Introduction: Beyond the ‘Creative Class’ Vision

  • Alessandro Gandini


The introduction illustrates the scopes and the aims of the book, contextualising the evolution of knowledge work across the decades in the encounter between neoliberal policies fostering flexibility in employment regimes, and the vision of a ‘creative class’ of knowledge workers that is revealed today as an unfulfilled promise. The section shows how these aspects intersect with the rise of digital media and the new forms and models of collaborative work and organisation, allowing to build the argument of reputation as a shared cultural conception of value and a form of individual social capital, that extends over digital and non-digital networks of knowledge workers in an increasingly freelance-based labour market.


Knowledge Work Cultural Industry Cultural Policy Creative Class Knowledge Industry 
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This book is concerned with providing a critical understanding of how knowledge work is changing with the integration of digital technologies into processes of production and organisation. It starts from the fundamental assumption that the conditions of existence of today’s knowledge work are the consequence of slightly more than a decade of frenzy around the concepts of ‘creativity’ and ‘ creative’, and that these have now completed their delinking from the purely artistic and leisure domain to become fully integrated into a managerial and organisational logic of knowledge production founded on creativity. This now results in a number of processes that are changing existing jobs and forms of professional work in various contexts of the knowledge economy, particularly—but not exclusively—as these meet with the digital media industries.

Based primarily on a doctoral research that focused on independent and freelance workers in the knowledge economy at various levels of experience, age and skills, undertaken between 2011 and 2013 across two urban international contexts— London and Milan—and a digital marketplace— Elance, now known as Upwork—this books offers an outline of how knowledge work has changed as a result of the ideological valorisation of creativity as a mantra for innovation and professional advancement, and how this combined with the rise of digital and social media—henceforth rendering knowledge work a digital and freelance knowledge economy centred, it is here argued, around a shared, diffused cultural notion of reputation as value.

This book contends that conceiving reputation as a form of value should be seen as the main interpretative paradigm of knowledge work in the digital age, and provides a contextualisation of how this inserts into a broader dynamic of transformation of work alongside technological advancements in the aftermath of the recession. To do so, in addition to the primary empirical data, this book benefits of secondary empirical materials that come from two other projects I have participated with in 2014 in my post-doctoral work—an international study on so called, and the first year activity of an EU-funded project on commons-based peer production (CBPP).

By combining all these sources together in a single contribution, this book provides an unprecedented comprehensive acknowledgement of the role of reputation as a specific form of individual social capital for knowledge workers, that finds empirical visibility and potential measurability across online social media platforms and algorithms. Reputation comes to be shared by participants in these environments as a cultural conception of value that is principled on the fact that knowledge workers have interiorised an ideological celebration of entrepreneurship and creativity, and become the protagonists of a job market characterised by a notion of venture labour. 1 Reputation is an object ‘traded’ by knowledge workers in a labour market where they operate as independent professionals treating their own reputation as an economic asset—a reputational capital that represents an investment in social relations with expectations of economic return, and is decisive for job procurement.

The various empirical sources, which will be discussed in the book from a comprehensively critical perspective, show how knowledge work has been colonised by the logics of creative labour and has simultaneously integrated digital technologies into a variety of processes, for a digital and freelance workforce that bears the contours of a multi-functional professional category with original features. This, it is here argued, renders the photograph of a socio-cultural and socio-economic professional scene based on the managerialisation of social relations and the multiplication of the channels through which these are pursued, maintained and mediated. This dynamic should be understood within the broader transformation of work that originates in the socio-political affirmation of neoliberalism as an ideology-turned-culture that pursues the reduction of labour costs and the flexibilisation of employment for purposes of increasing accumulation—which now finds workers happily embracing a context which Angela McRobbie has described as a marriage between counterculture and the financial economy.2 This is the starting point of the present discussion.

A Brief History of Knowledge Work and Creativity

In broader socio-economic terms, the last 30 years have been the era of ‘posts’. A fordist society based on the industrial mass production of goods in specific places (i.e., factories) and the availability of lifelong full-time jobs—a society where mass media served the aim of fuelling desire for the mass consumption of those goods—has witnessed an evolution towards what came to be defined as a post-industrial society, centred upon a post-fordist mode of production based on financial accumulation and the valorisation of information.3 The comprehensive combination of these instances brought knowledge workers into a central position. The pioneering vision of an information-based and service-driven economy where workers are able to capitalise on their own knowledge and skills, envisaged earlier in the twentieth century by thinkers such as Peter Drucker and Daniel Bell,4 became a reality across the 1980s and 1990s, representing the latest evolution of a bourgeois mode of production founded on the rise of the middle class as the main productive subject in society, as described by Karl Marx in Das Kapital.5

Yet, this period in history coincides with the surge of a set of economic policies that we commonly refer to as neoliberalism.6 By placing individual entrepreneurial initiative at the centre of an ideological approach to free markets, neoliberalism consisted in practice not only in the loosening of regulatory frameworks for economic and financial activities, but also—and crucially for the purposes of this book—in the liberalisation of employment regimes and regulations, favouring the diffusion of more flexible forms of work, plotted as a way to liberate entrepreneurship and individual economic action from the constraints of bureaucratic institutions.

