Subcultural Capital and Immaterial Labor: The Case of Rap Genius

Chris Johnson-Roberson


What drives users to labor tirelessly for the preservation of a community they value, in the absence of financial remuneration? How can subcultural capital become reified in an online context, and what problems might result from this reification? Consider Rap Genius, a website that promises to help its users "discover the meaning of rap lyrics," which has recently received 15 million dollars in venture capital to expand its operations. Site members contribute transcribed lyrics and provide line-by-line analysis and commentary, earning "Rap IQ" points when their interpretations are rated highly by other users. Users act as unpaid moderators and editors, given recognition for the quality of their contributions to the site primarily through additional responsibilities to the community. Through virtual participant observation in the site’s annotation process and social network analysis, I examine Rap Genius’s attempts to precisely quantify the authority of its members and the means it uses to encourage users to labor to create and maintain its value. I argue that Rap IQ results from users’ conversion of their dispositions and stores of knowledge (embodied subcultural capital) into the objectified subcultural capital of annotations on Rap Genius, but a subsequent conversion into economic capital is unlikely if not impossible. Additionally, I call for a reevaluation of the importance of immaterial labor in the maintenance of online communities, arguing that this labor should be compensated commensurately with the value it adds to a for-profit corporation.

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