When I began this research in 2010, the way I start­ed out with it was by read­ing over cof­fee one day a real­ly small arti­cle in The New York Times that was actu­al­ly more of an after­thought piece in the tech­nol­o­gy sec­tion. And it talked about a group of work­ers in rur­al Iowa in the United States, in the Midwest, in an area that had been tra­di­tion­al­ly a fam­i­ly farm area. And these work­ers were tran­si­tion­ing from fam­i­ly farms which were no longer eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable in that part of the coun­try and mov­ing into work­ing into call center‐like envi­ron­ments for a firm called Caleris. And you can see their web­site here. This is a screen­shot from it from a few years ago.

The work­ers were per­form­ing a num­ber of call center‐like tasks. They were answer­ing phones and doing this kind of thing. But in addi­tion to that, they were per­form­ing a new form of labor that was going under a num­ber of dif­fer­ent names: screen­ing, con­tent mod­er­a­tion, forum mod­er­a­tion, social media man­age­ment, and so on. And the work­ers in Iowa were work­ing for just above min­i­mum wage. They were hourly work­ers. They were work­ing with­out ben­e­fits, which in the US is a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor because it meant they were with­out health care. And as the New York Times report­ed, these work­ers were begin­ning to suf­fer some psy­cho­log­i­cal issues based on the work they were doing as con­tent mod­er­a­tors.

What they were doing was screen­ing var­i­ous social media sites as well as oth­er kinds of com­mer­cial web­sites, and see­ing uploaded content—user gen­er­at­ed con­tent, day after day, image after image, video after video, and screen­ing it for appro­pri­ate­ness for a site. As you can imag­ine, a lot of what they were see­ing was in fact inappro­pri­ate, and it was inap­pro­pri­ate on the grounds of it being poten­tial­ly obscene, porno­graph­ic, but also con­tent that was extreme­ly vio­lent. Violence towards chil­dren, vio­lence towards ani­mals, adults engaged engage in vio­lence, war zone footage, and oth­er kinds mate­r­i­al such as this. And the work­ers were report­ing some dif­fi­cul­ty in man­ag­ing of their abil­i­ty to look at this con­tent con­stant­ly, espe­cial­ly at such a low wage with­out any type of ben­e­fits.

So, I was intrigued by the sto­ry. I turned to my col­leagues who were all dig­i­tal media experts, aca­d­e­mics who ded­i­cat­ed their life work to study­ing the Internet and dig­i­tal media. I myself have been online since 1993 when our social media plat­form was lit­er­al­ly in a guy’s clos­et on a serv­er, a guy named Jeff. So my sense of mod­er­a­tion was real­ly more around vol­un­tary kinds of activ­i­ties.

And when I asked my peers and my pro­fes­sors if they’d ever heard of this type of work, two things hap­pened. The first thing is that they said no, they hadn’t. The sec­ond thing they said, which is prob­a­bly what you’re think­ing, is, Well, can’t com­put­ers do that?” And in fact the answer to that is no. And I’ll talk a bit more about that.

In the mean­time, I vis­it­ed Caleris’ web page and I was stunned to dis­cov­er their own tagline, which as you can read up here was Outsource to Iowa, not India” with this bucol­ic farm scene that real­ly reflects the real­i­ty that’s no longer even in exis­tence in Iowa. It’s all fac­to­ry farms and agribusi­ness there.

So, just to give you more of a sense def­i­n­i­tion­al­ly of what com­mer­cial con­tent mod­er­a­tion real­ly looks like, it’s a glob­al­ized around‐the‐clock set of prac­tices in which work­ers such as the Caleris work­ers and oth­ers view­ing and adju­di­cate mas­sive amounts of user‐generated con­tent (or UGC in indus­try lin­go) des­tined for the world’s social media plat­forms and inter­ac­tive web­sites.

