[Editor's note: IMG MGMT is an annual image-based artist essay series. Today's invited artist, Joel Holmberg, is still waiting to hear back from Yahoo with regards to a proposed Yahoo online artists residency. This program would simply involve Yahoo acknowledging certain users as artists by indicating this status on their Delicious, Flickr, or Answers accounts. Holmberg also recently pitched Yahoo a service called Yahoo! Mysteries, a knowledge base of user-submitted inexplicable theories, but hasn't heard back about that either. He was featured in AFC's Best Link Ever series on May 29, 2009, for his Yahoo Answers profile.]
I have always told people that if “it” doesn’t work out, then I am going to move to Las Vegas and work for Zappos. “It,” meaning my life, would restart itself there as I make new friends and grow as an individual while working for this online shoe retailer. Or maybe I’d just enroll in the four-week training, take the $2000 they offer new employees to quit after the first week, and get as far away as I could.
Although I’m sure that they would really love me there, I’m skeptical and terrified of what would happen to my moral consciousness if my creativity became corrupted by labor disguised as self-expression.
The Zappos office culture is seductive—it’s brimming with personality, enthusiasm and workplace morale. The management encourages all of the employees, called Zapponians, to twitter and publish fun YouTube videos. There are impromptu parades around the cubicles, designated costume days, and free food and snacks available at any time.
Most of the Zapponians are call center employees who are trained to place orders and assist customers in buying shoes. Ninety-five percent of Zappos’ business is conducted online, but they spend a lot of money training employees to talk with customers on the phone. There are no call center stats or time limits when dealing with customers.
Downtime for the Zapponians is filled with activities performed to generate online content. The employees are empowered through self-expression, but the flip side is that this strategy establishes control through participation. If the management can convince workers that it is their idea to continually prove company loyalty, then they also distract employees from realizing that they have forfeited the ability to complain about the corporate power structure.
Zappos Web 2.0 corporate culture brings to mind another hotbed of communal expression—Otto Muehl’s Actions Analysis commune, where members performed spontaneous acts of self-representation (Selbstdarstellung) before the whole community. At the AAO Commune, it was a daily routine to gather in groups and reveal one’s freest self.
Selbstdarstellung, Friedrichshof, 1977, photographed by Theo Altenberg. Photo via: theoaltenberg.com
In a review of Theo Altenberg’s documentation of Selbstdarstellung performances at the AAO, Jörg Heiser draws attention to “whether it was heartfelt joy or a desperate attempt to top the hit-parade” that drew individuals to take part in Mühl’s lifestyle experiment. This joy-bordering-on-desperation resonates in Zappos corporate culture as well. Both Zappos and the AAO want members to experience pure happiness and seek unique outlets for them to freely express themselves (the former, through twitter and YouTube, the latter, through clichéd tropes of performance art). Both champion candor (Zappos, by allowing employees to speak for themselves rather than only through the mouthpiece of a PR department, and the AAO, through Mühl’s dogma of Reichian psychotherapy).
Selbstdarstellung at AAO. Photo via: toile-gothique.com
Over the last few years, the press has given a good deal of attention to what Zappos claims is a unique moment in office culture—and as the culture becomes better-known, Zappos employees have gained exposure. Nikki W. is an example of a Zappos employee whose online presence seems to have been cultivated by the company, and who was involved in shaping company’s identity through content she wrote, produced, and performed for Zappos’ Youtube Channel. She was the face of Zappos TV when I first became aware of their online presence, but she no longer works for Zappos. Mysteriously, only one video featuring Nikki still exists on the Zappos YouTube channel. All other content has been removed and the Zappos Channel to which she published has been deleted.
Her personal YouTube and twitter accounts are still active and not only document her daily activities, but also use the medium as a platform to defend her atheistic beliefs.
Early twitter updates by Nikki, 24, show enthusiasm for the company culture. But it seems as though the confidence she gained from learning how to be a participant on the web created a monster that Zappos could no longer contain. In a twitter update posted on December 3, 2008, Nikki reminisces that a year ago she “started working for zappos. crazy how much life stuff has happened in that time.” While her twitter history begins on April 19, 2008, her earliest YouTube video was published on December 10, 2007, approximately the same time as she began working for Zappos. As Nikki became more integrated into the YouTube atheist community, she began to make friends over the Internet and upload more content onto her personal channel. In July 2008, Nikki’s channel had 1000 subscribers, and today she has 2124, far surpassing the nearly 800 YouTube users currently subscribed to the official Zappos channels.
Nikki’s online activity caused a few confrontations with coworkers who held different religious beliefs and was likely a factor in Zappos management’s decision to delete the company YouTube account to which she was posting videos.
Nikki would often post twitter updates with regards to new creative projects that she was working on for Zappos, but her work morale dipped to a low point on 10:02 AM, June 20, 2008, when she posted, “the more i think about it, the more angry i get. i’m effing livid at this point.” Since the June 20th update, Nikki has not mentioned producing any Zappos-related videos. This leads me to speculate that management canceled her YouTube channel around the same time. For the next few months, Nikki’s twitter updates continually expressed frustrations with work until her mysterious relocation to Seattle in early September.
The YouTube channel for which Nikki was responsible (the same one to which “why do people work for Zappos” was originally posted) was called ZapposLV, LV standing for Las Vegas. Zappos currently has 4 YouTube channels featuring the lives of their employees: Inside Zappos Channel, Zappos.com, Zappos Experience, and Zappos Pipeline. In total, 720 Zappos videos are currently hosted on YouTube. There are 1300 employees, 436 of whom use twitter, so its clear that the majority of these people are comfortable being portrayed in online promotional videos for their company.
It’s unclear how much Nikki’s personal web content influenced Zappos to delete the ZapposLV account she maintained. It should be noted, however, that Zappos likely encouraged Nikki to develop an online persona for the sake of marketing themselves as a company that integrates social media into their workforce. If an employer can expand its audience simply by encouraging workers to express themselves online, then it is obviously contradictory for work-performers to be denied autonomy as pure, free thinking individuals.
Twitter.Zappos.com reblogs all employee tweets and uses keywords in their posts as links to available merchandise. While the service attests to the friendships that are created in the workplace, it becomes morally problematic if participation becomes unwilling product placement.
If the boundary between content performed for one’s self-representation is blurred with content performed for a company’s identity, then what steps can management take if the personal content falls outside of what the company is willing to associate with? By integrating their lives into corporate online culture, the Zapponians become tied to the business well outside of office hours. While attending a work-sponsored event is not considered volunteering, Zapponians should be skeptical of what they are agreeing to as they participate in this never-ending office party.
Photograph of Zappos CEO at annual head shaving competition. Image via: Tony Hsieh’s twitpic account