fbpx Stone Inequality & Social Policy Seminar | Harvard Kennedy School
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Date and Location

April 3, 2023
12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET
Allison Dining Room, Taubman 5th Floor, Hks

​The Stone Program in Wealth Distribution, Inequality, and Social Policy welcomes Professor Ashley Mears to speak in the Stone Inequality & Social Policy Seminar Series.

The End of Creative Labor in Platform Capitalism: An Ethnography of Elite Content Creators

Ashley Mears, Professor of Sociology, Boston University

Abstract: This project examines how workers game algorithms at the top of the highly unequal creator economy on social media platforms. I draw from an ethnographic case of high-performing content creators who produce videos engineered to go viral on Facebook and SnapChat. Their content often challenges their own artistic sensibilities, a puzzle I explain by combining social studies of technology and labor theory to develop a model of algorithmically-driven creative labor. Drawing from 18 months of ethnography and interviews with 60 viral creators, I show how creators interact with algorithms which discipline them into distinct practices of harnessing human attention in five steps. First, creators learn to subjugate their own tastes to data; second, they adapt to algorithm changes; third, they simplify stories into visual, often stereotypically sexualized and racialized imagery; fourth, they copy what works; fifth, they experience thrills of the game of scoring metrics. Ultimately, they fuse their standards of quality with what they think platform algorithms will reward. By documenting this labor process – from alienation, adaptation, simplification, replication, and gamification – I arrive at a theory of algorithms as performative in cultural production, a process which yields subpar outcomes in the form of inauthentic content. This study of the winners in the “winner-take-all” attention economy reveals how platforms are able to redefine the social worth of cultural goods, thus aligning platforms’ interests for attention-grabbing content with creators’ interests in being at the top of a hierarchy based on metrics.

Ashley Mears is a Professor of Sociology at Boston University. Working primarily at the intersections of economic and cultural sociology and gender, Mears studies how societies value people and things. Mears researches value and exchange in the context of labor, beauty, free stuff, elites, consumption, and social media, and she has written on theory and qualitative methods. Mears received her BA in sociology from the University of Georgia in 2002, and her PhD in sociology at New York University in 2009. She has held visiting positions at the University of Amsterdam and the Central European University in Budapest. In 2021-22, she was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Budapest. She serves on the editorial boards of American Sociological Review and Qualitative Sociology.

Speakers and Presenters

​Ashley Mears (Professor of Sociology, Boston University)