Just a few weeks ago, a YouTuber from Kerala — Arjun Sundaresan alias ‘Arjyou’ — became an overnight celebrity. His YouTube channel hit over two million subscribers in a matter of days, surprising social media watchers and users alike. On his channel, Arjyou had released a few response videos in which the 20-something was seen “roasting” short videos that appeared on the popular Chinese social media platform TikTok. Arjyou has 2.24 million subscribers, and has published only half a dozen TikTok-roasting videos on YouTube. His most popular video has hits to the tune of 7.8 million and counting.

The YouTuber maintains that he makes the videos at his leisure, and the intent is just entertainment. But Arjyou means business, literally and figuratively. Social media users know the real meaning of likes and subscribers. With more than two million subscribers on YouTube, Arjyou joins the elite club of social media influencers in the country, and will earn a handsome amount in advertising revenues from his channel.

Theoretically speaking, Arjyou belongs to a group of individuals who commodify their “personal belongings or the products of their domestic and leisure activities”, as Sidonie Naulin and Anne Jourdain put in the well-timed and insightful The Social Meaning of Extra Money: Capitalism and the Commodification of Domestic and Leisure Activities — an anthology of essays that explores how practices that we earlier thought to be recreational or domestic (blogging, vlogging, cooking, craftwork, gardening, knitting) and the “economic use of free time” have been marketised.

Part of Pan Macmillan’s ‘Dynamics of Virtual Work’ series, the book has a simple premise. The authors basically try to answer two crucial questions: Why are ordinary people — who used to engage in domestic and leisure activities for free — now trying to make a profit from them? And, how and why do people commodify their free time? These questions are more relevant today than ever, considering the way technology has changed how people work, recreate and interact. Technology has made it easier for people to express emotions in myriad ways and the market, always in sync with technological advancements, has come up with avenues that people can use to package and market their ‘expressions’ so they can earn some “extra money”.

Commodifying time

But what’s wrong in making your free time a commodity? After all, as many economic theories have argued, commodification can be useful for people who produce such stuff. It can even help vulnerable populations such as women without work or the elderly enter the labour market, earn money, and hence purchasing power, which in turn will help empower them. A popular example is the practice of putting a price on women’s domestic work and leisure (the ‘invisible work’) so that it brings them social recognition.

But is that really the case here? The book scours through a series of case studies and anecdotal evidence to arrive at inferences that can help people make better use of such services while maintaining control over the way the market influences their choices and actions. In three parts, the book features 10 essays, including the introduction and an epilogue by Maud Simonet, a researcher with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Each essay discusses interesting case studies and features interviews and experiences of people who have managed to commodify and commercialise their free time for extra money, looking at the social, economic and cultural impacts of their actions.

Of the studies, the final two — Performing Amateurism: A Study of Camgirls’ Work by Pierre Brasseur and Jean Finez; and Making Money from TV Series: From Viewer to Webmaster with Financial Rewards by Anne-Sophie Béliard — stand out for the subjects they handle.

The ‘why’ of things

Brasseur and Finez study sex-camming. For starters, this is an “economic activity whereby individuals sell their charms on the web”. The authors note that sex-camming first emerged in the early 2000s, and has become a game-changer in the sex market. The case studies meticulously analyse why and how a person becomes a ‘camgirl’ or ‘camguy’; what prompts these amateurs to use their free time to supply such commercial content for consumers. The study notices that many of these amateurs become hardened professionals and even face the risk of becoming “too emotionally involved” in the trade, which “can ultimately cost more dearly in psychological terms than they make in monetary terms.”

Béliard’s study on savvy TV series viewers (males, interestingly) becoming webmasters is interesting for the very commonality of the subject it discusses. These are men who use their TV viewing experience to contribute to online discussions in their free time and run fan pages. They make money. But one of the interesting findings of the study is that these webmasters do not think of their activity as a form of social upgrading. They do not see it as a way of acquiring a specific social status. They may earn some money, and that’s it.

Evidently, The Social Meaning of Extra Money is a remarkable exercise towards understanding the many nuances of virtual work and commodification of leisure and domestic work, enabled and expedited by the advancements in technology. It poses important questions on the very raison d’etre of such economic activities and elaborates with examples the social impacts of such activities, even though the authors don’t necessarily audit these impacts from a socio-cultural point of view. That’s a limitation of such case studies, as they are constrained in their ability to judge. They just infer and report.

Still, the book is a must-read for all those who are interested in the way capitalism and its labour markets expand into unchartered territories, thanks to saturation in traditional fields of activity. At a time when everything from attention to emotion to care to concern is commoditised and sold in the economy, this collection of case studies will help policymakers and sociologists better understand the way people live and work today in the digital economy and formulate policies accordingly. In this regard, the book’s academic characteristics and occasionally dull prose should not act a deterrent for readers.

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