- Wattpad, Platform Capitalism, and the Feminization of Publishing Work
Wattpad is a reading and writing platform that is mainly free to use, which allows users to easily upload and interact with text, and is developing techniques to chart reading behavior and to deploy this data to shape ongoing content production. It has accumulated a vast treasure of material—by one count now "the biggest database of user-generated fiction"1 online—and every moment of engagement with that material is gathered in the form of data and marshalled in a panoply of ways.
In one of the earliest studies of the platform, Melanie Ramdarshan Bold positions Wattpad as part of what Henry Jenkins famously celebrated as the "participatory culture" of productive fandom, a generative "prosumption" blurring amateur and professional modes. Bold argues that social computing "has created a shift from consumer culture to a culture of participation" that allows people "to contribute to social collaboration and production instead of, simply, passively consuming products." In turn "writing is slowly becoming more open and democratic," while "traditional publishers are no longer the sole gatekeepers of written culture."2
More recently Claire Parnell has studied Wattpad as a sign of the need for a broader "integration of publishing and platform studies." She argues, like Bold, that cultural production now takes place in a "media environment where the distinction between non-professional amateur and professional, commercial creativity continues to blur." Yet for Parnell Wattpad's case is best understood through an "entertainment ecosystem" approach. Within this ecosystem, "the economic, technological and cultural assemblages of the platform shape content production and reception." To grasp its operations we need, Parnell argues, "a non-hierarchical ecology model" that has a "heuristic value for connecting publishing and digital media studies as it allows for a consideration of cooperative intermedia relationships and [End Page 419] emerging media forms that exist within this dynamic sphere of creative production."3
My contribution to the scholarship on Wattpad parts ways both with the participatory culture approach and the ecosystem model. In emphasizing the expansion of inclusion in activities of cultural production, the participatory culture approach risks disguising the nature of exploitation and profit making in the industry. In emphasizing horizontal connections and complex networks, the entertainment ecosystem approach risks overlooking the determining force of platform capitalism on the nature of cultural experience today, while evacuating any real critique of the effects of social media on the behaviors and mentalities of readers and writers.4
I embrace Simone Murray's caution in her work on authorship in the digital age: that we must not "retrofit" transformation in the book industry with "a discourse of authorial empowerment" that helps pave the way "for authors to shoulder more of the financial and time burden for publicizing and marketing their own work." The "rhetoric of author empowerment" can fit "hand in glove" with publishing industry "cost shifting," she adds.5 Taking my cue from Murray's mention of labor as a topic of concern for publishing studies, I discuss how Wattpad's success reflects and reinforces trends in the distribution of publishing work and profits. Key among these trends is the feminization of labor and the habits of thinking about reading and writing that support it.
These habits entail conceiving of publishing as a roster of personally satisfying activities of bibliotherapeutic pastoral care work. This conception helps to stimulate and justify harrying overwork. It also encourages free activity that is not exactly work, in that it is unpaid, but that resembles work, in that in other contexts people are paid to do the same activities, or it is done in the hopes that it might become paid work in the future. By putting Wattpad's marketing materials in conversation with successful Wattpad authors' public statements about their own experiences, we glimpse something of the labor subtending a platform that promotes itself as a space of pastoral care and inclusive community. This matters because, as Aarthi Vadde notes, Wattpad is one of the newly dominant, increasingly powerful "communal processes of reading and writing [that] exert transformative pressure on august institutions of literature, from the publishing house to professional authorship to reviewing culture." She adds...