Meme Makers are Mad: The Push to Unionize Memes
Meme makers are building a union, and it’s no joke.
While social media platforms like Instagram, and its parent company Facebook, are premised on their utility as tools for connection and communication, they also serve as the point of dissemination for a variety of new types of media. Namely, memes.
Platforms like Instagram are nothing without an active user base. While users certainly employ the app to share moments from their lives — the use for which the platform was originally designed — these same users have now come to expect that their favorite content creators will also be active on the platform.
Meme pages on Instagram have cultivated an audience of many millions through the potent combination of their comedic prowess, as well as a steady, reliable stream of content production. While some memers have been able to parlay their creativity into lucrative sponsorships with companies and brands, this is the exception and not the rule.
In reality, most meme pages, even many of the most successful, are operated without any sort of compensation. One could have an audience of hundreds of thousands, or millions, and not see a single cent of remuneration.
The relationship that platforms maintain to their community of popular content creators is particularly lucrative. While creators are constantly pumping out view-generating-content, Instagram is busy monetizing the gaze of users through a combination of ad placement, data harvesting, and trend tracking.
Though this type of relationship might appear to some of us as outside of the traditional ‘employee vs. employer’ dynamic, it bears striking similarities to the kind of exploitation that is carried on in more traditional labor arrangements. Moreover, it’s possible that through increasing digitization and automation, the terrain of labor conflict will begin to further resemble the struggle that meme makers are currently engaged in.
It’s for this reason, among others, that some content creators have come to the realization that it’s their own labor — not that of Instagram’s owners — which the continued popularity of the platform depends on.
In coming to this realization, some of those creators have chosen to band together and take collective action. We caught up with a founding member of Unionized Memes, a user who goes by @possumkratom69 — or more simply, Poss — to find out about the genesis of the organization and what plans it has in store.
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Salvo: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of the organization? How many people were part of the initial push to get it off of the ground? How did you meet each other?
Poss: Many of us have met through memeing and knew each other at varying degrees. The meme community on Instagram is already pretty established with its own politics and relationships. I was one of the first organizers and it did not take much convincing people once greivances were commonly understood.
Salvo: How many people are currently members of the union?
Poss: Nearly 200 at the time of this writing. On our page, we only follow members [of the union] who are vetted and Instagram's official account.
Salvo: Do your members receive income from their labor creating content? Do they survive on it?
Poss: Some people in our union make money through ad sales, t-shirts, podcasts, or other sorts of hustles. There are some people who count on this income as a significant portion of their livelihoods.
Salvo: Have you been in touch with existing labor organizations? Are you receiving support from them?
Poss: Yes! We have received tons of solidarity from IWW locals, from individual members of unions domestically and internationally, AFL-CIO, CWA, ILWU and many others, including Steelworkers from Germany.
Salvo: Can you lay out the principle goals of the union? What is your strategy to achieve them?
Poss: A big part of our work is to create protections and communication in order to prevent arbitrary and punitive deletions of pages using Instagram to make a living. We want to build out solidarity among members and protect one another when we are removed, or our traffic is artificially throttled. Additionally, we want to build awareness among young people and non union members that collective action in their workplaces is an immediate and tangible way to improve working conditions and bring about change.
Salvo: Meme and content makers appear to have a different relationship to social media platforms than traditional employees have to their bosses. How do you conceive of your relationship with Instagram and its parent company, Facebook?
Poss: It is weird, because we are all in a new and modern relationship to labor where we are most analogous to independent contractors. Bosses have done a very good job in recent years of obfuscating their relationship to employees. You “only” post work on a platform, therefore they do not have to offer you any guarantees. In effect they still have the most power in a relationship where they can just kick you off [of the platform]. We produce wealth, user interaction, and content for a platform, but make our money entirely on our own. We still deserve labor protections like all workers do.
I think we are seeing that sort of work towards unionization happening in hard to organize industries across the country. Fastfood workers in Portland through the Burgerville Workers Union and Little Big Burger Union, sex workers in L.A., and most recently, rideshare drivers across the country and internationally. We know we are being underpaid and are vulnerable. We know that the work of building power and demanding a better situation from the bosses, regardless of how nebulous they may be, is necessary.
Salvo: Who can join the union? Where can they submit an application?
Poss: We welcome content creators of all stripes to apply. The only stipulations are: No racists, no bigots (misogynists, transphobes, SWERFs, TERFs etc), no abusers, no anti-union ideologues, and no fascists.
If you want to submit an application for membership, visit our website: www.unionmemes.com
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