The New Media Sweatshops

For new-media serfs, cool perks hide 100-hour weeks

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The elevator door slides open and Jess slides in, looking slightly rumpled. Tara sizes her up.

“Didn't get much sleep last night?”

“You can tell?”

“Well, you're wearing the same clothes as yesterday.”

Jess laughs. Her music show, Freq, broadcast live over the Internet here at new-media house Pseudo, went late last night. Apparently the crowd got deep into the mix and the staff wound up hanging around until dawn. Now it's 10:30, and she's back from breakfast to make calls and set up meetings. “At some point I'm gonna have to shower,” she mutters as she wanders off to her desk.

Tara and I tour Pseudo studios, an odd mix of high camp and high tech. Each room reflects the peculiar pop-cultural animus of the twentysomethings who work here. There's the room for the women's Net shows, decorated in a late-'70s drag with a rainbow-colored bead door, shag carpeting, and inflatable toys. A group of goateed musicians hangs out in another room, holding keyboards and a computer monitor. (Who are they? “I have no idea,” Tara says.) There's a massive ballroom on the top floor where Freq is shot, complete with Dorian pillars and an ornate high ceiling, a reminder that this part of Soho has some of New York's most architecturally quirky lofts.

A recent graduate of Ohio University's broadcast news program, Tara is, technically speaking, executive assistant to Pseudo's CEO. Yesterday, however, the company needed someone to dress up as a “Pseudo chick” for a promotional photo shoot, so Tara—a tall, blond 22-year-old—found herself strapped into tall, white go-go boots, a micro mini, and a faux-fur-fringed black top. “The photographer had this 40-ouncer of Wild Turkey, and he kept saying, ‘Want some more? Want some more?’ ” she recalls. “We wound up getting loaded.” She didn't manage more than a few hours of sleep. “Sorry,” she apologizes, yawning. “I'm a bit burnt out today.”

In new media, it's difficult to find anyone who can boast a full night's rest. Later, I visit a 23-year-old acquaintance at a Web site design firm across town, only to find him collapsed on a comfy sofa in the staff room.

Late night? “Yeah.” He's been setting up a database for a Web site set to go live in two days. The client—a major corporation—is getting twitchy. Some deeply caffeinated all-nighters will be called for. “It's intense, but it's going pretty well,” he says, his hair out of whack with a minor case of bed-head. “I figure I have another two days like this. But it's cool—it's a really cool project.” He pours himself a thick coffee (bypassing the free beer) in the well-stocked kitchen and heads back to his workstation, plopping down beside two dozen other coders and designers clacking away at their keyboards as a stereo pumps out ambient techno on an endless loop. Most of them figure they'll be here until four in the morning.

Pulling all-nighters, destroying your eyesight, playing Quake on the company LAN, hanging out in a funky office with your dog: For Young Turks in the new-media workplace—software, Web site development, the amorphous zone of “content”—this stuff is de rigueur. On the surface, it has to do with making work seem more fun and less like a job. Young digital workers, we're told, demand a more creative and accommodating environment. They have thrown off the stuffy, nine-to-five straitjacket in which their parents toiled. No more suits and ties, rigid corporate hierarchies, or dull, repetitive tasks. Today, work means getting to wear your Star Wars T-shirt, display your multiple piercings, and hang out in an office with homey perks: massage-therapist visits, pets, wacky furniture, toys, lots of beer. The staff dines together and parties together; they work hard, sure, but they also play hard, and usually at the same time. And the workers aren't chained to one job anymore; instead, they bop from company to company, forcing hapless employers to scramble after them, offering ever funkier perks and more stock options to lure their portable, highly paid talents. These kids hold all the cards.

Reporters covering the industry marvel at the scenes of controlled chaos and pop-cultural riot, offices transformed from gray veal-fattening pens into bohemian venues with the ambience of elite clubs. At New York's Razorfish, for example, the staff caps off frantic all-nighters by hitting the powder for a weekend of snowboarding. At Netscape in Mountain View, California, staff members quit if they can't bring their dogs to work. And as USA Today once breathlessly noted, Organic Online's office “has been the scene of a dance party, complete with disc jockeys, for 400 people.”

Which is precisely the problem.

This studied hipness is a fascinating and devious cultural illusion. Ultracool offices cover up a seldom-discussed truth: The jobs themselves are often deeply exploitative—demanding intense work and devotion for relatively low pay and zero security. By making work more like play, employers erase the division between the two, which ensures that their young employees almost never leave the office.

