. Despite often wanting to get rid of my social media platforms, for example, I know I don’t want to because I’d lost contact with lots of my family and friends – particularly those interstate or overseas.

Some argue this means network society operates as a ‘de-alienating’ structure, reducing alienation for ‘prosumers’[15]. These people claim that digital platforms give people more control over their labour, with prosumers becoming the central nodes in the creation of online content and the structure and culture of online spaces. Apparently, online, we suddenly have a lot more power and in turn are a lot less alienated. This ‘de-alienation’, the argument goes, comes with a trade-off of greater exploitation, primarily as online social media platforms use data freely provided by individuals to further their profits. While yes, it is true that digital media companies regularly exploit our labour for their purposes, this is offset by the increased control and power we have over the labour we conduct when we are on the web.

This claim has problems though! While platforms exist as spaces driven by user-generated content, this does not mean individuals control that content. As Marx[16] argues a process of alienation occurs when “the worker places his life in the object, but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. […] What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself.” Workers become alienated from our labour when it is directed, used, and exploited entirely at the whims of the capitalist.

Social media companies exploit our data in exactly the way that Marx describes. It may be easy to think about this in terms of your participation on social media. After joining a platform like Facebook, for example, you may make friends and then start to share the intimate details of your life to connect with others in the space. Facebook is a very intimate sphere! However, the moment you click ‘post’ you lose all control over this content. Instead, digital platforms take over – through mining your data, as well as controlling its spread through algorithms. You, in turn, become alienated from the labour – physical and emotional – that sits behind this post. The Internet, based in a capitalist mode of production, has expanded the alienation of labour, furthering the commodification of the social sphere and intimate practices to the point in which intimate engagement becomes a means of profit-making.

This explains why many people didn’t see my friend’s call for help. Simply put, that post was never going to be ‘popular’ or collect enough data for Facebook, so it would have quickly fallen off everyone’s feed. My friend, in a theoretical sense, became alienated from that post – she lost control over the content the moment she put it online. And that had real impacts. It meant people didn’t see her call for help, that they weren’t able to reach out, and that in turn she was missing a part of her community at a time she clearly needed it (I am not claiming that this was the difference between her committing the act and not, but it was an added sad note on a very tragic event).

Alienated from your community

The example of my friend therefore shows that this not just about your labour, it is about your community as well. Social media platforms do not just promote the idea that they can ‘democratise’ information, they also sell the belief that they can build community while doing so. Reddit, for example, claims that it is a space that “is home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection”[17].  

Social media platforms have increasingly promised themselves as the means through which participants can rebuild social worlds that have been destroyed in the neoliberal era. Wendy Brown[18] argues that the social sphere is an important one, as it is “where we are more than private individuals and families, more than economic producers, consumers, or investors, and more than mere members of the nation”[19]. Neoliberalism, however, has actively dismantled this space, with key thinkers denouncing ‘society’ as a ‘nonsensical’ term. The social is positioned as a threat to individual freedom, and in turn, must be targeted. In the 21st century, conservatives have done this through critiques of ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs), who they argue undermine freedom “with a tyrannical agenda of social equality, civil rights, affirmative actions, and even public education”[20]. The social sphere is positioned as being against freedom and in turn a limitation on the individual to achieve the latter.

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Somewhat contradictorily, however, particularly given its focus on individual freedom, digital media platforms, position themselves as the antidote to these attacks. Social media platforms have acknowledged this breakdown of the social sphere and have made a promise that they could be its replacement. Conducting a digital ethnography of Facebook, for example, the digital anthropologist David Miller argues that in the past decades there has been a “decline of community and subsequent drift towards the isolation and anonymity of urban crowds” (pp. 181)[21]. However, he then states that “whatever exactly we mean by the word ‘community’, Facebook seems to have revived and expanded it”[22]. Miller claims Facebook’s friendship model allows individuals to reconnect and create community with previously lost social networks.

However, as communications scholar Mark Andrejevic has argued in a recent essay[23], while others have claimed that platforms like Facebook work to counter the decline of community in modern capitalism, this sense of community “is an extremely malleable one, shaped just as much by the whims of the coders as by the rapidly evolving ‘traditions’ of us”[24].  While the platform revives a notion of community, it has “elements of a funhouse unpredictability to it”:

…from one day to the next the ability to communicate with others shifts dramatically at the whims of hidden engineers. One day, your friends need to come to visit your page to see what you’ve posted, the next, whatever you post gets “pushed” into their news feeds. It’s as if there is some backstage puppet-master, changing the rules of our interactions as they take place; one day our voices work one way, the next, quite differently.[25]

