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【ACS Institute 2023 -Day 3- 8/12- Activity Report】“Re-coupling Site” of Social Media and Workplace: Disrupting the Positionality of Female Workers and Recharging New Class and Gendered Digital Subjects


“Re-coupling Site” of Social Media and Workplace: Disrupting the Positionality of Female Workers and Recharging New Class and Gendered Digital Subjects

Hei Yuen White Pak

PhD Student, Department of English, National Taiwan Normal University


       Focusing on digital technologies and spaces as platforms of resistance against social marginalization and job exploitation, Ngai Pun articulates the predicaments confronting female workers in China and maps out how they emerged as digital subjects, called as vloggers, to construct online communities, reclaim narrative power, gain workers’ solidarity and wage collective actions. In this talk, Pun details “how female workers’ self-articulations of class and gender experiences at work help complicate the imagination of the Chinese working-class, going beyond the dichotomy of positioning female workers as the oppressed objects or the subjects of resistance” and “how this self-articulation has been transformed into a collective social identification practice and foregrounds the formation of class-based online communities.”     


Pun has divided the talk into several parts to tease out the exploitation and resistance of the blue-collar workers, mostly female subjects, in China through the application of social media. She first introduces her interests in capturing grassroots workers’ digital cultural production, vlog in this case, as a means of everyday resistance strategy. Then, she emphasizes on the importance of conventional workplaces as a site of production, confrontation and exploitation. In order to justify her research project, Pun investigates on several female worker vloggers to see how they present themselves on social media. She ends the talk by mentioning the process of constructing online communities by these grassroots workers.


       Pun brings up the newly emerging female digital subjects as an opening example to start with the talk. Those digital subjects known as vloggers film themselves at work as a novel way of documenting and sharing individual’s daily lives. These female vloggers are usually blue-collar workers who largely belong to the manufacturing or even the construction industry. What they eagerly share with the public are strenuous working conditions, labor process as well as their emotional ups and downs. These videos act as an innovative form of cultural production and as a form of everyday resistance strategy adopted by these blue-collar female vloggers to construct “new classed and gendered collective subjects.” Pun argues that these female workers translate their working experience and sentiments into cultural practices in order to seek for their visibility and voice. Such cultural production showcases the resilience of the Chinese working class.


       Turning the spotlight on conventional workplaces is in a sharp contrast with the current trend of digital nomadism on which Pun critiques. Digital nomadism is now a way of performing and organizing work and turns all places, except conventional workplaces, into a place of work. The previous scholarship on digital nomadism is more likely to depict conventional workplaces as “physical and static constraints upon workers’ freedom and fulfillment.” Pun, however, argues that digital nomadism serves as an extension of capitalist logics that intensify the exploitation of capital over workers in conventional workplaces. Under the post-industrial neoliberal capitalism, digital nomadism emerged due to “the precariousness embedded in the digitalization of employment” and is perceived as “a buffering way against the risks of widespread dismantlement of job security and stability.” But yet, the buffering effect is watering down as the inequalities are worsening when digital nomadism camouflages the working condition and labor process in which workers take part. This is what Pun terms the romantic mystification of the exploitation. The detachment from the conventional workplace, Pun highlights, is “the strategic withdrawal from direct involvement in the management of the laborers to render the exploitation as well as the struggles invisible.” Digital nomads internalize the idea of self-actualization and get involved in sustaining the capital accumulation.


       The reasons why Pun emphasizes on conventional workplaces are multifold. As physical sites of constant conflicts and struggles between capital and labor, conventional workplaces are considered visible battlefields for labor facing capital hierarchal management and exploitation. In short, Pun endeavors to make capital exploitations visible. Conventional workplaces, for Pun, are also a site of “construction and performativity of a collective identity of grassroots workers to disrupt the positionality of Chinese workers as undesirable and passive subaltern that need to be transformed.” Pun asserts that the conventional workplace is no longer a silent backdrop but a locale of the production sphere, be it culturally or economically. It has become the main site of “social media affordance.” This project, Pun claims, is a re-imaging of digital nomadism by putting workplace and social media together in order to “symbolize the re-incorporation of conventional workplace into the digital nomadic work” and “explore the voices and visibility of the unprivileged digital subjects.” By incorporating workplace with social media, these vlogs serve as a form of empowerment to develop new class and digital subjects.


       By adopting a “netnographic” approach and narrowing down to certain keywords—“the life of a worker,” “female grassroots worker” and “vlog of a daily workday”—on Bilibili, one of China’s largest online communities, Pun shows how female workers at conventional workplaces voice out themselves in response to everyday exploitation. One of the signature features of Bilibili is real-time “bullet chat,” a direct response to the vlog itself, that increases users’ involvement and nurtures a sense of attachment not only to the platform per se but also to the vloggers. To these female grassroots vloggers, the conventional workplaces have turned into both a site of manufacturing production and a site of cultural/digital production. In order to voice their lived experiences as workers at risk, these female vloggers would film themselves in an atmosphere filled with nosiness, messiness and dimness to justify the deterioration of their working conditions. These conventional workplaces, Pun states, are to “signify their identity of grassroots workers” and gender and class consciousness. Those vlogs present their actual realities as well as serve as “a significant class-based signifier to claim their presence.” The self-presentation of female vloggers could also be regarded as a practice to showcase their contributions and capacities. In addition, Pun elaborates that “the particular happenings around the conventional workplaces with affective disclosures they voice do not refer to individual experience but common work-life experiences for a larger group of grassroots workers.”


       By sharing their actual working routines online, female vloggers are building up online communities to gain solidarity. Female vloggers visualize their detailed working process, exploitations they are confronting and resistance at conventional workplaces. By vlogging, Pun presents, they “consciously display the ways in which they were poorly treated by the management and also the ways in which they enact resistance.” The exposure of exploitations not only articulates female workers’ “anti-capitalist standpoints” but also acts as their resistance through showing their “working-class subjective positions.” In order to form class-based online communities, these blue-collar workers, Pun argues, seek commonality as a “process of transforming individuals’ self-articulated experiences and its meaning-making into a collective framing process.” The seeking of commonality is based on a process of recognition and identification. Vloggers and audiences air their shared experiences of isolations and exploitations as migrant workers to express their sympathy and validate their accusations toward the exploitative acts. Moreover, they provide mutual support by providing skill-related information, be it legal or not, to further strengthen the community. Carrying an optimistic tone, Pun views the expanding online community as “a collaborative practice of workers against social exclusion and marginalization” and as a presentation of “a collective worker image of those who strive for workers’ collaboration rather than competition, despite resource constraints.”


       To sum up, Pun teases out how worker vloggers make use of digital platforms to confront daily exploitations. The interpretation of their work experiences and working conditions can be seen as a daily-based resistance to publicly challenge capitalist labor exploitation.By publicizing their own experiences, these blue-collar workers have transformed an individual practice into a collective representation which, Pun speaks, has “raised other grassroots workers’ awareness on the one hand, and encouraged them to tell their stories of struggling and fighting at workplaces on the other.” During the process of self-presentation, affective connections are built and could facilitate the building of a class-based online community. Pun concludes that such community is not only “to satisfy workers’ technical needs, but also to contribute to the discursive formation of counter-hegemonic power against capitalism.”

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