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Antiwork, and the Politics of Organization

Original illustration by Lana Wang

From December 2020 to January 2022, r/antiwork was one of the fastest-growing communities, or subreddits, on the social network Reddit. It was a place for users to theorize about a world without compulsory labor, vent about their jobs, and even organize for various labor movements. But only a few hours after r/antiwork’s first mainstream interview, conducted by Jesse Watters of Fox News in January, the subreddit was on lockdown and could no longer be casually accessed by non-members. In a word, it had gone “private.”

r/antiwork was founded in 2014. Its tagline, “unemployment for all, not just the rich,” summarizes exactly what the community had stood for since its inception. However, with the growth of the subreddit and the rise of job insecurity with the pandemic, the subreddit transformed from being a place for discussing philosophy into a hub for commiserating about the current state of labor in the United States and organizing to improve the flawed system. These two populations within the subreddit—one focused on the theoretical and one on the concrete—were easily able to coexist on the subreddit under the label r/antiwork. But these two conflicting camps came to a head during the Fox News interview.

Doreen Ford was a natural choice to be interviewed about r/antiwork. She was selected by the moderators not just because she was the longest-running moderator of the subreddit, but also because of her previous interview experience. However, some moderators later claimed they were not even alerted of an interview taking place. That very fact presented issues that became abundantly clear as the Fox News interview progressed. “I think laziness is a virtue in a society where people constantly want you to be productive 24/7,” said Ford in the interview, one of the many quotes that earned a mocking smirk from Watters. It quickly became clear that it was not just Watters who found Ford’s comments worthy of ridicule: The subreddit was made private shortly after the interviews by moderators who cited trolling and harassment from Reddit users. 

This rage at r/antiwork after Ford’s interview was not only coming from bad-faith actors on the outside, but also from members of the community itself. Members felt that Ford had failed to truly speak for the subreddit, which, since Ford began moderating, has morphed from a place for philosophical debate to a place for concrete collective action. As one r/antiwork member, u/dGlitch, succinctly summarized in the top comment under a mod statement: “Can the mods please stop trying to represent us. You are not the leaders of the movement nor spokes[people]. You are solely here to keep this sub[reddit] a civil place.” User No-Garlic-1739 bemoaned, in a top post titled “Antiwork needs to decide what this subreddit is about,” that, “there seems to be a clear separation between users who think this subreddit is about: stagnating wages, improving workers rights, etc. Meanwhile, the moderators seem to have created the subreddit to discuss: Universal Basic Income, Anarchism.”

The sentiment in r/antiwork raises an important question for the internet age: Who owns a decentralized internet movement? The internet has improved individuals’ ability to organize, and in the past couple of years we’ve seen internet movements have real global consequences. The best example is perhaps the 2011 Arab Spring, where millions of protestors across countries in the Middle East and North Africa were able to disseminate information regarding protests through Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Just this past year, traders on r/wallstreetbets collectively caused GameStop stock to skyrocket, which affected multiple hedge funds betting on its failure. Even within r/antiwork, there has been some formal organization at times. Users organized a Black Friday strike last year and spammed the Kellogg’s job application portal with fake applications during the Kellogg’s strike. All of these occurrences point to a fundamental shift in our culture made possible by the internet. It is now easier than ever to organize, but the natural consequence of the internet’s inherent decentralization is on full display in the Ford interview. 

The Ford interview is a worst-case scenario of a movement’s so-called “leader” not listening to the actual desires of the movement’s members. Despite the original goal of the subreddit—the discussion of anarchist philosophy—the subreddit had long been transformed into a place for labor rights. It was Ford’s responsibility to speak as a representative of that movement during her interview. She had been brought onto Fox News to speak about the r/antiwork of 2021, the r/antiwork that organized behind labor movements. Instead, she spoke as a member of the r/antiwork of 2014, the theoretical anarchist subreddit. Both incarnations of the subreddit have their virtues, but Ford should not have gone on to speak about the latter when she was meant to talk about the former. 

A unique feature of grassroots internet movements is their formlessness. In the case of r/antiwork, several different philosophies were able to coexist under one amorphous banner. This has also been the case among movements like Antifa, which is famously leaderless. While there have been some extreme actors for the movement, its strong and simple message has garnered mass appeal and support. The problem with trying to organize decentralized internet factions into a “movement” is that once a movement has an official ideology, it can be harder for new members to get involved. What had made r/antiwork so powerful up until now was the way people from across the political spectrum have been able to unite there. This likely would not have happened had the movement been formalized. 

This is exemplified by the Fox News interview. Fox News’s working class viewership is 23 percent, according to EffectTV, a Comcast asset that collects user data on channels for advertisers. That is two percentage points higher than the measure for both CNN and MSNBC. Labor rights is one of the few issues today that people from both sides of the political spectrum can truly empathize with. Thus, the interview was a ripe opportunity to introduce blue-collar Republicans to labor organization and its virtues. Instead, r/antiwork was represented as a movement of anarchists. This is the problem with formalizing a movement: Ford assumed the role of the movement’s leader and her attempted to define the movement in her own terms, declining the opportunity to forge common ground between working-class Republicans and Democrats. 

The formalizing of popular internet movements cannot entirely be avoided, but there are some ways to mitigate the damage of what happened with r/antiwork. For instance, when the GameStop stock was rising, members of r/wallstreetbets were interviewed, as opposed to moderators. Additionally, many make it explicitly clear in their interviews that they are simply members and not spokespeople of the movement. In the case of r/antiwork, having several moderators, or both moderators and members, speak for the movement may have given viewers a fuller perspective. That is a simple and effective way to prevent a grassroots internet movement from taking on too formal of a definition. 

r/antiwork went public again only a day or so after it initially went private. But in the time it was down, a new subreddit was born, r/WorkReform. It gained 434.775 thousand members within 24 hours of being created. r/antiwork also went through internal transformations and has continued to flourish after the short blip following the Doreen Ford interview. Now, there are two subreddits on the site with a focus on reforming work. Although an expanded platform for users to discuss work reform is certainly a net positive, there is no way to guarantee a movement’s survival next time something similar occurs. In the future, the de facto movement heads need to engage more responsibly in the way they represent their community to the public. Otherwise, they will dilute the movement’s power.