While you may technically control the content you post on a platform, the means through which this occurs, and how it is used after it is posted is still driven by the platform, which can shift the meaning, reach and spread of content on an hour-to-hour basis. As Nicholas Carah argues:

Social media platforms bring together the mediation of everyday life with a technical apparatus that rationalises and valorises those communicative practices. They are a significant site in the development of a mode of media driven not only by ideological or representational forms of control, but also by the effort to manage participation and social space in order to harness and modulate an ongoing circulation of meaning, attention and data.[26] 

Using their algorithms platforms influence how our content is seen and how others can interact. The outcome of this is that our efforts are not channelled toward community formation or in-depth discussion or debate. Instead, platforms funnel our data to advertisers who can sell products to us. Our content becomes alienated or estranged through platforms’ use of the content for their means. As Marx argued, estrangement, or alienation, occurs when our activity is turned back against us by ‘an alien power’[27]. Online user-generated content is turned back against the users from the platform. As Andrejevic argues: “every message we write, every video we post, every item we buy or view, our time-space paths and the patterns of social interaction all become data points in algorithms for sorting, predicting, and managing our behaviour.”[28]

Resisting and changing the web

At the end of this it would be easy to suggest that the solution is boycotting social media platforms. Don’t give away your free labour!! It is something I think about at times myself – wouldn’t it just be nice to switch all the apps off?

But then I do think about the costs of doing so. Social media has become a key space for me to stay in contact with those I love – from checking in with my partners or family on a day-to-day basis, to chatting with friends on the other side of the world. At other times it has been an essential means of communication in a crisis. Years ago, an old school friend passed away very suddenly. I only found out because his mother managed to track me down on Facebook. I then did the same, sending old friends messages to let them know what had happened. Despite my earlier loss, without these platforms there’s a good chance I may have found out too late to be able to attend the funeral. The ease of communication social media offers has become central to our lives and it is a lot to ask for people to just give it up entirely.

So, what can we do instead?

Some social movements have been working on these issues for a long time. Despite being a term that is now used as an insult, ‘luddites’ have for centuries resisted the impact that machines and technology have on working class people. As Jathan Sadowski argues:

Luddism was a working-class movement opposed to the political consequences of industrial capitalism. The Luddites wanted technology to be deployed in ways that made work more humane and gave workers more autonomy. The bosses, on the other hand, wanted to drive down costs and increase productivity.[29]

Sadowski argues for a version of ‘neo-luddism’, one which treats digital technologies with as much suspicion as the Luddites did when machines were introduced to the factory. He specifically argues that we should be working to reclaim our data from corporate gatekeepers to instead be managed as a collective good by public institutions.[30] Other campaigning organisations are arguing for something similar. Digital Rights Watch, for example, is Australia’s most prominent campaigning organisation on digital issues. Again, they don’t argue for getting rid of social media, but instead fundamentally changing who it operates for. As they claim “our digital world must be underpinned by equality, freedom and established human rights principles. Its evolution and future must be guided and driven by the interests of all people and the environments we live in.”[31] They’ve been running campaigns in recent years for Australian local government authorities to incorporate human rights principles into their digital platforms and initiatives, and for Governments to ban the use of facial recognition technology for surveillance purposes.

Some parts of the world are already addressing some of these issues, particularly around data. In 2018, for example, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, which covers all companies that hold data within or as a result of doing business with citizens of the EU. As David Paris has explained in Green Agenda previously:

Individual people will have the right to know exactly what they are providing their information for, review the information held whenever they request to, and have the right to withdraw that consent at any time they choose. Companies or organisations that use that data for a purpose other than what an individual explicitly agreed to will face penalties big enough for tech giants to notice. A third strike under GDPR will incur a fine of an astonishing 4% of total global revenue, or 20 million Euro, whichever is higher. As part of the implementation of the new regulation, consent must be actively given anew for every activity an organisation wishes to conduct utilising user data. Acceptance of previous terms and conditions, or campaign actions turned email list subscriptions, will carry no weight.[32] 

While extremely valuable however, this legislation is focused primarily on privacy and still places a significant onus on the individual. There is little consideration of the role of free labour in any of this and it has done little to fundamentally change the structures under which large social media or Internet companies operate.

To really think about labour requires something more radical, likely something that regulation simply cannot address. If we want to stop giving free labour to social media companies, and to gain control over the communities we create online, then the only model will be to get rid of these companies in the first place.

Social media has become a version of a ‘town square’, a place where we come together to talk big ideas and connect with friends and family all around the world. Yet, it is a privatised version of this, one that places money and profits well ahead of any other goal. We are all paying for this, in the free labour that we give, and the alienation and exploitation we receive.  