While the work­ers’ sta­tus and remu­ner­a­tion vary wide­ly depend­ing on site and cir­cum­stance in the world, there are some fea­tures that this work tends to share. Specifically, CCM work is typ­i­cal­ly unglam­orous, repet­i­tive, and often expos­es work­ers to con­tent that is dis­turb­ing, vio­lent, or psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly dam­ag­ing, all as a con­di­tion of the work that they do. This screen­shot is from YouTube’s flag­ging sys­tem a few years ago, which you as a user can go to if you come across con­tent that you find dis­turb­ing or oth­er­wise inap­pro­pri­ate based on site guide­lines, and you can report it. For YouTube, that trig­gers the con­tent mod­er­a­tion process to begin. So we as a users par­tic­i­pate in the process of CCM by our own reac­tions to the con­tent we see.

So, CCM work­ers in the course of their work ren­der con­tent vis­i­ble or invis­i­ble, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly remain­ing invis­i­ble them­selves. In the world of CCM, the sign of a good job is to leave no sign at all. And yet the medi­a­tion work done by CCM work­ers goes direct­ly to shap­ing the land­scape of social media and the UGC‐dominated Internet that we all par­tic­i­pate in, where plat­forms exist sim­ply as emp­ty ves­sels for users to fill up with what­ev­er they will, and for CCM work­ers to act in effect as a gate­keep­er between the users and plat­forms, pro­vid­ing brand pro­tec­tion on behalf of the com­pa­nies and the plat­form own­ers, which they demand.

Companies that tend to uti­lize CCM ser­vices, whether they are the third‐party com­pa­nies that often employ the work­ers, or the major plat­forms them­selves, avoid talk­ing about their mod­er­a­tion prac­tices. In fact, they’ll often treat it as a trade secret, and they sub­ject their work­ers to non‐disclosure agree­ments, or NDAs, that pre­clude the work­ers from speak­ing about the nature and con­di­tions of their work.

Yet despite the hid­den nature of CCM, it is in fact an essen­tial com­po­nent of the pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion of social media. On the screen here is a leaked doc­u­ment from a num­ber of years ago through the third‐party firm oDesk, a micro­task web­site that had this report­ing guide from Facebook. And again, fol­low­ing the cir­cuit, you can see the type of mate­r­i­al that is often found in the CCM process and then there­fore get an idea of what those work­ers are exposed to, even though they’re unable to dis­cuss it freely because of their NDAs.

And this is a screen­shot from YouTube’s com­mu­ni­ty guide­lines. Again, if you want to know what kind of mate­r­i­al work­ers see, go to your favorite plat­form and look at com­mu­ni­ty guide­lines or the oth­er kinds of rules and reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern the UGC that can be includ­ed, and you’ll see it there.

So, mak­ing deci­sions about what UGC is accept­able and what is not is actu­al­ly a high­ly com­plex process, as I indi­cat­ed. At this at this point it’s well beyond the capa­bil­i­ties of soft­ware or algo­rithms alone. Some firms do employ some lev­el batch pro­cess­ing and some mea­sure of algo­rith­mic mod­er­a­tion, but typ­i­cal­ly this work falls to human agents. And just to give you a sense of the kind of con­tent stream or the vol­ume that we’re talk­ing about, YouTube itself receives over a hun­dred hours of uploaded video per minute. So, the the enor­mi­ty of the UGC that is cre­at­ed for each plat­form is just expo­nen­tial, if you think about that amount of con­tent per minute.

Some of this will go through machine automa­tion, but the mate­r­i­al that’s flagged, usu­al­ly by peo­ple like you and me, will be typ­i­cal­ly rerout­ed through a cir­cuit like the one you just saw a few min­utes ago to a human agent in some place in the world. And whether or not the screen­ing hap­pens before the con­tent is uploaded, which is the case for some plat­forms, but typ­i­cal­ly after it has been post­ed in most, human con­tent mod­er­a­tors are called upon to employ an array of a very high‐level cog­ni­tive func­tions and cul­tur­al com­pe­ten­cies to make deci­sions about the appro­pri­ate­ness of such con­tent for a site or plat­form.

