Are memes a form of labor? And other questions the unionizing of IG memers made us ask
What do big social media platforms owe to their content creators?
Apr 27, 2019
Big news (if you’re a tech and social media nerd, anyways): IG meme accounts are unionizing. Yes, really. The IG Meme Union Local 69-420 (again, yes, really) is forming a collective labor union of fellow memelords around the globe as a way to empower content creators and fight against exploitation by their platform. In the same way regular labor unions demand better working conditions and benefits for their members, the Meme Union will use its collective power as a kind of bargaining chip to fight against Instagram censorship. As someone who routinely gets flagged for political posts from another social media platform, I can appreciate the sentiment, even if I’m not fully behind it yet.
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I’ve covered a labor union before and have visited a union strike (Read: Who’s afraid of the contractual workers?), so let’s unpack the legitimacy of the union. According to the Atlantic, the union follows actual unioning practices, and have actual concrete demands: “a more open and transparent appeals process for account bans; a direct line of support with Instagram, or a dedicated liaison to the meme community; and a better way to ensure that original content isn’t monetized by someone else.” A quick glance at the union’s membership form shows its apparent legitimacy, too. It reads: “We are committed to an anti-oppressive organizing plan, union structure, and campaign. This means we will not tolerate racism, homophobia, misogyny transphobia or other oppressive behavior in our organizing. Are you able to commit to this?”
The union also stresses the obvious: Platforms are only as good as the content creators that they house, and platforms like Instagram have become rich off the backs of these content creators—none of whom are paid directly by Instagram. As an individual, a single content creator has no leverage against a multi-billion dollar platform. This is despite the fact that they log in so much time and work into their posts which the platform profits off of—basically free, uncompensated labor. But as a collective, they do.
It’s true, though, that Instagram doesn’t employ these content creators, and so the platform technically does not have any obligation towards them. From a tech standpoint, content creators are still just consumers of the service that Instagram provides. However, that doesn’t touch on the fact that the relationship between social media platforms and content creators is a completely new thing, a kind of relationship that was completely forged by the Internet age. Content creators aren’t simply consumers, but they’re not employed by the platform—so where do they stand?
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It’s not surprising that meme accounts are behind this unionizing. Memes have become their own form of protests—acquaintances have used meme pages to satirize the Duterte presidency and the drug war, and have received the same kind of death threats journalists who cover these topics normally get—and are a unique form of indoctrination. As Vox pointed out, Instagram helped spread leftist jargon, so this union is a way of putting their money where their mouths are.
It’s also equally unsurprising that content creators would gather to unionize. Working as a content creator on a social media platform leaves you with very little protection: no health benefits, and no one to help you when a client for a sponsored post or video refuses to pay. Influencer Yena Kim in Vice’s “Can Influencers Unionize?” notes: “You’re thinking about your protection when brands don’t pay you for months.”
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This isn’t the first time content creators and influencers have banded together to demand better benefits and actual rights from their platforms. For example, before Vine shut down in 2016, 20 of its biggest stars met with the company’s top executives to strike a deal. As Business Insider reports, the content creators (who at the time were driving the already-dying app) offered to produce three vines per week, which would greatly boost engagement and revitalize Vine, in exchange of a little over a million dollars each. “If [executives] said no, all the top stars on the platform would walk.” They said no, and Vine didn’t last the year.
It’s interesting to see what the future holds for the IG Meme Union (just doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it?). The Atlantic pointed out that the union likely wouldn’t be recognized as an official union by the U.S.’ National Labor Relations Board (again, they’re not employed nor are they doing freelance work for Instagram), but that doesn’t mean their efforts will go unrecognized. In any case, an actual union for memelords, influencers, and other kinds of content creators puts the ball rolling for people to start asking exactly what content creators are to their platforms, and what the platforms owe to them. And the answers to these might just usher in a whole new era of the Internet. Stranger things, like the Internet, have happened.
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