How We Hang Out at Work Together Online Now

The writer and technologist Paul Ford has suggested that the growth of YouTube, through its millions of videos shot on webcams, allowed a narrow but illuminating glimpse into peoples’ homes. “The curtains are drawn. Some light comes through, casting a small glow on the top left of the air conditioner. It’s daytime. The wall is an undecorated slab of beige,” he wrote.

“That is the American room,” he explained — or at least an American room: in some ways generic and literally standardized, in color and dimension and through the catalogs through which it was built, but distinctly recognizable; spacious, suggesting a large home, but barely filled.

Later, the video app Vine could be said to have given us a glimpse of life of the American teen, who is extremely diverse, but who posted from another set of conspicuously standardized places outside of the home: the American retail store, the American sidewalk, the American car.

TikTok has arrived at a time when mobile devices are far more integrated into our daily lives and in which sharing from one, wherever you are, is a default behavior. It makes sense that for now, at least, it’s a portal to the vastness of American jobs. (Or, a few taps away, the Chinese job, the Indian job, or the Russian job.)

In the long run, social platforms have a tendency to professionalize. You can seek out virtually any line of work on Instagram, but you’ll have to do some looking and get permission to follow; the most visible form of labor on the platform is influence, which isn’t meant to look like labor at all.

YouTube is now a workplace unto itself. It pays creators according to the size of their audiences, and so while there are vibrant YouTube subcultures adjacent to various jobs, these jobs tend to be obviously fascinating or exclusive. In the long run, the successful YouTuber’s job ends up being YouTube.