So, in order to do this they must be experts in mat­ters of taste of the site’s pre­sumed audi­ence; have cul­tur­al knowl­edge about the loca­tion of ori­gin of the plat­form and of the audi­ence, both of which may be very far removed geo­graph­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly from where the screen­ing is actu­al­ly tak­ing place; have lin­guis­tic com­pe­ten­cy in the lan­guage of the UGC, that may be a learned or sec­ond lan­guage for the con­tent mod­er­a­tor him or her­self; be steeped in the rel­e­vant laws gov­ern­ing the site’s loca­tion of ori­gin; and be experts in the user guide­lines and oth­er platform‐level specifics con­cern­ing what is or what is not allowed. All the while being exposed con­stant­ly to the very mate­r­i­al that main­stream sites dis­al­low. And just to give you an idea of the vol­ume of pro­cess­ing, we’re talk­ing about thou­sands of images a day that these work­ers are asked to view, or thou­sands of videos. So the work has to be very quick.

All of that hav­ing been said, CCM isn’t an indus­try unto itself per se. In fact it’s it’s a labor process or set of process­es that takes place across a num­ber of indus­tries, and as such is strat­i­fied in the way that I have list­ed here. So, some firms have the capa­bil­i­ty both tech­no­log­i­cal­ly and finan­cial­ly to have work­ers right on site with them. This is the case for many of the major Silicon Valley social media firms. They will have an in‐house team, although I should point out that those work­ers are often con­tract labor­ers. So, they will lack the full-timer’s badge. And some work­ers joke with me this means they can’t access the climb­ing wall in the lob­by of their build­ing. They can’t get the free sushi and kom­bucha that’s on avail­abil­i­ty for the full‐time work­ers. But at the same time, it also means they didn’t get the health ben­e­fits that full‐time work­ers access. And when we think about the psy­cho­log­i­cal needs of these work­ers, that is an impor­tant issue.

There are bou­tique firms, social media agen­cies much like ad firms, that pro­vide CCM‐like prac­tices. And they will also even go so far as to seed con­tent that is more favor­able. So, they’ll take down the bad stuff for a brand image, and put in con­tent that is pos­i­tive.

Of course as I men­tioned, we have call cen­ters all over the world, and I’ll talk about where those are locat­ed.

And final­ly, we have micro‐labor web­sites. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Upwork (for­mer­ly known as oDesk) and oth­er sites like this, where work­ers come togeth­er in a dig­i­tal piece­work man­ner, doing one piece of dig­i­tal labor for one con­tract, meet­ing and sep­a­rat­ing. A lot of CCM work goes on in this kind of envi­ron­ment off for as lit­tle as one cent per image viewed, and then there’s absolute­ly no rela­tion between the firm and the employ­ee after that one screen­ing takes place.

So, I’ll talk to you a bit now about the case of a firm I call MegaTech. This is a Silicon Valley‐based firm. I am not able to share with you the name of the firm, it’s real name, because of the ethics guide­lines that I’m under as a researcher. But it’s one that all of you know and have used and are prob­a­bly using now. They have many major glob­al brands and plat­forms. And it’s one of the firms that from an eco­nom­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal per­spec­tive can sup­port a team of CCM work­ers on site.

All of their work­ers, although they were con­trac­tors com­ing in from a third par­ty, were required to be col­lege grad­u­ates, uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ates with four‐year degrees. And they were com­ing to MegaTech with elite back­grounds from places like the University of California at Berkeley, for exam­ple, or University of Southern California, and oth­er off four‐year lib­er­al arts col­leges. However, they were com­ing not from sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, and engi­neer­ing back­grounds, but actu­al­ly the less­er dis­ci­plines of the human­i­ties and the social sci­ences, right. So, things that Silicon Valley wasn’t putting as much val­ue on. And that’s where they were com­ing into the CCM process from their four‐year uni­ver­si­ty degrees.

