My dissertation on the “liminal work” of freelance writing online is now available to download and share

Monika Sengul-Jones
4 min readMay 17, 2021

Work culture of the 2010s is over, whether or not we go “back to normal.” But in the last few years of the decade, I was immersed in research and analysis of remote freelance writing work in English after the 2008 Recession. With the massive — and uneven — social changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on workplaces, my findings are all too prescient on what was, and is yet, to come.

Papers with typed words, handwriting in margins.

So I’m sharing them. My dissertation manuscript (link at end of story) is available under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 license. This means you’re not allowed to make derivates or use commercially. Rather, anyone is free to read and share — as long as you give me credit.

The photograph above depicts my messy writing journey. The outcome of this writing journey are precisely insights about process. As I invite you to read and share, here are a few reasons why this work is important now:

*Remote online work is here to stay. The impact of COVID-19’s changes to the workplace means workers who can work remotely will likely continue in some way. People are productive at home. And it can be cheaper for organizations. New hires may join organizations as remote workers. As tech writer Kara Swisher for The New York Times opined recently, this means there’s going to be a slew of new technologies to manage remote workers and enduring concerns about data tracking and surveillance.

But as I show in my dissertation, more is at stake than data collection about remote workers. Work is done differently, analogous to technologies that are used — including the places where workers socialize about their work-life in informal ways. Just as the spatial arrangements and cultural habits of coworkers influence how people feel and go about their work, so do the platform designs and online communication patterns, which I describe in Chapter 4: “Being ghosted” and “droughts.” Research about technological design and how to support “digital” water coolers must keep in mind the affective and psychological relations and new ways that inequalities and divergences will emerge. Scholars and experts in workplace design and communication, human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers, and more generally, anyone who does remote work may find these findings relevant to their work.

*Freelancing and the marginalization of information stewardship continue in the 2020s. How did we get here? Chapter 1 and 2 offer an alternative history, the prehistory of the freelancer, specifically in relation to the free software movement, libraries, and mythologies about entrepreneurialism. Irecover how the idealized, atomized writer is connected to legacies of government funding in the post-war United States and the commercial growth of the internet, which required displacing information stewards, librarians.

*Marginalized and trivialized histories matter. This is perhaps the most important reason to dive into this. The dissertation modestly recuperates less visible work histories of women and non-gender conforming writers working on writing platforms that have since closed. From the sassy writing on xoJane to the banal how-to pieces penned for Demand Media Studios, the dissertation documents marginalia — paid work that is neither glamorous nor lasting. I pause in these spaces — “studying horizontally” — focusing on only a few platforms. Writers may find these stories about other writers doing this work close to home. I focus on aspects of the work that are not often talked about. Dr. Lilly Irani, whom I was lucky to work with at University of California San Diego, explained the significance of my research in relation to community formation (going beyond, for instance, the important lens of how algorithms and data collection practices impact communities and work ideologies):

“We’re in a world that is quick to use quantification as a measure of authority,” said Irani. “The beauty of [her work] is it helps us see that the labor of writing makes community possible. By asking questions about how writing gets done, who gets funded, and using creative methodologies, [this is] also the story how we come together. This is why [her] writing matters for the future.”

There are other online publishing platforms that I would like to cover in a future book — such as The Establishment and The Hairpin — and writers I interviewed contributed to these. What I show is how in a particular moment, people were making sense of what they were doing. And the impact for understanding our current environment and the ways that work, and gender, are valued. How freelance writers using new technologies, platforms, and tools get and do work. And writing about daily, kitsch, and gut-wrenching topics, in a breath: Lip gloss. Ebooks. Black identity. Shame. Rape. For platforms and publishers that are almost all now defunct.

I diagnose the way these iterations of online freelance writing happened as “liminal work:” a configuration that compels writers to possess a subject position that is never quite realized.

Interpretative, ethnographic, based on participant observation and one-on-one interviews with generous subjects, the manuscript engages with the important work of scholars I’ve had the privilege of reading deeply. I tie practices to emotions, affects, and mythologies.

Though I’ve given conference presentations and talks, and shared with my interviewees, ultimately this work has had a small audience. Yet I poured myself into this work for years, on and off. I’m lucky to have had the guidance of an incredible committee, chaired by Dr. Lisa Cartwright. So as I near the one-year anniversary of my defense, releasing this is an acknowledgement of what was done, and that I’ve moved on to new projects and initiatives. So, nervously. Eagerly. Hopefully. Gently. Here you go:

The Liminal Work of Online Freelance Writing (2020) CC BY-NC-ND 3.0