Can digital communities do a better job of valuing and encouraging affective labour – the social and emotional work that makes collaboration possible?
I went to the Future Makespaces in Redistributed Manufacturing Symposium at V&A yesterday, which triggered Baader-Meinhof phenomenon around the idea of ‘affective labour’. Looking through the event’s hashtag I saw this article linked (via @freerange_inc (via @hautepop)) – Why I Am Not A Maker. The crux is that if we only value making and makers then we miss out a whole category of work; work that has a mostly emotional outcome, rather than a tangible physical output.
Further, the article suggests, emotional labour is disproportionately female, so women end up doing a category of work that is overlooked and undervalued. Computer programming is normally conceptualised as a kind of making, even though it does not produce a tangible artefact. This could simply be by association – making and coding are both widely conceptualised as male activities, so coding must be a kind of making.
Which is a weird synchronicity. When I met David Rozas on Thursday to have a chat about his PhD he raised more or less exactly the same point. He’s at Surrey University’s sociology department looking at how open source software communities organise themselves. When people look at open source software communities, their research often assumes that the key work is technical, for example when they measure someone’s contribution by the number of lines of code they’ve written. (If you’re feeling nerdy David is using Activity Theory as a framework to describe non ‘community oriented’ measures of work – getting beyond the idea that work is characterised by writing code or documentation or creating any other digital commons.)
In his research on the Drupal community he’s come to suspect that ‘affective labour’ is critically important, alongside the technical work. Part of Drupal’s success may well be down to the culture of the community – ‘come for the code, stay for the community’ as their motto has it. Organising the (many) Drupal meetups that glue the community together and foster that culture is affective labour, and it could also be what’s made Drupal the most successful project in its category. Drupal has an extensive mentorship scheme that helps new members get involved – again, being a mentor is affective labour. Guess what?
This is a topic that has been discussed a great deal, also under the banner of invisible labour. Questions about what kinds of labour official statistics – like GDP – capture are obviously important. There is also the conceptual notion that when we post to Facebook we are actually doing unpaid labour, that social media is intrinsically exploitative through this mechanism. What struck me at the symposium was perhaps a less global and more concrete idea: that the user interfaces of collaborative websites ought to highlight and facilitate members’ social contributions to the community.
Perhaps collaborative websites should start measuring affective labour and making it more visible. How many meetups did someone organise, how much mentoring have they done? How often do they resolve a dispute? Could that be presented in the same way that github uses stars?At the same time, efforts to value affective labour needs to avoid being reductionist – ultimately it’s not about measurement, but the experience of the community members.
Wevolver and 3D Hubs, both really interesting companies that I hadn’t heard about before, presented at the symposium. They both face similar problems of running communities of makers that need to welcome people to the world of 3D printing. Open Desk face similar issues. Thinking about the ways affective labour functions could certainly enhance their ability to build strong communities, and working out what makes successful communities tick is only going to become more important as the web makes large scale and niche collaborative projects possible.
Both David Rozas (@drozas) and Sam Grayson (@samgraysonsam) helped me with this post.