Paid Usership: speculations on remuneration in cultural digital economies

Renée Ridgway

Independent artist, curator, writer and educator
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Over the past twenty years, people working in the cultural sector have come to use the web not only as a means of communication and distribution but as a medium for artistic and curatorial production, such as online contexts for the analysis and development of art-related activities. But it is also the place where people engage in discourse about the nature of those precarious forms of knowledge and labor produced within it. The challenge of facilitating return generated not only from attention getting but also from finding means of ensuring sustainability through potential models of digital economies, surplus capital and niche development could all be plausible models for ‘paid usership.’  n.e.w.s. is an online community platform for art-related activities that attempts to pay contributors in contrast to Web 2.0 where everyone is supposed to work for free. But the very idea continues to sound pretty counterintuitive even to the most open-minded, and downright heretical to orthodox twentieth-century economics.

Value and Values

If the value of money—as classical Marxist theory would have it—is derived from ‘labor power,’ or even, as some recent strains put it, more broadly from creative action, and if it is only through the institution of the wage that this creative action becomes a commodity, why is it that so few of us are getting paid in a Web 2.0 economy? David Graeber has argued that the common distinction between ‘value’ and ‘values’ is based on the commodification of labor: ‘value’ is simply our way of talking about the importance of actions commensurated by money (value being that which money measures), while ‘values’ (where familial, societal, ethical, religious and artistic) are assumed to be that which should not be corrupted by the market. ‘Values’ are valued for their very incommensurability. So where do we place the Internet in that scheme? It is, certainly, a sphere of social relations that is continually adapting and changing, but many of the resulting struggles revolve around the question of what sorts of value and, indeed, values, it embodies. On the other hand, this is, perhaps, only to be expected, as Graeber puts it, “if only because the most important political struggles in any society will always be over how value itself is to be defined.” [1]

Notion of the gift in a user-generated economy

Even though we may find it worthwhile to take part in online forums and activities without being paid, we tend to feel we are giving something away. The notion of the gift, as developed by the sociologist Marcel Mauss, has been interpreted as assuming that gifts are not free, but imply that something needs to be returned or exchanged. In fact, Mauss’ 1924 essay on the gift was, he claimed, really part of a larger project on the “origins of the idea of contractual obligation” and in a way, about the origin of debt and about how social obligations become entangled in things. Mauss even argued that the gift is about detaching pieces of ourselves, our creative energies to create images of community. The Maussian distinction between gift exchange and economic transactions actually works by an analogous logic: The gift is largely concerned with relations between persons; a commodity exchange is equivalence between things. Gift economies, those that have not been remunerated, have always been an inherent part of capitalism – much of capitalism functions, exists, propagates itself because of unpaid labor: slavery, women’s housework labor, child labor as well as immaterial labor by workers in the ‘culture industry’ but this labor disappears from social visibility.

Immaterial labor and valorization

Immaterial labor theory asserts that ‘we’ are engaged in a kind of communistic mutual fashioning where obligations cannot be quantified by definition, just harvested by capitalists, so the ‘law of value’ no longer exists, value can no longer be measured. Immaterial labor has drawn on post-autonomist accounts of the socialization of work regarding Fordism’s integration of consumption in the reproduction of capital. Since the 1970s however, the labor surrounding informational content of the commodity is produced by technological advancement – computers and cybernetics. It has also changed the capital relations of cultural production, along with the activities not necessarily defined as work. This intellectual labor is defined by the ‘process of valorization’ i.e. creating surplus value, capital which is no longer confined to the factory. Instead the value of products is created more and more by all of us, in our supposed leisure time, thus we are all basically working for free. The concept of subjectivity produced by this reproduction of communication is what underlines Post-Fordistic activities. Lazzarato regards the crisis of subjectification, with subjectivity being capitalism’s ‘biggest output,’ as the most imminent problem of our times, in which capitalism’s model is that of the entrepreneur who is asked to take on all the social and economic burdens of production. [2]

