The two separate pillars of “working on the internet”
I got my first job in tech in 2010. Before then, I had spent my time thinking of the internet as a seemingly infinite resource of distraction, fun, games, information, and a multitude of other things. It was long before content creation was a thing, long before it became more common, and certainly long before there were even jobs around social media and content creation across various forms of media. I still work in tech, as a UI engineer, and most people will understand working “in tech” or “in IT” to mean that you’re at least tech-savvy. But being tech-savvy is also what all the cool kids, aka everyone, is doing these days anyway.
People are often blown away by this “I work on the internet” premise, almost like it’s a luxurious dream. Yes, there is flexibility, and being involved with technology is amazing, but I really wanted to to share how one can discern between what I’d call the two separate “pillars” of this notion of working on the internet. This is the way I’ve chosen to describe them, and they are quite broad, but one could narrow it down if they wanted to.
The two pillars are as follows:
- Working on the internet, where the internet is your platform to share your voice and your content, or the things you create. You use the internet to communicate with others and to further share your work, in order to make an income. Most people in this bucket are self-employed; you might personally know someone in this bucket, or you might describe yourself as fitting in here.
- Working on the internet, where you contribute to software or services by way of technical skill or expertise, and are a fundamental part of their functioning and part of how the internet “exists”. You work for a company that relies on your skills and pays you for them. I’m personally in this bucket.
Being in the latter bucket is interesting because software engineers’ skills are often highly valued and highly sought after. “You need to go to school for that stuff”, some people might say.
The first occupation I can think of in the first bucket is a content creator. Someone who makes a living on Instagram or YouTube or through a blog. I create content here on my blog, but I don’t make an income from it. I’ve had opportunities to make money from it, and I have by way of collaborations, or have been sent products to review, but I never endeavoured to make it a primary source of income. Other occupations that might be facilitated by the internet – but not entirely depend on it – might be someone promoting their photography service, dog-walking service, or someone selling products only through an online store and not a physical one.
Many content creators share their journey to getting to where they are. It’s a lot of hard work and perseverance because they often need to get some sort of following – “fame”, if you will – and engage in self-promotion or rely on the support of others. Although I have not had personal experience here, I can understand that it takes a lot of effort and is often considered a brave move for one to choose working on the internet over their “steady 9–5”.
Meanwhile, although I personally don’t have an educational background in software engineering, I got to where I am today with some amount of technical skill, and experience working for small companies. I learned a lot on the job. It might sound cushy for some people with engineering degrees that they have the education as proof, and seem to have it easy when it comes to getting a job. But, we can also say, in this age of the internet, that there are many self-taught engineers and developers out there, who have learned to code and engineer complex solutions simply by using the internet. Since I learned a lot of what I know from using the internet, I feel like I’m in that camp.
But let’s back up a little bit. What does it mean for people who spent money and did the hard yards to get an engineering degree? Are they redundant? Not necessarily. What this does mean, though, is that almost anyone can code. I run codebar Sydney, a meetup that holds free workshops to encourage and help people in minority groups learn how to code. We focus on minority groups because there are so many people who have not been given the opportunity to start a career in technology, and we want to give them that opportunity. There are other organisations out there that spend time giving back to the community and helping people learn to code by using the internet as a resource. The internet is accessible to many, and that means that this learning is also accessible to many.
The thought that inspired me to write this post was about people with vastly different occupations using the phrase “I work on the internet”. I follow quite a few content creators, whose work I admire of course, but I realised that even though I work on the internet too, it’s a different ballgame for both of us.
I work for Campaign Monitor, an email marketing company that provides software for our customers to make really beautiful emails. We provide reporting and analytics and quality customer support. We have customers both big and small. The users of our platform include marketers, designers, and agency owners. These users can have very different backgrounds and we notice that they can also have different levels of technical skill. Unsurprisingly, some of these customers are people who also create content. They create content like people I described in pillar 1. Not only do we provide them with software they can use, but we want to help them do their best in what they do. We care about customer feedback and we work on building what is best for our customers.
Now, let’s think about the ways content creators might be hurt by the systems and platforms they primarily use. The YouTube algorithm. The Instagram algorithm. It seems a little demonic, doesn’t it, when you think about a team of software engineers contributing to this mysterious algorithm and seemingly favouring some users over others?
I’ve occasionally had the thought, what if YouTube and Instagram just died? What if, for whatever reason, they just ceased to work, or went bankrupt? It’s hard to imagine, since they are tech giants with so much money, obviously, but so many people rely on these platforms to share content and earn an income. These people would be in a really tricky situation if the platform they used to promote themselves just disappeared. I’ve noticed that many of these people already have a backup, like a side business, or a website promoting their services, but they get very little following in comparison. Some of these people actually still have full-time jobs, too, and they actually consider their online income a side hustle instead.
I don’t know many people who only work on the internet, but of the few I do, they have enough to pay the bills and to pay for life’s essentials. But many of them saved up a lot of money before deciding to quit their day job, or have a plan B, or vowed to work a small job to make ends meet, if they had to. I know we are going through a tough time right now, but outside of the global pandemic, it generally isn’t difficult for a software engineer to find another job somewhere else. But for someone in the other pillar, where their entire earnings might be from their social media following – there is the potential for all of that to be lost simply if the platform ceases to exist. Without a backup plan or their own website, or anything else, where will any “YouTuber” post their videos if there is no YouTube? Where will all these squares of photos be posted if Instagram is no more?
There is a similarity between businesses in both these pillars, even though the primary difference is that the people working in each of these pillars either runs the business or works for someone who runs the business. The similarity is that neither business just grows up out of the dirt and overcomes all challenges immediately. Organic growth and getting people to hear about you can be tough as a new business attempting to thrive on the internet.
From another perspective, and a question we can ask in two different ways: Why would YouTube and Instagram “just die”, or, what would happen if these platforms failed to receive enough users? The bottom line is that social media platforms and other platforms that content creators use are extremely popular and widely used. They have a large set of users which indirectly keeps the businesses behind those platforms running, and people are employed to continue working on features to make customers happy. In turn, engineers working on building these platforms continue to indirectly serve the customers of the products they create, helping them do their job and providing what they need to keep going.
In the end, it is somewhat of a symbiotic and indirect relationship that happens within the confines of the internet but translates to how we support our daily “real-life” lives. The internet is but a global network of connections of people engaging in various communication, sharing, activities, entertainment, research and learning, where one abstraction, like “working on the internet”, can mean several different things.
When I had ideas for writing this blog post, I will admit that I had a bias to being a software engineer and turned my nose up right back at people who considered themselves “content creators” but would bear arrogant pride about their ability to work on the internet, covering up the reality of hard work and having extra jobs that so many creators experience in order to make ends meet. In my mind, I definitely thought I was in a better place as someone who “works on the internet” but in a way that was more traditionally so – in a way that was well before social media existed and before an occupation like a content/digital creator existed.
But after writing this, and really thinking some of my thoughts through, I stand by what I say. It’s true that what we do on the internet – including working – can be dependent on others somehow, and can be dependent on what we have created the internet to be. At the same time, we have this incredible power to create and to do things on our own with the help of the internet, and even spin off incredible things based on unique ideas.
At the end of the day, this post is simply a commentary to the phrase “working on the internet”. I hope that – whether you’re working on the internet already or thinking about it – next time you think about that phrase, you think of not just what you’re experiencing, but what others might be too. We can use the internet for good. ✊