Always On: The Hidden Labor We Do Every Day

On April 11, 2022, over 15,000 Etsy sellers put their shops on vacation mode and went on strike. They spoke out against Etsy’s latest fee increase. They also protested a mandatory marketing program that costs additional fees and the Star Seller program, which tried to establish untenable expectations on sellers.

Today, the petition they circulated with their demands has received over 80,000 signatures.

You’ve probably seen unionizing efforts in the news—the organizing in Amazon warehouses, in Starbucks stores, and in newsrooms. These union efforts are indeed newsworthy and exciting. But the Etsy seller strike represents something different: it’s the collective action of non-employee workers toward a company that does not employ them.

And to me, that’s fascinating.

Now, my guess is that you’re not an Etsy seller. Maybe you’ve never even considered the roles of unions or labor organizing in the contemporary economy, especially not as it relates to you as a small business owner or independent worker.

But the Etsy seller strike has something to teach all of us about who is benefitting from our work and how they control what we produce.

This article begins by unpacking the Etsy seller strike and then turns to platform labor, housework, and the culture of being “always on” to answer a fundamental question:

Who do we really work for?

We’ll talk about our relationship to the platforms we use, how we generate immense value that we don’t profit from, the role of consumers and creators in terms of labor, and why it seems so damn hard to quit.

In this article:

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

First, the Etsy Strike

When I started blogging as a side hustle in 2009, my mom had already been selling online for a couple of years. She figured out how to make an online store using HTML tables and PayPal buttons. Then, she found Etsy and started a shop there.

It didn’t take long before I was obsessed with Etsy. My first website, a blog about indie makers in Pennsylvania, gave me an excuse to browse through the site for hours. I was in awe of the creativity, ingenuity, and ambition of the people who set trends and made a name for themselves at the time. As one of the first people focusing on the market there, I was lucky to get swept up in the frenzy.

I traveled to Etsy headquarters to speak to or consult with sellers. I developed relationships with Etsy team members. My articles were often floating around the Etsy seller message boards.

I was immersed in that world when Etsy seller culture started a dramatic shift. It wasn’t the most apparent shift now—the influx of resellers, pay-to-play placements, and lack of meaningful curation. That’s an ongoing economic shift resulting from the company going public in 2015. I was there for a cultural shift—the professionalization of doing what you love.

In the early years of Etsy, a maker could be relatively successful by showing up with great work for sale.

But as the platform grew, it took more and more work to achieve even sustenance-level sales. Makers needed to leave time to post on social media, write on a blog, regularly update their product listings, develop wholesale catalogs, network with other makers, etc. And I had many opportunities to share how to do that at tradeshows, local guilds, and even at Etsy headquarters.

All of these business-building activities probably don’t sound surprising a decade later. But back in 2010 or 2012–the idea of building a business rather than simply doing what you love as a crafter, maker, or artist was pretty novel. And that was especially true for those who hadn’t envisioned life as a creative. Today, it seems everyone knows the shoulds and supposed-tos of running and marketing a small business—even if they’re loathed to do them. But then, the idea you might need to set aside a few hours a week to communicate with potential customers was often jarring.

Many Etsy sellers started their shops with the idea that all they needed to do was put their wares up for sale. The platform would do the rest. And while very early on—like on any platform—there was some truth to that, by 2010 or so, that expectation was flat wrong.

Over a decade later, thousands of Etsy sellers announced their intention to strike.

They’d take collective action and put their shops on vacation mode for a week. They’d also encourage shoppers to boycott the platform at that time.

The strike received widespread media coverage—especially among publications with a highly-educated capitalism-skeptical audience. Even Etsy’s founder, Rob Kalin, expressed his solidarity after more than seven years of silence on Etsy’s trajectory since his departure.

Most coverage focused on the strikers’ demands: lower fees, more say in whether they participate in platform-wide marketing efforts, and better regulation of the resellers who have come to dominate the platform. But what caught my eye about the Etsy Strike was how it encapsulated the problems with platform capitalism and the inherent precarity that comes from trying to hustle our way to meeting our needs.