Virtual labor and freemium models

With the advent of the individual computer and subjective contributions online, companies have the ability to harvest our creative energy by gathering our data and subsequently marketing that information. Thus we are adding to the value of the product for free as we distribute parts of ourselves, spreading our ‘data.’ This ‘gift-giving’ of time, energy and knowledge (content) exists in an economy that bids farewell to the client and welcomes instead the user/collaborator (prosumer). Although both gift economies and immaterial labor raise similar questions problematizing our assumptions about value in the Internet, they don’t seem to contextualize the looming problems of our society: virtual labor, digital economies and remuneration for online labor.

Virtual labor and virtual economies are made possible by exchanges of value on the Internet. Is the origin of this value really in the unpaid labor of the Internet? Or will we all need to survive off of our paid activities in order to generate more content to contribute to the critical mass? Many people earn money elsewhere, having employment at universities for example, or as curators in museums, or a more affluent partner and are able to share and distribute their ‘surplus’ elsewhere. This is not so unlike ‘freemium’ models where subscriptions supply more space, or premium software and speed, whilst supporting the ‘free’ subscriptions that provide lesser services. In attempting to understand the link between new forms of virtual labor and virtual remuneration, might we need to look at them not only from actions of ‘gifting’ but from the perspective of alternative digital economies?

Digital economies

With the increasing loss of state and public monies, privatization is becoming more and more prevalent and almost an accepted means with neo-liberal funding policies. How will this affect the culture industry, an expansive sector that is increasingly incorporating other fields of inquiry, along with their financial systems and structures of support, in processes of art-related activities? What examples are already out there that can provide inspiration? Contemporary art’s relationship to its existent and well-known financial models are apparent: institution, patron, gallerist, dealer and public monies. But in regard to digital economies, in which ways can we best navigate through the various markets, plausible artworlds and alternative economies in order to produce engaged works that are connected to greater society? Encompassing a range of models, these economies are all in use and are being used: attention, reputational, gift, debt, community, informal, collaborative, performative, post-industrial, human, sharing. Some of the present and future predicaments of remuneration in a post-Fordist society encompass fields of reference that range from dematerialization, cognitive labor, precarity, semio-capitalism, symbolic and social capital to the creative industries and its neo-feudal solution – crowdfunding.

Playbour, Turking, P2P, Flattr, Crowdfunding

Playbor (Play + Labor) is the gaming industry’s answer to collaboration whilst Mechanical Turking [3] exploits laborers. But who really does this for money (a penny) as Jonathan Zittrain correctly points out? Ostensibly people who live in places where the exchange rate of the payments is enough for them to make a living. Yet the return for the majority of turkers and playborers is community, personal growth or self-actualization and mutual support. [4] However what we may be solving on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is actually helping improve face-recognition software. [5] In contrast, the P2P (peer-to-peer) foundation [6] initiated by Michel Bauwens offers exchange without any universal equivalent, money. It describes itself as a triarchy, outside of state and market, where no money changes hands yet all things are exchanged. Flattr [7] distributes cash collated from a network, where those in this network decide which content is worthy. Insiders say it works but whether anyone is making a living at it remains to be seen. Crowdfunding [8] builds on crowdsourcing by soliciting services from the crowd, usually online where many patrons can make micropayments and is the creative industries ersatz for state and public monies for culture. In an era of austerity, neoliberal policies of diminished governmental support demands that private individuals donate their surplus to many creative projects. Digital technologies of microfinance enable the monetary exchanges between willing parties (for example during reward crowdfunding campaigns) and as a result, social relations are expressed between things instead of people and become monetized.

