The digital economy is more youthful than you think

Christian Fieseler

This story is about Miray, Nick, Ash and thousands of young digital entrepreneurs.

BI's Nordic Centre for Internet and Society and Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society's Youth and Media Group recently published a report on how young people acquire skills and capital. The names in this article are pseudonyms, but the stories are from real people.

Young people grow up immersed in a digital platform ecosystem. They participate in a variety of paid and unpaid economic transactions where they consume and produce content, while exposing themselves to an intense flow of advertising.

The logic of data-driven business models means that online platforms have a paradoxical and contradictory relationship with youth. On the one hand, young people are empowered because they are given tools and spaces to exercise their agency as active and creative consumers and producers of culture. On the other, corporate platforms commodify their data, attention, culture, labor, and creativity for profits that are not shared equally.

From likes to capital - Miray and her love for veganism

During her first year in college, Miray began posting photos of the meals she cooked on her Instagram account.

In a few months, @VeganMiray had an audience of almost 50,000 followers and the status of an influencer among the vegan community on Instagram.

Miray shares discount codes online, earning her a commission if followers use her code. She has also started writing a vegan cookbook.

Most do not have millions or even thousands of followers on their accounts, but social media is full of young users like Miray who consume, produce, and share content online.

In this way, they do not only contributing to a dynamic culture, but also participating in a changing economic landscape. They learn, socialize, play, and work. Earning social, cultural and economic capital.

There are also risks.

First, young people are not often fully aware of the extent to which their data is collected, aggregated, and analyzed by platforms and services. For example how personal information is collected by Facebook when someone 'likes' a page.

Second, platforms and services profit from young people’s data, attention, culture, labor, and creativity. Yet the benefits are not shared equally, and some researchers claim that unpaid work is the reason some internet companies are able to make so much money.

Aspirational labor - Nick and his music production

Since he was 16, Nick has made video game music with his laptop and keyboard.

He uploads his music to Soundcloud. Three years after joining, he has shared 10 video game soundtracks and gained almost 300 followers. His most popular tracks have been listened to thousands of times.

Nick's story is an example of aspirational labor. He works without pay now, in the hope that he will get paid later. He has also learned important skills, such as sound mixing and voice recording.

Because the pay-off is exposure, personal brand is crucial. Nick and other aspirational workers must carefully construct their digital personas to meet their audience on a range of platforms. This can blur the line between work and non-work and make young people more business focused.

The pressure is intense, and young people who fail to get their big break often blame themselves. The myth of equal opportunity is popular, hiding inequalities.

For example only people who can afford to spend time and money are able to participate. Aspirational labor is not possible if you cannot afford a keyboard, or need to work to put food on the table.

Virtual collaboration - Ash and 'Hands for Orlando'

When she was 15, Ash started work on the animation project 'Hands for Orlando' on the online creative platform Scratch. A tribute to victims of a 2016 shooting in a Florida nightclub.

Ash's ability to effectively lead work across 37 animators in three countries was essential. She wrote a list of 16 rules to organize her team. Most rules referred to specific tasks, for example "refrain from using stick figures", or "no blood / gore".

Some set out shared values for the project. Rule 11 was "Be thoughtful. This [project] is honoring the victims of a terrible tragedy." Rule 13 was "Animate from your heart <3"

By working on projects like 'Hands for Orlando', Ash and young people like her practice virtual collaboration and leadership.

Online collaboration requires a mix of hard and soft skills. Hard technical skills are necessary to use the platforms, while soft interpersonal skills are necessary to build trust between team members, and a shared understanding of goals and tasks in the project.

Published 25. June 2020

You can also see all news here.