The Etsy Strike raises essential questions about our relationships with the platforms we use to run our businesses. Are they service providers? Are they tools? Are these platforms our bosses?

Etsy Strike organizer Kristi Cassidy referenced Etsy’s founding vision—keeping commerce human and democratizing access to entrepreneurship.

Here’s how Rob Kalin explained his vision to the World Economic Forum back in 2008:

Etsy is an online handmade marketplace. And what this means is that handmade side is the transaction is always human. That you’re always buying and interacting directly with the person who’s making and selling you what you’re getting.

And for the people who are making things, [Etsy is] providing them with an online marketplace for them to sell. And there’s this vision that if you’re empowering lots of people to make their living making things, then you can have millions of local living economies around the world. And these millions of local living economies are more sustainable for the planet than are a small number of huge conglomerate companies. Etsy is really trying to empower millions of people to make their own living wherever they are in their own local economy, by giving them access to a global marketplace

Cassidy questioned whether that founding vision was still important to executives and shareholders.

And she named the fact that the vast majority of Etsy sellers are women, non-binary people, LGBTQ people, and people of color—meaning that any decisions that Etsy makes that hurt sellers, disproportionately hurt people who are economically marginalized. Cassidy wrote, “what began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople.”

Cassidy also cleverly called attention to Etsy’s real-world analogs: workplace and retail store.

She pointed to how rental and eviction laws don’t apply to virtual storefronts—even if the mechanisms at play are the same. Etsy can change the rent paid by sellers or adjust the terms of their “lease” whenever it wants. Etsy can also close down a shop it claims violates its terms of service without a transparent appeal process. Cassidy also drew a connection between labor laws that mandate wage payment and how Etsy can withhold payments without even the chance to speak with the company.

It’s easy to see Etsy sellers as business owners and Etsy buyers as consumers. But Etsy sellers are as much people who work for Etsy, creating what Etsy makes a profit from, as they are business owners in their own right. The idea that workers have certain rights has been broadly agreed upon, even if those rights are regularly under attack. Yet Etsy sellers—or Lyft drivers, DoorDashers, or TikTokers—don’t have those same rights regardless of how a company uses its labor to make its product and generate profit.

What rights should Etsy sellers and other non-employee workers have when dealing with the platforms that sell their labor?

I don’t know. Shareholders will shareholder. And free markets will free market.

But the question intrigues me. And all of the questions that ripple out from it intrigue me, too.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

Next, Platform Labor

All of the questions I’m thinking about right now hinge on how we understand who we work for and our relationship to that entity. Twenty or thirty years ago, the companies we worked for provided for our most basic needs—either directly or indirectly. Today, relatively few jobs provide non-wage benefits, security, or sufficient wages.

In 2012, Nilofer Merchant wrote that in today’s “social era,” work has been freed from jobs. From an employer’s perspective, this is exciting. No longer does a company need to create full-time positions to produce the product it sells. Remote contractors can do the work at a fraction of the cost or by passionate users for free. Overhead is dramatically reduced, and innovation goes to market more quickly.

We’re now “free” to pursue a portfolio of work rather than show up in an office day after day. This arrangement is sold as flexibility and personal choice—but it’s an arrangement that puts the burden of survival squarely on the individual, even though just 15 or 20 years ago, there was a mutually beneficial sharing of responsibility between employer and worker.

As someone who thinks about small business and the future of work, I’m interested in the uptick in labor organizing among non-employee workers—whether at Uber, DoorDash, or Etsy. I’m curious what tells us about a growing consensus that work today doesn’t work. After all, employee unions have primarily deployed strikes to organize for better working conditions, higher pay, and more security. While a non-employee strike might have similar demands on the surface, a fundamental question of the labor relationship remains and can’t be ignored:

What does it mean to be a worker without an employer?

If you’re wondering what that has to do with you as a business owner or freelancer, I get it. The thing is: most of us are working on behalf of companies that are not our employers. This labor is primarily considered crucial for doing what you love or following your passion. And that labor is… engaging online. Posting on Facebook or Instagram, sharing videos on TikTok or YouTube, networking on LinkedIn, responding to posts, or clicking on ads.

