UW Comm’s visiting graduate researcher gives colloquium

msengul-jones-smallOn Monday, June 1, visiting graduate researcher from UC San Diego Monika Sengul-Jones will give a colloquium titled “Shadow Work: Online ghostwriting and the foreclosed dream of freelance writing.” Join us in CMU 126 at 3:30 p.m.

Abstract: English-language websites brokering freelance writing work online promise novice, aspiring writers a more authentic work life — albeit one that is premised on a stable Internet connection, web literacy, and a commitment to the unpaid work of self-branding. Paradoxically, online work platforms inviting “green” writers to make freelance careers through them (Elance, oDesk, Freelancer, outsource.com) often broker ghostwriting work. Based on an ongoing ethnographic project with English-language freelance writers, this paper presents a series of ethnographic antidotes of ghosting that emerge in my work-in-progress: an Indian writer hired to write a blog, then told to use a ‘white’ stock photo and name; a writer hired to do secretarial work, then requested to initiate correspondence with women on a dating website, ghosting her client. I use Lauren Berlent’s concept of “cruel optimism” as a heuristic to explain how novice freelancers are emotionally grappling with, and practically handling, the little indignities of ghostwriting. As an aesthetic, online freelance writing is premised on the assumed authority of authorship as a noble vocation and legal status. But for new freelancers, this dream is out of reach — often to their dismay, since the aesthetic synchronizes well with their visions of what a writerly life should be. I discuss how their reported interactions with the websites’ designs facilitate this “cruel” aesthetic and its attending foreclosures: client- and search-term oriented, freelance work websites foreground the project of making freelancers appear salable and trustworthy, while sidelining the type of work — such as ghostwriting work — freelancers end up doing. Through this analysis of my ethnographic work so far, I describe the further questions my work raises about the accomplishment of authorship in digital infrastructures, and possible directions I will go. I also invite feedback.