There are some spaces that are already doing this. Established in 2021, for example, the Digital Commons Policy Council[33] is an international think tank designed to think about how expand the ‘digital commons’. The digital commons – referring to a discreet online resource that is collaboratively developed and managed by a community – is a growing area of discussion online. While still in its infancy, the Digital Commons Policy Council has begun reporting and thinking about ways to encourage such spaces, overturning the reliance on free, exploited and alienation, labour on the web. In a report on open-source software, for example[34], they found that big companies often co-opt the free labour of open source to develop ‘closed assets’ that can be used solely by the company. They make a series of recommendations to address this. These include properly taxing big tech companies and curtailing surveillance, to properly document and publicise how large tech companies appropriate common resources, and the promotion of new approaches such as ‘federated online services’ as a response to big tech. We should also consider ways to compensate those who are providing this labour, whether it is via UBI, or making big tech companies pay us all for the content and data we provide for their sites (this would be somewhat similar to wages for housework campaign that has been running since the 1970s).  

We must think bigger, of a world where we control our town squares, and not some rich guys in Silicon Valley. As Sadowski argues:

A neo-Luddite movement would understand no technology is sacred in itself, but is only worthwhile insofar as it benefits society. It would confront the harms done by digital capitalism and seek to address them by giving people more power over the technological systems that structure their lives.[35]

I know this sounds huge, but as we consider an end to work, why not imagine and work for something this big?

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[1] Ohanian, A. (2013) Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed. Business Plus.

[2] Karp, P. (2021) Australians working 1.5 hours more unpaid overtime each week compared with pre-Covid. The Guardian. 

[3] Ohanian, A. (2013) Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed. Business Plus. 42

[4] Ibid. 10 -11

[5] van Dijck, J. (2009) ‘Users Like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content’, Media, Culture & Society, 31(1): 41–58.

[6] Ritzer, G. and Jurgenson, N. (2010) ‘Production, Consumption, Presumption’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 10(1): 13 – 36

[7] Ibid

[8] Noreen, P., van Gorp, N., van Eijk, N., & Ó Fathaigh, R. (2018). Should we regulate digital platforms? A new framework for evaluating policy options. Policy and Internet, 10(3), 264–301.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Srnicek, N. (2017) Platform Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

[11] Noreen, P., van Gorp, N., van Eijk, N., & Ó Fathaigh, R. (2018). Should we regulate digital platforms? A new framework for evaluating policy options. Policy and Internet, 10(3), 264–301.

[12] Jarrett, K. (2016). Feminism, labour and digital media. London and New York: Routledge.

[13] Ibid. Pg. 4

[14] Ibid. Pg. 3

[15] E.g. Fisher, E. (2010) Media and New Capitalism in the Digital Age: The Spirit of Networks, New York: Palgrave Macmillan

[16] Marx, K. (2009[1844]) The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. URL Pg. 27

[17] (2022) Dive Into Anything. URL 

[18] Brown, W. (2019) In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, New York: Columbia University Press

[19] Ibid. Pg. 28

[20] Ibid. 28

[21] Miller, D. (2011) Tales from Facebook, Cambridge: Polity. Pg. 181

[22] Ibid. Pg. 182

[23] Andrejevic, M. (2011) ‘Surveillance and alienation in the online economy’, Surveillance and Society, 8(3): 278 – 287

[24] Ibid. Pg. 280

[25] Ibid. Pg. 280

[26] Carah, N. (2014) ‘Curators of Databases: Circulating Images, Managing Attention and Making Value on Social Media’, Media International Australia, 150: 137 – 142

[27] Marx, K. (2009[1844]) The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. URL Pg. 27

[28] Andrejevic, M. (2011) ‘Surveillance and alienation in the online economy’, Surveillance and Society, 8(3): 278 – 287

[29] Sadowski, J. (2021). ‘I’m a Luddite. You Should be One Too’. The Conversation. 

[30] Sadowski et al. (2021) ‘Everyone should decide how their digital data are used – not just tech companies’. Nature. 


[32] Paris, D. (2018) How do you solve a problem like Analytica, Green Agenda, 


[34] Digital Commons Policy Council (2021) The Coproduction of open source software by volunteers and big tech firms. Online: 

[35] Sadowski, J. (2021). ‘I’m a Luddite. You Should be One Too’. The Conversation.

Simon Copland recently submitted his PhD in Sociology at the Australian National University (ANU), which studied online men’s rights groups and communities known as the ‘manosphere’. He has research expertise in masculinity, the far-right, online hate, and digital media platforms. In his spare time he is a David Bowie and sports fanatic, and volunteers for the state emergency services (SES).

Image Credit

Feature image by Daniele Oberti. Creative Commons License. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).