/ The Immaterial Labour of Camgirls (2016)

It is precisely when production no longer seems to offer an identity that it projects itself onto each and every aspect of experience. – Paolo Virno 

Camgirls create Hardt & Negri’s first aspect of immaterial labour, the creation of immaterial information and ideas. As they don’t have any corporeal contact with the client, the camgirl must create the idea of a sexual experience with the client, through words and “symbols, codes, texts, linguistic figures, images.” The pornographic videos and images that camgirls create can be described as a kind of ‘immaterial’ form of sex, in that the usually physical act of sex is transformed into informational images and video.

The clients and the audience of the camgirl perform this immaterial labour too, engaging forming relationships with the camgirl through typed messages, as well as forming online friendships with other customers. In this sense, it is possible to see Lazzarato’s “informational and cultural content,” when applied to online pornography, functions as an “immaterial labour partially distributed across an unstable divide between producers and consumer.”

The intellectual and cerebral labour that Hardt and Negri identify can be seen in the labour of the camgirl as she devises various strategies for making money through MyFreeCams. Camgirls can either set a goal amount of tokens to receive, performing a live sex show, for example, once that amount has been reached, while some camgirls choose to set token prices for individual actions, such as flashing their breasts. Examples of these different money making methods can be seen in the ‘room topics’, from camgirls such as AngelSofia: “1018 [tokens until I get] shirtless 75 [tokens for] spanks, 100[tokens for] ass, 111 [tokens for] boobs, 120 [tokens for] pussy, 200 [tokens for] blowjob tease.” Camgirl CherryLips24 provides an alternative example: “Hi guys, how are you doing? If u like me = 30 [tokens], love me = 50 [tokens], song request = 70 [tokens].”

The camgirl has to work out what is the average price for each action and, taking into account her popularity on MyFreeCams based on her camscore and her audience numbers, set her prices appropriately. This has to be done for the live sex shows, but additionally for setting token prices for purchasing videos and photosets, access to the camgirls social media accounts, such as Snapchat, as well as for any additional items for sale, such as worn underwear.

Similarly, another part of camgirl labour which requires intellectual labour involves devising games for the customers to play. These can take the form of raffles, where customers tip a certain amount for a ticket, or wheels which cost the customer tokens for the camgirl to spin or board games where customers’ tips move them towards a prize.These kinds of activities are not what Hardt and Negri had in mind in their conceptualisation of immaterial labour, with their focus on the intellectual, creative worker. However these tasks require analytical, problem solving skills from the camgirl in the area of the production of video and images, which perfectly exemplifies Hardt and Negri’s criteria of immaterial labour.

In their 2007 “Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks,” Coté and Pybus detail how the users of social media websites perform an “accelerated, intensified, and indeed inscrutable” kind of immaterial labour, when they express subjectivity through the creation and maintaining of user profiles and through networking with other users. These kinds of activities aren’t included in a traditional understanding of work, and yet through “continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication, cultural and social capital is produced.

Coté and Pybus’ study of how users of social media website engage in immaterial labour can also be applied to the camgirl, particularly their detailing the labour involved in the creation and maintaining of social media website profiles. For the camgirl working on MyFreeCams, just as the teenager on MySpace, the profile is a place for “unique online subjectivity,” a place to detail personal tastes and interests, with many camgirls customising the layout, colour scheme and font used so that it reflects their personal brand.

The profile of the camgirl is not just a place to express personal tastes – it is also where customers purchase access to the camgirls videos and photosets, views information about what sexual acts the camgirl will perform on cam, and how many tokens it will cost the customer. As a vital marketing and advertising tool, putting serious work into making sure that everything the customer could want to know is included, and that it’s easy to read is very important. The AmberCutie forum contains a thread dedicated to profile editing, with users sharing links to profile editing software and offering advice on creating a stylish and practical profile.

In terms of the production of affect that Hardt and Negri identified as a crucial aspect of immaterial labour, sexual commerce exemplifies this whether undertaken online or not. Sexual commerce is a highly emotional labour, because of how the ‘person(ality) of the worker is such an important part of the service on offer’, as Brewis and Linstead have noted. The emotional labour of sexual commerce has been documented by Wendy Chapkis and Teela Sanders, amongst many others, who argue that sexual commerce is also a highly emotional form of labour because sex is only part of the service on offer. Many roles within the sexual industries from exotic dancing to prostitution require showing empathy and understanding, as well as pampering  the customer, in order to manage the sexual dynamics, and therefore economic dynamics.

Emotional labour does not need to happen purely in face-to-face interactions, as technological advancements have meant that emotional labour can be communicated across ‘space and time.’ An example of this can be taken from Giulia Selmi’s study of sexual commerce conducted over the telephone, where she notes how phone sex operators use gendered vocabulary to translate their emotional labour into a ‘real’ experience for the client – despite the technological mediation of the telephone.

For camgirls, the lack of corporeal contact with the client also requires emotional labour to be performed via verbal communication. In listening to customers talking about their day and sharing jokes with customers, the camgirl can create “counterfeit intimacy,” in order to produce the desired effect in the customer.

Another form of emotional or affective labour not included in Hardt and Negri’s conceptualising of immaterial labour but that might be useful here is the emotional labour of ‘body work.’ The self-produced pornography of the camgirl includes has a highly visual aspect, and this means the camgirl often has to put work into her appearance, to in order to appeal to as wide an audience of customers. Teela Sanders defines this ‘body work’ as a form of ‘aesthetic labour’ and argues that creating and maintaining a display of (often hetero)sexuality which matches the ever-changing ideals of the client is a form of emotional labour.

dissertation extract

Extract from my undergraduate dissertation, published in the I disrupt, untie, I solve zine in 2016.