For those that I inter­viewed and spoke with, all of whom were in their ear­ly twen­ties, just a cou­ple of years out of the uni­ver­si­ty, the notion that they could get a job in the Northern California Silicon Valley envi­ron­ment was allur­ing to them, and it was loaded with promise. They went into this work with the hope that they might do CCM for a year or two, and then tran­si­tion at MegaTech into one of the more lucra­tive and one of the more well‐respected and val­ued jobs.

But unfor­tu­nate­ly, in no case did that actu­al­ly hap­pen. The work­ers would come in on a year‐long con­tract. They would do CCM as a full‐time job for a year. They would be made to take a three‐month break, dur­ing which time their employ­ment and finan­cial issues were theirs to solve. And then they could come back for one more con­tract, after which time they were ter­mi­nat­ed from doing CCM work for MegaTech at all. So that leads you to ques­tion why it is that the firm itself wants peo­ple who can only work for two years and then are cycled out.

Nevertheless, for the young peo­ple who were doing CCM work for MegaTech, it seemed to be, at least in the begin­ning, a bet­ter option for them than work­ing in the ser­vice sec­tor jobs that they thought were going to be avail­able to them upon grad­u­a­tion. And this was in the wake of the 2008 eco­nom­ic down­turn in the US. So, they were look­ing at tak­ing their Berkeley degrees to be baris­tas and piz­za servers in restau­rants in the Bay Area and in California, and work­ing in the offices of MegaTech seemed to give them stature and a chance at a bet­ter eco­nom­ic future. And per­haps a chance to work in a social media career beyond that.

I can’t imag­ine any­one who does [this] job and is able to just walk out at the end of their shift and just be done. You dwell on it, whether you want to or not.
Max Breen, 24, Silicon Valley [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

Max Breen was twenty‐four when I spoke with him. He was a grad­u­ate of a four‐year lib­er­al arts col­lege and grad­u­at­ed of course with the debt that many American uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents grad­u­ate with. And this was the case for all the employ­ees at MegaTech. They had these elite degrees but they were sad­dled with tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in debt, and that was some­thing that they were very con­cerned about. Max was liv­ing in the Bay Area with about a four room­mates. He was mak­ing forty‐eight thou­sand dol­lars a year with no ben­e­fits at the end of the day. Working hourly for that wage.

And Max was a par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful per­son about the work that he was doing with CCM. He indi­cat­ed to me that although it he was trained” so to speak to leave the mate­r­i­al that he saw on the job and just sort of tap out psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly when he left, it was real­ly dif­fi­cult for him to do that. And in fact he found him­self going home and rumi­nat­ing about the things that he had seen at work. Images of child abuse, videos of peo­ple giv­ing hate speech dia­tribes, racist con­tent, misog­y­nis­tic con­tent, vio­lence towards women, vio­lence towards ani­mals. One of the things that Max indi­cat­ed to me that the most dif­fi­cult con­tent for him to see was footage com­ing out of the Syrian cri­sis and the Syrian war zone that was com­ing from peo­ple on the ground there, who were send­ing the mate­r­i­al to MegaTech, osten­si­bly for advo­ca­cy pur­pos­es. They want­ed to use the plat­form to get a wider audi­ence, to share with the world what was going on.

Max was par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful about his platform’s rela­tion­ship to things like the Syrian cri­sis. Because if we were to go back and look at some of the kinds of com­mu­ni­ty guide­lines that a plat­form like Facebook or YouTube, or any oth­er main­stream plat­form has, which MegaTech is, cer­tain­ly the kind of footage that he was receiv­ing from Syria would con­tra­vene all of those rules. It was vio­lence against chil­dren, it was gra­tu­itous, it was gory, and it was unre­lent­ing.

