Cloud labor is a broad and growing form of work in the U.S. and beyond, produced for and with online platforms.

Typically, cloud labor is sourced from a virtual labor pool, and is void of the traditional time constraints of a 9-to-5 workplace.

The value of this work is extracted by owners of platforms where work products are disseminated, falling into the intersection of work and play.

Last weekend, at the massive Left Forum conference in New York City, Dissent Magazine sponsored a panel on cloud labor, moderated by Sarah Jaffe, and featuring Melissa Gira Grant, Sydette Harry, and TCF’s own Moshe Marvit.

Each participant spoke on an area related to virtual labor during the panel. In particular, panelists discussed that the realities of cloud-based work are often hidden from consumers. Those that produce value online are not always fully compensated for their work, and the terminology used in discussions of cloud labor does more to obscure than reveal problem areas.

Performing Labor

In a discussion based on her fascinating article, “For the Love of Kink,” Melissa Gira Grant informed panel participants about the porn castle in San Francisco and the tenuous distinction the company has made between “performers” and “guests.” (As it turns out, Kink’s castle isn’t a misnomer; the building is a former armory and actually resembles a “Moorish castle.”)

Performers and guests both have sex on camera for Kink, with Kink owning the final product.

However, performers are considered employees and receive pay and benefits. Guests do not.

Kink makes a profit from broadcasting a livestream of sex parties where “guests” have sex on camera, but “guests” are not remunerated in any meaningful way. The fundamental problem here, says Grant, is that Kink “treats [performances of sex] as sexual expression rather than work.” A rather tenuous situation from all angles.

Marginalized Stream

Also during the cloud labor panel, Sydette Harry expounded on her important article, “Attacking the Stream,” focusing on online creative content creators.

In particular, Harry discussed the ways in which online spaces are replicating the exclusion of traditionally marginalized groups seen in offline spaces.

Though various media have opened doors to a broader group of voices, those voices are still too often treated as the subject of paid content rather than as content originators.

As an example, Harry pointed to the ubiquitous hashtag, initially found on Twitter, but which is now used across multiple social networks. In a short period, the hashtag went from being an important feminist tool to “toxic,” largely on the basis of its use by women of color.

Turkers United

TCF fellow Moshe Marvit discussed crowdwork, which he’s previously covered for The Nationin “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.”

Marvit discussed modern issues arising on crowdworking platforms like Mechanical Turk, Crowdflower, and others. There is still a need for government involvement in the workplace, not only to introduce new regulations and laws, but to collect data on the demographics of this growing workforce.

However, crowdworking is also susceptible to the same problems found in offline labor: for example, the gendered element of low wages and the necessity of ensuring possibilities for organizing. Still, there are pros and cons to working anonymously, said Marvit.

Overall, the panel discussion made clear that the world of cloud labor is growing in almost every industry, and the problem of workers’ share in productivity is being ignored.

On its face, cloud labor is not that different from traditional forms of work. However, like the panelists, we must discuss the various permutations of virtual work and shine a light on an area too often obscured and hidden.