And it's true: High-tech employees hang out at work, killing themselves over deadlines, putting in up to 100 hours a week. Instead of going justifiably postal over crazy workloads (or unionizing), they thank their lucky stars for being part of the digital revolution, the cultural flashpoint of the '90s. For employers, it's a sweet deal; you can't buy flexibility like that. As more than one worker has told me, a Web site design company can almost always hold a meeting at two on a Saturday afternoon because, well, everyone's there. Where else would they be?

For all the talk of easygoing environments, new-media companies are also notorious for employee burnout and nanosecond turnover. It's not surprising: Given the insane hours, the payoffs are slim. Despite media hype about high pay, desirability, and stock options, none of these myths holds up under statistical scrutiny. The vast majority of new-media workers in New York, for example, make less than junior accountants or human-resource drones, enjoy the job security of fast-food workers, and have a laughably small chance of being offered stock. As for programmers, most are paid surprisingly little and are hurled overboard as soon as they hit their mid-30s.

Enamored with its own distorted image, the digital workforce is reluctant to accept the facts. “People do not want to face the reality,” complains Bill Lessard, an industry veteran who runs NetSlaves, a Web site that compiles true tales of new-media burnout. “Someone will tell you, ‘Oh I'm a producer,’ but they're just a schmuck who's working 90 hours a week. You give these companies body and soul and you really get nothing back.”

In a weird way, the everyday lives of these workers undermine the values under which they supposedly toil. Touted as the most renegade—and entrepreneurial—generation in years, they are, in traditional labor terms, amazingly subservient: the ideal post-industrial employees. Chained to their keyboards, digital employees paradoxically are the kind of compliant workforce that would have pleased Henry Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Chairman Mao.

When I visit Fred Kahl at new-media firm Funny Garbage, he's busy designing a shockwave-animated computer game based on the TV cartoon Space Ghost. I peer over his shoulder at the screen, where Fred is fiddling with a sequence: Space Ghost chasing the archvillain Lokar, who is impersonating Santa Claus. In a few days, the game will air on the Web site of the Cartoon Network, one of the company's major clients. Kahl shows me around; it's not unlike wandering through a '70s kitsch store, cluttered with retro pop-cultural icons. Fred's desk sports several Silver Surfer models, toy UFOs, action figures, and posters from the Coney Island Circus Sideshow (where he previously worked as a sword swallower). One of the company's founders, 33-year-old Peter Girardi, has three different video-game systems in his office; when I checked in with him, he was “about halfway” through Nintendo's Legend of Zelda.

Not everyone is horsing around; over by the animation computers, three designers hunker down for a long haul, even though it's already past 5:00 on a Friday night. By 9:00, staff members will likely launch into a Quake tournament on the company LAN. It's easy to see how work and life inexorably bleed into each other, and how employers capitalize on the confusion. For people involved in digital culture, a highly wired office can be more inviting than a cramped Manhattan apartment, bar, or club.

In fact, work may offer better partying than a club. “It's always been impossible at Pseudo to draw a line between what is a party and what is a business,” notes Jason Chervokas, co-founder of @NY, a Web site that reports on New York's new-media scene. One of Pseudo's longest-serving staff members is a 29-year-old programmer named Joey Fortuna, who sports an ABUSE THE POWER T-shirt and takes a bemused view of Pseudo's work mania. On his first day four years ago, he arrived to find the office in a fantastic mess from a party held the day before—with huge tubes that dripped water into wading pools, dozens of performance artists, and a gargantuan octopus bong. That morning, CEO Josh Harris staggered in from his on-site apartment, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, and put Fortuna to work developing the company's nascent chat-and-broadcast network—even though Fortuna had never written a line of code in his life.

To get up to speed on HTML, Fortuna put in months of 12-hour days. “I'd smoke incessantly while I worked, and I timed my breaks for when the ashtray was brimming with butts,” he laughs. “It was just insane! . . . But I didn't mind. It was like a clubhouse.” He points to the loft's kooky mix of computers sitting on scarred, wooden desks, with broken piping and heaps of refuse lying about.

“You know, it's ironic,” he grins, “but in the last century, this used to be a sweatshop.”

Burnout is now commonplace enough that the savvier managers and employees try to put limits on the workaholic vibes by instilling old-fashioned rigor: Get in by 10:00, out no later than 7:00. At Funny Garbage, for example, Girardi says he rewards results, not the sheer number of work hours. At Pseudo, Fortuna has achieved enough seniority that he pulled back on his hours, and now works from home two days a week.

