Liminal work abstract


The Liminal Work of Online Freelance Writing:
Networked Configurations of Gendered Labor, Technologies, Subjectivities


This dissertation is a theoretical, interpretative, and empirical study of online freelance writing work in the 2010s in the United States. The aftermath of the 2008 recession saw a rise in remote writing work opportunities and online platforms facilitating and scaffolding such work. A field of precarious work that was predominately occupied by women, the dissertation tracks freelance writing work done on explicitly feminist online platforms for women readers and writing work done by women on crowd work marketplace platforms brokering low-paid content writing piece work.

Using ethnographic methods, participant observation, and interpretative, historical textual analysis, this dissertation advances the neologism “liminal work” to ground my analysis over four chapters. Liminal, which comes from the Latin word “threshold,” suggests a physical crossing from one place to another. The “liminal work” of freelance writing online is the maintenance of ambiguity, accomplished through attachments to historical and speculative concepts of autonomy and the liberal human subject. I advance this argument with attention to the mythology of entrepreneurialism as a frame that enables contemporary, situated dependencies to perpetuate in platform design. I scope the intersection of historical debates about freedom to access information online before the commercial internet with the gendered work of library service professionals as prefiguring commercial online websites and writerly work. I analyze empirical reports from women doing online freelance writing, interwoven with my own experiences as a researcher and writer. I focus on stories that are told, from the stories in published articles, stories justifying practical work processes and their logics, to stories about professional alignments, hopes, disappointments, and dependencies.

The dissertation diagnoses the liminal work of online freelance writing as a technology of a compulsion to possess a subject position that is not quite realized. My analysis is grounded in theories of feminist infrastructure studies and intersubjectivity, and I give close attention to the function of apostrophe, metaphors and non-representational myths as devices of intersubjective feelings and the networked configurations of technologies and subjectivities that they are realized within.

The outcome is a modest recuperation of less visible work histories. This is an interpretation of a snapshot of the inner workings of this moment in the early 21st century economy and a map of the ways that gendered intersections of networked configurations of labor and technologies open up certain futures, and also make destabilization possible. While this work is about the 2010s, the dissertation may stoke the imagination beyond the time of this writing, into the 2020s, a period during which we face yet another, even harsher, economic turndown and an unprecedented reliance on commercial and mediated digital work practices.

By Monika Sengul-Jones, 2020, Department of Communication (Science Studies), UC San Diego

*For a copy of the dissertation, please contact me. I am currently revisions sections of the dissertation for publication, and later will publish under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license.