Your next question might be, “Is that really labor?” And the answer is yes.

Because with every action you take online, you make the product these companies sell: data.

I think we all know that data is the lifeblood of internet companies. But when we think of data as a capital asset without considering how that asset is produced, we miss out on the real story. So how is data made? Activity. And who creates the activity? We do. So again, we are producing the goods that these companies sell. That’s labor.

In the case of Etsy, this is pretty easy to see. As far as the company is concerned, the actual product isn’t a piece of jewelry or a hand-stitched quilt. It’s the product listing. Etsy charges a fee to list an item—and then it takes a cut of the sale of a listing, too. To Etsy, it doesn’t matter whether what sells is a quilt, necklace, or a vintage paint by number. What matters is that something sells—and so it’s going to incentivize whatever activity produces those sales. Your job becomes making listings rather than doing what you love to do. Without sellers listing items, Etsy has no inventory—nothing to sell. Just like if no one shows up to the assembly line, Ford has no Mustangs to sell.

Once you start to think about the actual product of any platform, you begin to see how every platform is taking our free labor for granted.

Facebook is in the business of profiling. Your activity—both as a consumer and a creator—on that platform generates your profile. Each user profile is packaged into audiences which are then sold off as targeted interests to advertisers.

Instagram is in the attention business. The longer you keep scrolling, the more ad inventory the platform has to sell. When you create content, you’re helping Instagram maintain users’ attention. The stickier the content, the longer a user pays attention. If no one is scrolling or paying attention, they have no ad inventory.

Uber sells instant availability. Without drivers in their cars waiting for their next pickup, their value proposition doesn’t work. So every minute that Uber drivers spend behind the wheel waiting for a pickup is a minute of free labor that Uber is capitalizing on.

YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, Fiverr, Lyft, DoorDash—the business models are all a little different, but they all rely on free labor to work.

Contrast that with a service to which you pay a monthly fee.

You pay your email marketing platform, your web host, your internet provider—you are their customer. You contract with them to provide a service for an agreed-upon rate. But to platform companies, you’re not the customer. You’re a “user,” which, in this case, translates to worker.

The more you spend on the data assembly line, the happier the platform is and the more money it makes. And yet, that platform owes you nothing.

As Jeanette Winterson put it in 12 Bytes:

“Whatever your day job, you, me, all of us are working for the tech companies for no pay. Free stuff is not free. Give your data, give yourself.”

You’re a worker without an employer.

Now, that’s probably not a deal anyone would take willingly—that is, working for free, at risk of severe moral injury and psychological harm, for the benefit of venture capitalists and their mega-yachts. So they’ve had to sell it to us. And they’ve sold us on this idea that they exist as tools for doing what you love, for self-actualization, for achieving your dreams.

“I felt like I was always on”

The more I think about the amount of free work I’ve done on behalf of platforms, the more amazed I am that this arrangement is even legal.

I guess you’re also a bit amazed at this point—but still skeptical.

But, Tara, aren’t you getting a pretty awesome benefit out of building an audience on these platforms? Haven’t successful brands started on Etsy before scaling up to their own shop? Aren’t we trading our work to be connected to our friends and family (and maybe customers, too)? And besides, how would I market my own business if it weren’t for these platforms?

So yes, I have received a sizable benefit from building an audience over the last decade. I’ve made good money, landed a book deal, and contracted a bunch of speaking gigs. I’ve met incredible people.

But I’ve traded a lot of time and emotional energy for those “successes.”

And it would be one thing if I saw Instagram or Twitter as “just work.” But these apps live on the devices that go everywhere with me. They blend friends, family, and marketing in ways we increasingly understand to be destructive. These platforms have colonized my mind, so I’m always thinking about what I can share.

I spoke with someone the other day who told me she had tried to think of a way to post a picture of all the free time she’d created for herself. So she took a screenshot of her empty calendar and posted it. This is what I’m talking about—she turned free time into work time by stepping back up to the data assembly line under the guise that she was doing something good for herself and her followers.