If there's an archetypal success story, it's probably that of Jeff Dachis and Razorfish. In spring 1995, Dachis and his friend Craig Kanarick, both in their late 20s, founded the Web site design company in their living rooms. Within a year, they had nabbed such clients as Time Warner and PepsiCo. Known for clean but edgy design, the outfit grew exponentially. Last year, they had 350 employees in eight offices and did $30 million in business.

Companies like Razorfish have built the mythos of gold-rush success: Start a firm in your garage, wow the senior executives at Fortune 500 companies, then take occasional breaks from your PlayStation to watch the dough roll in. “The trappings of power have changed,” wrote Time magazine in an October 1997 survey of the “cyber-elite,” heralding its “brazen encouragement to outthink the status quo, to invent a thousand possible futures.” But here, too, hype far outstrips reality.

Consider pay. A 1997 New York New Media Association study revealed that high-tech jobs paid an average of $37,212—middling at best for a city as expensive as New York, and far outstripped by average New York salaries in advertising ($71,637), periodicals ($69,849), and TV broadcasting ($85,938).

The churn rate is amazingly high. As the New York study found, almost half the city's new-media work is freelance or part time; two-thirds of the freelance contracts last fewer than six months, and most are three-month stints. What this means, of course, is that many digital workers have no employer-supported health care. New media is expanding by essentially passing its costs on to those on the bottom rungs—all in the name of “flexibility.”

Replacing decent pay and regular work is the lure of instant wealth—fabled stock options that turned the Amazon.com and TheGlobe.com creators into multimillionaires. It's a seductive pitch; those who have won the game have won big.

The payoff, though, is about as chimerical as you can get. Most high-tech headhunters counsel their clients that the chance of getting lucrative options is slim. “To cash in on stock, you have to stick around for several years,” says Alex Santic, head of Silicon Alley Connections, “but few people really want to. They want to move on after a year. They get lured in by the promise of stock but rarely see it through.”

Perhaps the most persistent myth is that of the “programmer shortage.” According to this tale, geeks now run the show, and companies are fighting tooth and nail over warm bodies. “Business leaders say the shortage has reached near-crisis proportions,” wrote The Washington Post in a recent article detailing—with a sort of horrified fascination—incredible perks offered to lure programmers, from “signing bonuses like professional athletes” to $70-an-hour rates for temporary work.

But last year, University of California professor Norman Matloff released a rare study of software and new-media firm hiring practices. He concluded there was no shortage of programmers; in fact, companies were hiring only 2 to 4 percent of people they interviewed, a rate far below that for other types of engineers. The shortage, Matloff realized, wasn't in programmers per se; it was in young, unattached programmers, those willing to clock 100-hour weeks for comparatively low salaries (a national average of $40,000).

But as NetSlaves creator Bill Lessard found out, nobody in new media really wants to hear this story. Lessard did his time: In 1995 he was hired as a content producer and bulletin-board manager at Pathfinder, Time Warner's Web site, which touted itself as a cultural hotspot. The young staff governed themselves accordingly: hanging out, sleeping together, almost never leaving the office. “It was a dorm in there,” Lessard says. He fled in 1996.

By then, Lessard's friends were telling him horror stories about their jobs. So he and Steve Baldwin decided to compile a book on the subject. They collected dozens of interviews, and, given the boom in Internet-related books, figured they'd have no trouble attracting interest. Publisher after publisher declined their proposal.

“They'd say it wasn't upbeat enough and that nobody would want to read about this,” Lessard says. Eventually, even their agent gave up. With nowhere else to go, they turned their project into—what else?—the NetSlaves Web site (www.disobey.com/netslaves).

It's surprising that today's young workers, so self-reflective, so otherwise fluent in irony, would buy into the myth of “liberated” digital work. Not that all new-media jobs are unmitigatingly horrible; they're considerably better paid and more challenging than the minimum-wage tedium that passes for most people's work in North America. But what's intriguing is that new-media employees are so desperate to believe that they are not, in fact, workers—that their work can be play, that they can control it, and that their employers are bending over backward to please them. Instead of the other way around.

Clive Thompson is editor-at-large for Shift magazine. From Shift (March 1999). Subscriptions: $17.97/yr. in Canada, $36/yr. in U.S. (9 issues) from 35 Riviera Dr., Unit 17, Markham, ON, Canada L3R 8N4.