But nev­er­the­less, the group above him that made pol­i­cy at MegaTech indi­cat­ed to him that in fact the Syrian mate­r­i­al would stand. And it would stand on MegaTech and be allowed to be per­pet­u­at­ed. Max him­self start­ed think­ing about this, because at the same time he was receiv­ing numer­ous videos from the Mexican state of Juarez, where a seri­ous drug war and drug by vio­lence has been going on for a long time. Max point­ed out to me that the case of Syria was inter­est­ing because there’s cer­tain­ly a US for­eign pol­i­cy dimen­sion there. MegaTech being a US com­pa­ny, seemed to be align­ing itself with the US view­point on the Syrian cri­sis. At the same time, he not­ed that the US also had extreme involve­ment and a rela­tion­ship to the drug wars in Juarez, and that mate­r­i­al was not allowed to stand under any cir­cum­stances even though it was com­ing in osten­si­bly under the same advo­ca­cy rubric as the Syrian footage. And he start­ed to feel some frus­tra­tion against these kinds incon­gru­ent episodes in his work.

You don’t real­ly want to talk about it. You kind of feel like you spent eight hours just in this hole of filth that you don’t real­ly want to bring it into the rest of your life.
Josh Santos, 24m, Silicon Valley [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

Josh Santos was anoth­er work­er. He had grad­u­at­ed from Berkeley and had been work­ing at MegaTech for almost two years, and was ready to cycle out. He referred to his work at MegaTech as being immersed in a hole of filth. And he would be immersed in that hole of filth eight hours a day, forty hours a week.

Both Max and Josh began to have trou­ble in their pri­vate lives with the mate­r­i­al that they were see­ing. Because of the non‐disclosure agree­ments they were pre­clud­ed from talk­ing to friends and talk­ing to oth­ers about the con­tent that they were see­ing at work, and the kind of work they were doing, and there­fore the effect it was hav­ing on them. But all of the MegaTech work­ers indi­cat­ed to me that in fact they didn’t want to tell oth­er peo­ple about what they were see­ing because they felt that it would be a bur­den upon them. They all had a sense of altru­ism. They had a sense that they were mak­ing the Internet even pos­si­ble for us to use.

Some of the oth­er work­ers I spoke to told me that with­out CCM work, most of us wouldn’t be able to stom­ach the Internet for long. Those of you’ve ever had the mis­for­tune to make an errant click on a video that you had unex­pect­ed­ly stum­bled across that was some­thing like a behead­ing or some­thing like that know what I mean. These work­ers were engaged every day look­ing at that con­tent, and then tak­ing it down so that oth­er peo­ple didn’t have to see it.

In spite of this, the work­ers under their NDAs who weren’t shar­ing this infor­ma­tion with part­ners and with loved ones were hav­ing real effects in their per­son­al life. Max indi­cat­ed to me that he had start­ed drink­ing a lot more, for exam­ple. Another sto­ry I heard was of one of the work­ers, when he would find him­self in an inti­mate sit­u­a­tion with his part­ner, he would be embrac­ing her, they would be get­ting into an inti­mate sit­u­a­tion, and sud­den­ly an image of a video he had seen and tak­en down at work would flash before his eyes and he would push his part­ner away. And when she asked for an expla­na­tion, he couldn’t even find the words to share.

So, not only were they pre­clud­ed in a con­trac­tu­al way from dis­cussing the con­tent that they saw, it was an emo­tion­al bar­ri­er. And it was emo­tion­al bar­ri­er that was begin­ning to cause rifts between them and the peo­ple in their lives, iso­lat­ing them even fur­ther in the CCM work they were doing.

All of this leads me to the point to ask about you know, is this basi­cal­ly the Internet we were promised? Is this the dig­i­tal labor envi­ron­ment that we were promised? And also where are the fly­ing cars, right?

But as many of you may know, since the ear­ly 1970s, par­tic­u­lar­ly in an American con­text, there’s been a shift in labor from the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, mov­ing into so‐called knowl­edge work. Work that would focus on tech­ni­cal work, spe­cial­ized sci­en­tif­ic and oth­er types of knowl­edge. The very STEM degrees that I was dis­cussing ear­li­er. And an increased impor­tance and pre­dom­i­nance of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. All of this, of course we were told would lead to this:

Many people lounging around and swimming in a pool at a hotel.