To put it another way, imagine that you’re at a conference for work—maybe a marketing conference, a coaching conference, or a podcasting conference. On the last evening, there’s a big party. Everyone will dance and enjoy themselves after a few days of learning and networking. The conference is work—but the after-party is fun, right? Nope. The party is work too. The exhibition hall is work. The hallways are work. The restroom is work. I can’t tell you how many times people have introduced themselves or asked me questions in the restroom.

At this point, I have a pretty good idea that when I show up at a conference, I’m working 24/7. And I make sure that my calendar for the next week has enough room for me to recover from all of that high-energy work time.

But with the platforms we use, the work is hidden.

We don’t realize how much we’re still working when we snap pics, check mentions, or update a product listing. It’s just what we do, right?

Whenever I talk with someone who is thinking about quitting social media or dramatically changing their strategy, the phrase “always on” comes up. The tools we use—the companies we labor on behalf of—have created an environment in which we’re always available, always on edge, always thinking about the next post.

At the end of 2021, I spoke with Tyler McCall as part of researching a piece on how The Great Resignation was playing out among small business owners. He told me he was rethinking everything about how he was working because he was burnt out and overwhelmed. He was tired of being online and exhausted by maintaining his personal brand.

Tyler didn’t decide to make changes on a whim, though. He told me that he “tested every single variable” to change the outcome of how he was feeling. “I tested me being less online, me being more online, me being less on social, and me doing different types of content.”

He realized that he was trying to solve an equation. But each variable he tested didn’t help him get the solution he was looking for. Tyler realized, “I’m trying to solve the wrong problem… I need to go solve a new problem.”

Tyler also told me that one of the most harmful aspects of running his business was how he had to be “always on.” He admitted spending five to six hours per day, seven days a week, on Instagram for about two years. He created content, commented on others’ posts, chatted in DMs, and chronicled his life via Instagram Stories. “I remember days when I would open up my phone to 100-150 direct messages in the morning. Then you’re just spinning your day trudging through all of those conversations and answering questions,” he said.

So Tyler decided to take a break from social media. He spent June 2021 until September 2021 away from his 50,000 Instagram followers. Tyler needed some time to reconnect with what was true for him about social media and his business. He told me that his goal was to figure out what he really wanted to create and share rather than what he’d been told he needed to do to succeed. He said he felt like he wasn’t doing enough—so rest was impossible. And this extended into his identity: “I wasn’t enough. I needed to be different. I needed to make more. This perpetual hamster wheel of doing, making, and creating was never really going to end.”

It’s worth saying here the people who are counseling small business owners and creators to post more and more and more content, and host more and more and more direct message conversations, are subject to the same platform incentives we’ve been talking about. Their intentions aren’t malicious—they’re reporting on “what works” (or once did). But their advice contributes to the urgency and not-enoughness that wears on people like Tyler (and me, and probably you, too).

For Tyler, taking a social media break wasn’t about a problem with consuming too much social media. It was a problem with creating too much media. “It was the pressure to create and post and share and document that created this full-body ‘No’ type of sensation for myself. Even now, if I think about it for too long, if I get into it too deep, it creates a lot of anxiety for me.”

Same, Tyler. Same.

Today, Tyler has decided to step away from online business altogether—at least for now. He retired his programs, put his podcast on indefinite hiatus, and only shows up on social media to post about what’s on his mind (not the mind of Tyler J. McCall, personal brand). He realized that he needed to go in search of a new equation to solve.

I am the first to admit that “living my life online” has had huge benefits for me—Tyler’s seen the benefits of it, too. But the incentives have changed. It’s harder to connect with people when we’re all performing the same content dance. It’s easier to forget your own vision or creative drive when algorithms forcefully nudge you in a particular direction.

It’s one thing to spend most of your day working in service of your own ideas.

It’s another to spend most of your day working for the platform.

