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Facebook’s 'Free Emotional Labor Club' Is Ready for Your Questions

The club where ignorance is okay, if you’re willing to learn.

Roisin Kiberd

Roisin Kiberd

Image: Shutterstock

The first rule of Free Emotional Labor Club is 'Be Respectful'.

The second rule of Free Emotional Labor Club is...well, there are a lot of other rules. There's a rule against screenshots, another advocating for trigger warnings (but only sometimes), and another advising members to check their posts for racism, sexism, and ableism.

The Free Emotional Labor Club was created as a platform where its members can freely ask questions about politics, social justice, and philosophy, and where other members will answer these questions for free. Created in April 2017, it responds to a growing trend in certain online circles, the belief that writing posts explaining social justice concepts is a variety of 'emotional labor.' Tired of repeating explanations to strangers, users–especially people of color, women, and members of various marginalized social groups–have begun to ask for compensation. They'll also reply with a reminder that "Google is Free." But that's not the case in the Free Emotional Labor Club.

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The term 'emotional labor' refers to the management of emotions required in certain jobs, in dealing with customers, co-workers, and superiors. Originating in sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild's 1983 text 'The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling,' the author contrasts someone working in a wallpaper factory, requiring coordination of their mind and movements (i.e physical labor) with someone working as a flight attendant, whose work requires some physical labor (pushing the drinks), some mental labor (preparing for emergencies) and a great deal of emotional labor, maintaining a smile and a calm demeanor and making the passengers feel taken care of.

Talk of emotional labour has spawned further dialogue, particularly around gender, both in terms of the workplace, where women are more likely to be confined to the 'emotional proletariat,' and in the home, where women have historically carried the weight of unpaid emotional labor as mothers and wives.

"Often to explain something political on Facebook requires a margin of suppressed emotions in order to not turn people away by being abrasive."

It's useful to apply the term 'emotional labor' to the educational work often undertaken by members marginalised social groups. Shouldn't at least some of the responsibility rest with others, then, who can educate themselves? There's a minefield hidden in the borders between 'just asking' questions, ignorance, and intentionally causing offence—these are volatile conversations which require a great deal of patience.

Applied to the internet, the concept becomes even murkier. Yes, 'Google is free,' but a search engine result cannot teach empathy. Similarly, the scale and frequency of online interactions, and the intensely politicised atmosphere of platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, amplify this educational role.

By transferring 'emotional labor' to online life, are users misusing the term, or redefining it? Does this also mark a collective admission, at last, that dealing with people on Facebook is hard work?

Read more: Lord RayEl Is an Internet Deity Who Demands Worship

In its banner, the Free Emotional Labor Club declares itself to be 'Post-Leftbook,' referring to a constellation of left-wing Facebook groups running the gamut from Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash to its sister group, 'Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash 2 FULL COMMUNISM MODE' (or perhaps its more extreme cousin, a group known as 'In Defense of Stalin').

Declaring themselves 'post'-Leftbook, the Free Emotional Labor Club (FELC) signals its disagreement with how these groups are run. But in practice the group is less 'post' than 'meta:' it helps its members navigate life in these same online communities. Posts range from queries about wearing leather shoes after you turn vegan, to correct use of the term 'creole,' to wheelchair users looking for ways to explain to other people that yes, they are able to walk, but are uncomfortable doing so all the time.

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In a Facebook message, one of the Free Emotional Labor Club's mods, Micah Lewis Perry, told me that he has seen the term emotional labor wildly misapplied. While acknowledging that explaining concepts repeatedly is exhausting, especially for people of color and marginalised people, he also argued "It seems as though, for every time I've heard it used in a nuanced manner, I've heard it used to justify immaturity twenty times more."

"Often to explain something political on Facebook requires a margin of suppressed emotions in order to not turn people away by being abrasive," he continued. "There's a thin line between emotional management, being disingenuous, and respectability politics, though."

Joy Hayward, another of the group's mods, explained that the group was created out of frustration toward more dogmatic members of the online left (who might dismiss questions entirely as a sign of dissent, or ignorance), but also as a place to criticise the right. Hayward wrote that the group's 1,925 members are majority left-leaning, but range across the political spectrum.

"We share the same vision, that to tackle inequality and social justice the best method is to find a middle ground of mutual understanding and respect," she said. In particular, the group wanted to provide an alternative for people who had been told 'stop expecting free emotional labor' when they asked questions, or even, on some occasions, were sent details of someone's Paypal account.

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Asking questions—and searching for answers—is woven into the internet's DNA, dating back to ELIZA, the 'chatterbot' created in 1966, who 'spoke' to humans as an (extremely predictable) psychoanalyst. ELIZA drew users into a therapeutic loop, responding to questions by asking further questions about themselves.

Later online services mimic her bland, competent tone: consider, as one example, the Ask Jeeves search engine, or the modern day phenomenon of the Buzzfeed personality quiz which 'knows' you. We turn to our screens in uncertainty, sometimes in existential doubt, and it feels good when a benevolent hive mind answers back.

On social media sites at large, the 'personal brand' looms large. We're expected to arrive fully-formed, confident, and opinionated.

"It definitely has a history," said Marcus Gilroy-Ware, author of Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism and Social Media. "Even in the more informational, prosaic early web that was the case; it quickly became a case of looking for answers about who you were. Then again, whether or not technology is something that's able to do that, why are we in such doubt about who we are?"

On social media sites at large, the 'personal brand' looms large. We're expected to arrive fully-formed, confident, and opinionated. We're tacitly encouraged to live up to the words in our bios, and are discouraged from ever changing our minds. Gilroy-Ware agreed: "I think doubt is something that's privatised and kept very hidden. It's driven beneath the surface, and stigmatised."

It was the vulnerability of its users which first got me interested in the Free Emotional Labor Club. Question-answering platforms abound online, from the thorough, thoughtful replies found on Quora to their somewhat less polished equivalent on Yahoo Answers, but these examples are kept away from more mainstream social media sites—on Facebook and Twitter, as examples, we're far less likely to admit to needing help from other people.

A short while ago I was scrolling through Twitter, and noticed a comment which stuck in my head. "Everything on social media upsets me these days," it read, concluding "should I double up my meds?" In the past I have felt similarly alienated from myself, and from my own judgment. I have turned to social media only to end up feeling worse.

Why is it that we continue to use social media like it's our job? Perry speculated that this boils down to the amount of time users spend online, coupled with a perceived lack of personal agency: "I think it ties in with the fact that a lot of the most active members don't work full time, may or may not be students, live with their parents, have excess time, and spend copious amounts of time online regardless." He believes many have grown pessimistic about the effects of real-life activism, and so consider their online lives to be activism instead.

Groups like the Free Emotional Labor Club, then, become sites of self-improvement: as with communities like Reddit's 'Am I Ugly?' you can solicit the judgment of a network. The only difference, here, is that the question is 'Am I morally good?"