More leisure time, eas­i­er work­ing con­di­tions. And to be fair, CCM work doesn’t put work­ers in any kind of direct phys­i­cal harm. It’s not the heavy man­u­fac­tur­ing that might cause some­one to lose a limb or an appendage. It doesn’t phys­i­cal­ly harm them, but cer­tain­ly there are these oth­er out­comes that are actu­al­ly insid­i­ous, and we can’t see them, and that’s what makes them so fright­en­ing.

I can tell you that back in the era of man­u­fac­tur­ing in the United States, my grand­fa­ther worked in the same fac­to­ry for forty‐five years. He nev­er had to check an email off hours. He was nev­er called to be in a 247 response cycle, as many of these work­ers now are. And along­side with this trans­for­ma­tion into the knowl­edge soci­ety, we’ve seen some oth­er changes, too, that you’re all famil­iar with. Privatization of state resources, a dereg­u­la­tion of indus­try, few­er work­er pro­tec­tions, a cheap­en­ing of labor, glob­al­iza­tion process, all of which are part and par­cel of the way CCM oper­ates today.

In fact, great geospa­tial eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal recon­fig­u­ra­tions have tak­en place to facil­i­tate the obfus­ca­tion of the mate­r­i­al and imma­te­r­i­al labor such as CCM that under­pins the very knowl­edge econ­o­my that we’re talk­ing about, often via these prac­tices like out­sourc­ing and oth­er types of migra­to­ry prac­tices.

In the case of the Philippines, which you can see here—this is Makati city, one of the major finan­cial eco­nom­ic cen­ters in Manila—this often takes the form of spe­cial eco­nom­ic zones or spe­cial indus­tri­al zones where firms can relo­cate and get spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion, such as no tax­es or real­ly good tax breaks, or they can build infra­struc­ture only for them­selves, and pro­vid­ed only for those busi­ness­es while they’re next door to areas that have brown outs.

So, CCM work is increas­ing­ly migrat­ing to places like the Philippines. And the Philippines, at just 1/10th the pop­u­la­tion size of India, has now sur­passed India as the call cen­ter cap­i­tal of the world. And MicroSourcing is just one firm that solic­its for Western CCM needs. You can see here that it adver­tis­es as hav­ing a whole bevy of work­ers who have excel­lent English skills and famil­iar­i­ty with col­lo­qui­al slang, American slang, and so on. They don’t real­ly go into why that is. I’ll draw that out in a moment. They also offer a vir­tu­al cap­tive ser­vice for those who might be inter­est­ed in that, the rather unfortunately‐named ser­vice.

This is a place in the Philippines called Eastwood City. It’s the first IT cyber­park there. A lot of times what we’ve seen there is a case of extreme­ly uneven devel­op­ment, where we have the cyber­parks and oth­er IT sec­tors look­ing some­thing like this, while right next door we have this. And this is what I call the paper­less office:

So all of this is giv­ing us a pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant bifur­ca­tion and an exer­cise in extremes. And I want to say it’s not just in the Philippines where we see this. We see this in Silicon Valley, the dif­fer­ence between places like Mountain View where Google is head­quar­tered, next door to East Palo Alto, one of the most impov­er­ished places in that region.

Several women wearing phone headsets, working at a call center.

Just a few words about the Philippines, and you’re going to hear much more about that in a moment from the sec­ond pre­sen­ter. But I want to give you some con­text. Metro Manila itself is com­prised of sev­en­teen indi­vid­ual cities, each gov­erned inde­pen­dent­ly. It makes its own rules, by and large. Rules that are quite favor­able to busi­ness­es like CCM. And it has a pop­u­la­tion of twelve mil­lion peo­ple as of 2014, plus all the peo­ple who flow in and out every day to do work in what they call BPOs, or call cen­ters as we know them. The call cen­ter sec­tor over the past few decades has become increas­ing­ly impor­tant, and it’s the main a sec­tor beyond the gov­ern­ment sec­tor in the Philippines now.

