They’re hoping to solve some of the new economy’s problems with an old tactic: collective bargaining.
Instagram members have had enough.
They generate the engagement that helps keep Instagram growing—but, they argue, the multibillion-dollar platform doesn’t pay them for their work, or give them any control. So they’re fighting back. And before you write off IG Meme Union Local 69-420 as a joke, the organizers of the collective would like you to know that they are very serious.
“Solidarity actions with memers. Memers of the world unite,” the Instagram page for the union reads, encouraging followers to “seize the memes of production.”
The IG Meme Union will probably never be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, but organizers say it can still act as a union for all intents and purposes. “We’re calling it a union and doing union-organizing tactics,” Paul Praindo, a representative of the organizing committee, told me. “We stand in firm support of others who are working to organize anti-labor industries. We think these movements mark the beginning of a labor renaissance.” Some other “unions” function this way: The Freelancers Union, for instance, doesn’t have a formal management structure to negotiate with, but does advocate collectively for independent workers.
Similarly, the IG Meme Union, which is currently taking applications through an online form, hopes to negotiate better working conditions for memers who say they have been exploited by Instagram and other tech platforms for too long. “People are doing a lot of work, doing it for free or little compensation, or not recognized for the work they’re doing,” Praindo said. “All these people are bringing revenue to Instagram, producing this major profit margin for this company, and they’re subject to really little job security.”
Instagram follows the same business model as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social platforms. The service itself is free to use, but the platform monetizes the content posted to it to sell ads based on metadata attached to that content. Users themselves, who are the ones posting the photos, videos, and memes that keep people coming back to the app, don’t get a cut of that revenue.
“We as content creators want to have worker protections,” Praindo said. “Even if you’re producing funny pictures of Shrek, that should not determine whether you’re taken seriously as a creator or your livelihood is imperiled at the drop of a hat … We are a meme union; the whole point of it is to work for protections for other content creators.”
Instagram declined to say explicitly on the record whether it supports the union. Instead, a company spokesperson offered a statement: “We’re always listening to feedback from the community,” it said. “We’re happy to have the feedback so we can improve. Hearing these concerns is useful for us.”
A few things the IG Meme Union wants: a more open and transparent appeals process for account bans; a direct line of support with Instagram, or a dedicated liaison to the meme community; and a better way to ensure that original content isn’t monetized by someone else. “Having a public and clear appeal process is a big thing,” Praindo said. “People appeal now and get turned down, and they won’t know why.” (In a statement, an Instagram spokesperson said, “Each week we review millions of reports and there are times when we make mistakes.” She also said the company would soon be rolling out an option to appeal post removals.)
So far, the union’s message has been well received by the broader meme community. Administrators for accounts with millions of followers said they support the group’s efforts and would stand in solidarity with them. “I think the union is a good thing. There should be something like this,” said Sonny5ideUp, a memer with more than 1 million followers on Instagram. Jackson Weimer, a writer for Meme Insider who has also created several successful Instagram meme pages, said he thinks the union is a “good idea” and a necessary way to get Instagram to finally take memers seriously.
Memers represent a burgeoning sector of the labor force that currently has no job security or formal protection. “If you’re spending all your time as a Twitch broadcaster or creating memes, that is work,” says John Ahlquist, an associate professor at the University of San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, who has done research on the changing nature of work. “People that are trying to earn a living on these platforms are recognizing how vulnerable they are on an individual basis with respect to the platform, and so they’re turning to this tried-and-true model of collective action.”
Memers aren’t direct employees of these tech platforms, nor are they independent contractors for them. But they produce, directly or indirectly, the bulk of these platforms’ income. And current labor protections don’t cover this type of “mediated work,” Ahlquist told me.
“All the basic labor-market regulations we have in place to try to give people fallback in the event of illness or the recession or aging—they’re all designed and counted under a particular set of contractual arrangements that no longer fit many people,” he said. “That labor contract [and those jobs] looks like things we’re familiar with from the middle of the 20th century.”
This isn’t the first time internet influencers and creators have tried to band together to make their voices heard—with varying results. Top YouTubers often join multichannel networks, which bargain for higher rates and facilitate a direct line to YouTube. In 2015, more than 20 of Vine’s top stars joined together to attempt to negotiate a payment structure from the app. When talks broke down between the Viners and the platform, they walked; Vine’s user base and engagement plummeted, and the app later shuttered. In 2016, more than 100 top Facebook pages reaching more than 10 million users collectively banded together to form the Meme Alliance, which argued for more transparent enforcement of the platform’s community standards. Facebook did end up revamping its moderation policies, though it did not directly acknowledge the Meme Alliance.
While previous efforts by small groups of creators may have stalled, William Fitzgerald, a volunteer with the Tech Workers Coalition, a worker-led organizing group for the tech industry, told me that the IG Meme Union is forming at an optimal time. Tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon have come under fire recently for exploitative labor practices, and the public is becoming aware of just how much power these companies exert over our lives and economy.
Amazon was recently forced to scrap its plans for its New York City expansion after backlash. Employees at Google staged a 20,000-person walkout and protest last fall over the company’s mishandling of sexual-harassment claims, forcing the company to revise its policy. Uber and Lyft drivers have attempted to unionize, as have staff at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and in tech-adjacent sectors such as animation and digital media. Polygon recently declared that 2019 could be “the year video game unions go big.”
People are “seeing that across the tech sector you have this handful of really big tech companies with control over the livelihoods of so many creators,” Fitzgerald said. “There are so few platforms with so much power and no accountability or rules.”
Weimer said that he hopes the conversation around the memers’ union will help open a discussion about these creators’ value to the platforms and their impact on broader culture. “We need to recognize the people who are creating these trends and give them respect for their accounts and what they’re doing,” he said. “Memers need to be respected for the power they have as creators.”