This essay analyzes how the digital media economy harnesses young people's search for meaningful work to develop new apparatuses and mechanisms of extracting value from activities that are not typically recognized as work. Drawing on interviews with net idols and an analysis of the digital infrastructure that evolved around the trend, the essay offers three arguments. First, it claims that the digital economy has adopted a particular mode of accumulation—the social factory—that has expanded sources of value extraction by blurring the boundaries between paid/productive and unpaid/reproductive labor. Second, this essay conceptualizes the net idols' production of cute culture as emotional labor and claims that the digital media economy has effectively expanded the practices through which value is extracted from women's unwaged labor far beyond the domestic sphere. Third, it demonstrates that young women did not uncritically embrace this logic. Rather, they insisted on using digital media to gain leverage in the labor market and improve their chances for upward social mobility. The essay concludes that, resonant with the ways in which women's unwaged labor in the home was instrumental to maintaining the socioeconomic order of the high-growth period, women's unpaid emotional labor remains central to a society in which labor precarity generates a demand for emotional labor. At the same time, by promoting to young people digital media as tools they can utilize to develop new skills, the digital economy makes the idea of unpaid labor more acceptable by repositioning it as a prerequisite to attain lucrative and meaningful work.
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Gabriella Lukacs; The Labor of Cute: Net Idols, Cute Culture, and the Digital Economy in Contemporary Japan. positions 1 August 2015; 23 (3): 487–513. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-3125863
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