What we’re see­ing there, and what we see else­where, not just in the Philippines but in this par­tic­u­lar case espe­cial­ly, is a series of inter­twined and sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ships among dif­fer­ent sys­tems. So, we’re see­ing state and gov­ern­men­tal pol­i­cy regimes that are favor­able for busi­ness­es that are doing CCM and oth­er types of low‐level, if you will, dig­i­tal labor to locate in places like the Philippines. We’re see­ing land and phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment to sup­port this kind of work and to make these great cen­ters of this kind of work.

And final­ly we’re see­ing, from a labor per­spec­tive, avail­abil­i­ty, prepa­ra­tion, and also process­es that all go towards enhanc­ing this. One of the things that the Philippine gov­ern­men­tal agency in charge was solic­it­ing com­pa­nies to come to the Philippines does is they tell you that there are very few strikes in these eco­nom­ic zones. Great for busi­ness. I don’t know if that’s great for work­ers.

So, if we look at this 1923 map, we can see—interestingly, this is the trade routes of the Orient—we’ll see that these trade routes are actu­al­ly mir­rored in the way data is flow­ing in and out of the Philippines today. And you can see there’s a direct route right there to San Francisco. And that con­tin­ues to this day.

I went to the Philippines last May, and I talked to CCM work­ers there. We met at a T.G.I. Friday’s at 7 AM, which was hap­py hour for the work­ers there. They were meet­ing and drink­ing after their CCM shift. And they report­ed to me a num­ber of themes. Again, they were very sim­i­lar to their American coun­ter­parts. They were young peo­ple with uni­ver­si­ty degrees look­ing for a good‐paying job. And this is what was on offer to them, and they took it, and they took it will­ing­ly. But it had the same kinds of impli­ca­tions and ram­i­fi­ca­tions for them. Again, no access to psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices, and also what does it real­ly mean if you access psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices when your job is to be able to stom­ach this very con­tent that is dis­turb­ing you, right?

So I’m going to close just with the with a few pieces of food for thought as we go into the next talk. What is at stake when we talk about CCM? Well, cer­tain­ly we’re talk­ing about some little‐known and yet mission‐critical dig­i­tal labor activ­i­ties that go to under­pin and under­gird the social media plat­forms that we all know and use.

We’re talk­ing about some prob­lem­at­ic labor forms from the work­er per­spec­tive. Work that can put work­ers into a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion, often with very lit­tle job secu­ri­ty.

And final­ly, we’re talk­ing about a prac­tice that actu­al­ly trou­bles the notion, the increas­ing­ly prob­lem­at­ic notion, of the Internet as a free speech zone and as a site of demo­c­ra­t­ic inter­ven­tion. In fact, there are a whole army of peo­ple across the world mak­ing deci­sions about con­tent, that peo­ple put into social media plat­forms, and whether it should stay or go. And they’re mak­ing those deci­sions large­ly on the basis of what will be favor­able to the plat­form itself.

There are all these inter­me­di­aries in there. We know that CCM work­ers are there now. Who else is there? The NSA. We know they’re there. Surveillance is tak­ing place. So, who else is in the mix? This is some­thing we need to real­ly think about if we’re going to have hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about the util­i­ty of the Internet as a site of demo­c­ra­t­ic inter­ven­tion going for­ward.

And I’ll leave you with this last slide. It’s a slide in its Eastwood City itself that I took pic­tures of. Many peo­ple thought I was think­ing it was a fine, high art piece, and they want­ed to let me know it wasn’t. It was actu­al­ly just junky cor­po­rate art. But in fact, I found it fas­ci­nat­ing. You can see these are work­ers with head­sets on. It’s a mon­u­ment to Eastwood City’s BPO call cen­ter work­ers, many of whom are CCM work­ers. And the plaque on the bot­tom is ded­i­cat­ed to Eastwood City’s mod­ern heroes. And I’ll leave it there. Thank you.

Further Reference

Sarah's home page, The Illusion of Volition

"Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers' Dirty Work", by Sarah T. Roberts.

This session's page at the re:publica site.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.