Attention and affect

We draw on our own network to find participants, partners, and contributors to projects without necessarily having money allotted for honoraria. Instead, payment is measured through alternative models such as reputation or even attention economies, taking forms of visibility politics, usually through social media. These forms of repayments then accrue and gain value, resulting in symbolic capital which is the oil if not the motor of networked communities in online economies. The trade off is that many exchanges wind up entangled in emotional labor, where too much effort at communication, secretarial and organizational tasks leave no time over for producing content. It keeps the momentum going yet the individual is not able to do everything at top speed, nor is paid for it. The responsibility of the project to keep contact between all parties and support the network falls back on this person to do the custodian or janitorial work resulting in affective labor without remuneration. In the cultural sector money is not readily available and the most common way, in many non-wage sectors at least, is to be paid with attention as return. Furthermore, this usage of our time is viewed as a long-term investment as we have seen that will eventually offer return. Time is something that can be remunerated in various ways, yet in artistic economies and the web, attention plays a large part of that payment.

Time that is not money

For some cultural producers, time is money, gift economies are reciprocal and attention economies fulfilling (this is the most common way artists are paid). Yet self-financing through various other activities enables and affords a certain amount of free-time or monies to pay these contributors. So we return to our original question, how is value produced? Through usership, where users produce value. When users struggle to produce value, should they not be remunerated? As wage-labor diminishes and cultural producers are not paid for their work time plays a significant role. And if users were asked what is most valuable nowadays in our overload of attention it seems to be time. Creativity and innovation need concentrated chunks of time for immersion instead of fragmentation, as does paying attention to what information is being put forth. As Mark Fisher states recently in his article Time Wars, “it is clear that most political struggles at the moment amount to a war over time.” He concludes by emphasizing that we need a time that is “temporarily freed from the pressure to pay rent or the mortgage; an experimental time, in which the outcomes of activities could neither be predicted nor guaranteed; a time which might turn out to be wasted, but which might equally yield new concepts, perceptions, ways of being. It is this kind of time, not the harassed time of the business entrepreneur, which gives rise to the new.” [9] If for Graeber “the most important political struggles in any society will always be over how value itself is to be defined,” whilst for Fisher the “most political struggles at the moment amount to a war over time,” shouldn’t we be remunerated for our free time – one of the things we value the most?

Paid Usership: speculations on remuneration in cultural digital economies is part of a forum and ongoing dialogue at n.e.w.s. that reflects on potential models of remuneration in digital economies. Please see this link at n.e.w.s.:


1. David Graeber, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value (New York: Palgrave. 2001).
2. Lazzaroto eventually distanced himself from ‘immaterial labour’ because of the unresolved terminology regarding what is ‘immaterial’ or ‘material’, for example its usage by others or the confusion of whether computation is material (computers) yet code is not. Exhausting Immaterial Labour in Performance, Joint issue of Le Journal des
Laboratoires and TkH Journal for Performing Arts Theory (no. 17), October 2010.
3. See (accessed November 4, 2013).
4. Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (New York City: Hyperion 2009), p. 152.
5. See (accessed November 3, 2013).
6. See (accessed November 3, 2013).
7. See (accessed November 3, 2013).
8. See (accessed November 3, 2013).
9. See (accessed November 3, 2013).


Renée Ridgway is co-initiator of n.e.w.s. (, a collective online platform for the analysis and development of art-related activity, drawing upon contributions from around the globe, bringing together different voices, accents and outlooks from the North, East, West and South. Launched at ISEA2008, n.e.w.s. is non-commercial and uses the visibility of distributed networks to create value around immaterial resources in a knowledge-driven economy. Using a bottom-up, grass roots methodology in ‘Web 2.0,’ what distinguishes n.e.w.s. from other online communities is its collaborative curatorial model and partially remunerated content, without being an academic, governmental or cultural institution with structural subsidy. A system of trust and unexpected contingencies measure this intangible input. This strategy encourages a return not strictly based on attention economy (reputation) principles. A tool for the creation of immaterial resources and intellectual goods in an era of diversification, n.e.w.s. attempts to initiate, build and foster relations and provide a valuable platform dedicated to cultural bricolage, enabling less seen artistic endeavors worldwide visibility.