In My Network asks the question, what the fuck even is work anymore?
We open and close with a janny coming in to clean. He narrates his own view on social media, one common among the older generation, that he has little to do with it, that he has a Facebook profile to keep in touch with folk some distance away, but has no great attachment to it. He sees the benefit and convenience of being able to buy and sell stuff online, keep up-to-date with what is happening, and make friends, but laments the multiple negative ways in which it is impacting young people.
The film then moves to show various influencers making their content, providing narration of their own experiences. They are singers, makeup reviewers, good vibes cheerleaders, and chat show hosts for other internet personalities, but you’re left asking the question, what even is work?
Now, I’m from the bridging generation, the internet became a thing when I was a teenager, but social media didn’t really take off until I was out of uni. I’m not quite the age of the janny, but I’m older than the influencers. And the changes I’ve seen occur in my lifetime are wild. If I’d gone to the careers officer at school and said I wanted to unbox things for a living, she would have assumed I meant stacking shelves. I still cannot explain the financial model of Twitch, and watching me explain it to my parents is like watching the blind lead the blind. “So, yeah, you play video games and let other people watch and they give you money.” “Why?” “I . . . don’t . . . know.”
As much as we get stuck on the absurdity and hilarity of emerging labour forms, it’s really important to look at this in the context of work. Young people are coming to the job market after living through one of the deepest, longest depressions the world has ever seen. Someone in their teens has never known stability, only the collapse of long-thought-impervious industries, like the banking sector. We have passed the movement of labour from physical industry sectors to the service industry, and are now watching a movement away from the physical of any sort, to an entirely online economy. And what’s being exchanged is becoming more and more intangible.
But the work is real. The time and labour sunk into preparing, making, promoting and distributing the content of influencers is substantial. Beyond the half-hour of a YouTube show or few seconds of an Instagram reel is hours and hours of work, cultivating an audience, building networks, learning to navigate the algorithm. While influencers, and the teens who want to become them, are constantly touted as lazy, wanting to earn millions by sitting around in the house, taking pictures of themselves, for moments’ worth of work, this narrative is a classic attempt to fracture workers’ solidarity.
Far from easy, the work is continuous, as the internet is open 24/7. The toll it takes on some content-providers who struggle to set boundaries on their hours and energy is obvious. Plus, there is no guaranteed remuneration, so you are effectively self-employed, launching a new business and giving out free samples of your product, without ever knowing that you will eventually break even or start earning. That may seem like a huge gamble, but many see it as the only marketplace with the possibility for advancement.
Plus, as an influencer, there is no sick pay, no annual leave, no pension, no nothing. In the dominant social narrative of boomers having done all the real work, and everyone who’s come after being workshy and entitled, there is a deliberate eclipse of the fact that workers’ rights have went backward in time. In the online gig economy, there is absolutely no security, no entitlement to benefits, no hourly rate. And young people aren’t choosing it because it’s easy, they’re choosing it because it seems like the only option.
As the film shows us the various influencers, a recurring motif is the use of deception to keep the content on brand. When the makeup reviewer drops a compact, she refills it with flour before continuing. On the chat show, two internet personalities hint at a possible relationship, which neither of them are remotely interested in. And to be honest, that’s part and parcel of work, selling the sizzle rather than the sausage. But what does that mean if you are your own product, and your workplace is your life?
At the end, we pull back, seeing all the influencers are together in one stage, and the janny comes in to buff the floor. He’s in his uniform, they’re in the dress of their online persona. But he puts on his uniform at a set time and takes it off, goes back to his life. What about the young people? How do they clock off?