What Platform Labor and Housework Have in Common

In 1972, 4 women—Selma James, Silvia Federici, Brigitte Galtier, and Mariarose Della Costa—created the Wages for Housework movement. The most on-the-nose interpretation of their demands was to see the unpaid work that happens inside the home as “real” work—and therefore deserving of pay. But Wages for Housework wasn’t really about the payment itself. It was about exposing the labor of care work as a fundamental component of capitalism.

The white middle-class family structure had men going to work for a wage that would sustain a household. That man came home at the end of the day to a wife whose job was to sustain him: with food, with companionship, with pleasure, with a refuge from work. Companies depended on their focused, productive workers having someone to support them at home so that they could genuinely rest between work days. Women, the Wages for Housework movement argued, never got rest. The house was their worksite—and if the nexus of their activity was the home, well, they were always at work.

Without housework, child-rearing, and care work, the labor force would break down. Waged workers wouldn’t be as productive. Young workers wouldn’t replace retiring workers.

This is reproductive labor. “Reproductive labor is all the work needed to sustain a productive workforce for generations,” writes Angela Garbes in her book, Essential Labor. Reproductive labor is the work done to feed, clothe, and provide rest for workers, former workers, and future workers—including ourselves.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Care work is done out of love. It shouldn’t be a financial transaction. Except… we pay people to care all the time: teachers, daycare workers, housekeepers, nannies. But because the vast majority of reproductive labor and care work is unpaid, we justify exploiting people to do this work by paying them unlivable wages with few, if any, benefits. Demanding wages for housework throws that exploitation into question.

Silvia Federici clarifies that the goal of Wages for Housework wasn’t to continue doing things the same way while collecting a paycheck. Their goal was to provide the basis for refusing to do the work in the same way. “Capital had to convince us that it is a natural, unavoidable, and even fulfilling activity to make us accept working without a wage,” writes Federici. Wages for housework pushed back against the very idea that care was the natural work of women. They didn’t want housework divided up equally between partners. They wanted a whole new way of conceiving reproductive labor—prioritizing interdependence and mutual concern.

It struck me while researching this piece that the theory behind the Wages for Housework movement is quite similar to contemporary analysis of the relationship between platforms and users. For a particular segment of workers, “creating content” has come to seem natural. Creating content is unavoidable. Creating content is even fulfilling!

When you don’t see a housewife as a worker, it’s easy not to see platform users as workers.

When you don’t see reproductive labor as labor, it’s easy not to see creative labor as labor. It’s nearly impossible to acknowledge the value being created.

Adrian Daub put it this way:

“The problem isn’t that the act of providing content is ignored or uncompensated but rather that it isn’t recognized as labor.”

The labor isn’t recognized as labor the same way housework is not recognized as labor—we’ve uncritically accepted an arrangement as natural and innate to benefit existing power structures.

Can you imagine your business without social media?

Many business owners and freelancers tell me they’d quit Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn “if they could.”

Before social media, small businesses, coaching businesses, consulting companies, marketing agencies, and design firms all still existed. They existed before having a fancy website was even possible.

And yet it’s easier to imagine the end of your business than it is to imagine the end of social media, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, who paraphrased Jameson and Zizek. And like Mark Fisher, who described capitalist realism

I might call this belief social media realism.

The platforms that gladly benefit from our free labor have done such a good job integrating themselves into our lives and work that it’s impossible to imagine a world in which we don’t have access to them. Even though we lived without them for a very long time. I was already an internet geek before MySpace and Facebook were invented! It’s possible to be very online without being very on social media.

At this point, I think the question to ask is not merely: Should I quit social media or not? Or even: Can my business survive without social media?

We need to ask: Who do we work for?

When we check Instagram before going to bed or post a Story on a Saturday morning, are we doing something natural and pleasurable or working to benefit a venture capital firm somewhere? When we wrack our brains to figure out how to get more followers or post more content, what exactly is the impulse driving that brainstorm?

I don’t believe there are any clear-cut answers here. But there are options.

You walk away from this whole game the way Tyler has chosen to do. You can focus on creative work that’s less dependent on algorithms as I have. You can advocate for change in the way the Etsy Strike organizers are.

Or you can choose your own path, knowing who you ultimately want to work for.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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