Here Come the Web Workers


Sometimes being a web worker is just plain demoralizing. Maybe you’re the only person on your block who telecommutes. Maybe your mom just phoned to ask when you’re going to get a real job so she doesn’t have to feel so ashamed when talking to Mrs. Wilson who has that nice son in med school. Or maybe you’ve just finished an 18-hour all-night marathon pulling together that new set of design comps and gone out for a well-deserved beer, only to have one of your so-called friends remark, “It must be nice to just lay around the house all day.”

Take heart! As a web worker, you’re part of a veritable army of people pursuing nontraditional careers. Sure, there are still a whole lot of people who get up every day and trudge into the same office to collect that steady paycheck. But there are also a whole lot of us who don’t do that – whether you call us web workers, independent contractors, freelancers, or temps, we’re everywhere.

Case in point: New York’s Freelancers Union is a 40,000-strong association of the new type of worker in New York state. They offer message boards, job postings, discounts, and advocacy, but their main draw is access to group insurance programs. Without any sort of collective bargaining, Freelancers Union is more like a giant buying club open to freelancers only than a traditional union, but it does serve to indicate the size of our sector of the economy in one chunk of the country. Even if you’re not in New York, you can join (it’s free); they’re planning a nationwide push and expansion of their insurance benefits, and are trying to guage interest in different areas of the country to see where to go next.

Another data point: as of 2005, the US Census Bureau says there were 18.6 million businesses with no paid employees – that being their way of measuring self-employment. I’m one of them, and unless you’re living dangerously close to the edge of a lawsuit, you probably are too. Of course, so is the beauty salon down the block and the little cafe around the corner, so we need to be a bit cautious in how much we make of that number. But with hundreds of thousands of new people entering the self-employed ranks every year, it seems pretty clear that they’re not all working inside of storefronts. Some substantial chunk of those millions are carting laptops around with the rest of us.

Of course, not every freelancer is a web worker. Graphics artists, dancers, writers, editors, programmers, web designers, actors, office temps, sex industry workers, carpet cleaners…the list of occupations without a “steady job” isn’t a perfect match for the list of those who spend their days living in the virtual world. And by the same token, not everyone who spends their entire day online is a web worker. We all know people who manage to lead active online lives despite the fact that they’re theoretically on the clock for a major corporation (or living at home with their parents and not working at all, for that matter).

As web workers, we’re at the intersection of these two trends. As the rising curve of self-employment meets the growing use of the Internet as a legitimate third place, we’re already there. We are the self-employed who choose to live our lives (and therefore manage our careers, though that’s cause, not effect) on the web.

The interesting question is what role we web workers will have in tapping into the potential power of this growing trend as more people come to join us? Will we be content to continue to organize purely for fun, through blogs and IM and Twitter and all the other overlapping communications structures of the Web? Will we be turned into a vast political force, as the growing crop of 2008 presidential candidates clearly hope? Can we follow the Freelancers Union example and find ways to work as a self-help group, leveraging the buying power of our numbers? Will the “work” side of the equation move us towards the more traditional union organizing of groups like WashTech?

If history is any guide, the answer is “all of the above.” The web – and our growing tribe of web workers – is too anarchic and varied to be pushed in any one particular direction. But with the explosive growth of our numbers in recent years, one thing seems clear: if we don’t want other people deciding to speak for us, we’re going to have to decide how to speak for ourselves. Our demographic is just too large to hide unnoticed in the shadows.


Amie Gillingham

@ Mark

There may be another local org that can let you buy into group insurance and resources that isn’t necessarily freelancer-centric. For example, our small home-based company was able to join the Pittsburgh Technology Council.


Where’s the Freelancers Union alternative outside of NY? Anyone know of one in MA? Or is it individual plans?


Matthew, that’s terribly bad luck… you guys really have the most screwed up health care for a first world country.

My son was born 6 months ago, thankfully with no complications, and at the end of the day the Australian government *gave us* A$4000. That’s in addition to no cost for public hospital ante-natal care, the delivery, etc. Our only out of pocket expenses were about A$400 for additional sonograms, they were by no means necessary, but I got to see my son’s face before he was born (3D/4D scan)

Then my wife, as a school teacher, was entitled to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Makes me feel ungrateful for complaining about a case of burnout. As a new parent, I sincerely hope for the best outcome for your family.

Matthew Reinbold

I’m definitely in that burnout area right now. Things were going along swimmingly and I loaded up on work for my web worker self and then had a disastrous (and, just as bad, time consuming) medical problem happen.

I love making a living with little more than a laptop and thought stuff but right now I feel so vulnerable. I think back to my cubical days – there I had the support of a large organizations where, when this kind of thing happens, I could take the time off to deal with things and know I had a paycheck and a place when I was ready to come back. As it is now I’m in and out of doctors offices during the day and up until the wee hours scrambling to catch up. The clients aren’t getting my best work, I’m (at best) running in circles fighting fires, and time for new customer acquisition is the last thing on my mind.

We NEED networks of support so that web workers aren’t one tragedy away from returning to a day job.

Xavier Watson

This is the reason that artists form collectives, I think.

Since humans are such social creatures, having positive re-enforcement, shared values and aspirations, etc. from the people around you is necessary to achieve daring goals. I do not mean this in just an abstract sense, but physical as well; family and friends on the one hand, neighbors, coworkers… the people who share your physical space on the other.

If you ever begin to feel like the pressure to conform to those around you is growing, do not take it as some kind of personal weakness. We are social animals, and all that. Think about surrounding yourself with the right sort of people, instead.

If you are young and single, look for art lofts or other collective living spaces — or coordinate leases and forge a new one with your friends.

If you are married, have children, or laden with property and such, no matter — look ahead to the future and think about moving into close proximity with friends when the kids are out of college or at retirement. A neighborhood or virtual village.

Much, much easier said than done. I think the people, or groups, that figure it out first will be the ones that succeed most going forward; how will chronically disgruntled individuals compete against the creative (or even economic) output of a network of supportive cheer?


as much as I hate the burnout phase I’m going thru here right now, I wouldn’t trade the last 4 years of working from home for the desk-bound wage slavery of my previous jobs.

People in suits can think what they like, but I hope that when they see me wandering out to check the mail in shorts and a t-shirt on a summer afternoon, they wonder what they’re missing – because in a good month, I probably make twice what they do :-)

John Beales

It’s awesome to see you mentioned dancers as part of the 18.6 million businesses with no paid employees. That’s my other job! Dance in the morning, web work in the afternoon, (usually). One of the reasons I do web work is because it’s so flexible I can change my schedule around dance.

My tax returns are something else though…

Amie Gillingham

My company’s whole business model is online culture, community, and marketing tools for artists selling their work online, with the internet giving them access to peer support and global exposure (and resulting sales) that they might not have gotten had they stayed in the vacuum of working solo from home. I do think that what we’re doing is going to become more and more common as we see nichified groups of self-employed people coming together to form larger communities online and leveraging their collective power.

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