The quick rise of neoliberal policies to a hegemonic status across the Western economies rapidly transformed the generalised flexibilisation of employment relations in a mantra that propelled a comprehensive individualisation and entrepreneurialisation of the knowledge workforce. This paired up with—and grew upon—the generalised enthusiasm around a supposedly emerging ‘new economy’ brought by the Internet, in the rise of what Manuel Castells famously defined as a network society.7 Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor of Bill Clinton’s administration, in the book The Work of Nations, envisaged a society where new media workers were to become ‘model entrepreneurs’ of a new knowledge economy rushing to embrace with open arms the diffusion of digital technologies.8 Similarly, the Blair era in the UK politically marketed with success the cultural notion of ‘cool Britannia’ that celebrated the centrality of the creative and cultural industries as an engine of innovation and economic growth for the country.9

A new typology of jobs, based on the valorisation of creativity as a process to add surplus value to products of knowledge, became fashionable and diffused over this so-called new economy. These quickly established as a combination of entrepreneurial activity, individual talent and creativity and broadly colonised a variety of sectors caught in the middle of a momentous frenzy for technological advancement and the diffusion of digital media. This frenzy gave rise to what arguably is the most controversial cultural product that resulted from the hegemonic popularisation of a culture of economic advancement around knowledge professions based on creativity: the myth of the rise of a creative class of knowledge workers.

This grew up across the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s following the publication of Richard Florida’s same name bestseller,10 which propelled a narrative of individual self-realisation by means that combine social recognition, lifestyle and creative entrepreneurial activity across knowledge and especially media-related professions within the new economy. Florida’s argument is based on the assumption that a widespread diffusion of jobs based on creativity and individual talent was destined to bring a new era of economic development and prosperity through the rise of this new socio-economic subject, the ‘ creative class’. The term identifies an undistinguished ensemble of urban, young knowledge workers employed in broadly different jobs, sharing a common ethos for creativity, innovation and individualism.

Despite quickly surging as a popular concept adopted by policy makers and city planners, who soon started to project the development of ‘ creative cities’,11 the idea of a creative class attracted substantial criticism by a number of authors such as Jamie Peck, Mike Storper and Allen Scott in the USA, Andy Pratt, Rosalind Gill and David Hesmondhalgh in the UK, among others. The basic criticism raised by these authors concerns the celebratory framework that characterises the creative class vision, which neglects social inequalities and class divisions diluted within the ‘coolness’ of the emerging economy, and reduces class categorisation to a mere taxonomy based on lifestyle that conflicts with the notion of class as traditionally conceived in sociological terms.12 This argument often comes together with the criticism of the idea that the presence of creative talent in a region is functional to economic development, in that it generates growth and jobs. Research has evidenced, on the contrary, how individuals endowed by such human capital are likely to move only where employment opportunities are already available in order to profit on their investment in higher education and professional skills.13

The critique to the creative class vision has seen many critical media scholars adopting an Autonomist Marxist approach, to highlight issues related to employment precariousness, job security and flexibility. These authors have been flagging up the many forms of ‘flexible exploitation’ that are at stake in the world of ‘ creative labour’, basically sustaining that Florida simply ignores many of the critical aspects at stake with creative jobs in the knowledge industry.14 Particularly, such critique focuses on the role and extent of an individual worker’s subjectivity and the way this is put at value through the notion of creativity. This builds on the idea that knowledge work in the new economy is an example of ‘immaterial labour’, defined by Maurizio Lazzarato as the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of a commodity—that is, the outcome of activities that no longer pertain to the domain of material industrial production but actually to the valorisation of cognitive and cultural features.15 The essential trait of the ‘immaterial worker’ is what another Autonomist exponent, Paolo Virno, calls virtuosity—meaning the aproductive, self-referential activity of the post-fordist knowledge worker whose labour shares characteristics with the ‘performance’ and the ‘score’ of an artist.16

Based on this approach, Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt (2008) describe the dynamics of work in the knowledge economy based on creativity, as a ‘social factory’—a ‘factory without walls’ where labour is dispersed, deterritorialised and decentralised, and all traits of social life, subjectivity and social relations are put at value.17 On a similar line, Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter describe this context as one of ‘freedom without security’, where autonomy pairs up with precariousness as a response of global financial capital to the rejection of ‘jobs for life’ that the mantra of entrepreneurialism and creativity brandishes.18 David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker assimilate these jobs to the kind of ‘emotional labour’ evidenced by Arlie Hochschild in her work on airline staff,19 as creative forms of labour similarly elicit appropriate emotional responses by inducing or repressing feelings, and intertwine with instances of self-realisation, self-exploitation and precariousness.

Today, after more than ten years, it seems reasonable to sustain that Florida’s vision pictured with exaggerated emphasis the coming of an era of economic growth based on the proliferation of communication and media-related occupations. In fact, it may be argued that the movement for which workers employed in the knowledge economy were supposed to live and prosper within successful creative careers went largely off track. This, is here argued, is only partly due to external conditions, such as the recent economic recession, and actually should be seen as the result of a combination of factors that chiefly call into question the rise of social media and platforms, which triggered a process of transformation in the practices and cultures of knowledge work comprehensively taken.

The Economic Crisis, the Recession and the ‘New Economy’

There is no doubt that the 2007–2008 economic recession and especially its aftermath significantly affected the knowledge sector. Yet, this also contributed to make visible a controversial, and more complex, social context that was already existing before the recession. During the 2000s, a plethora of highly skilled, college-educated professionals in creative disciplines were in fact being promised that a cool job in the arts, media and communication sector was awaiting them soon after finishing their studies. However this scenario, often sustained by families who dipped into lifetime savings or got themselves into debt to pay university fees, with the expectation of a rewarding career that would have repaid the investment, was in fact largely neglected. Not only the number of jobs available substantially diminished over these years, but the actual nature of the work available in the ‘new’ knowledge economy based on creativity was changing. This is a consequence of the combination of neoliberal policies fostering flexibilisation and entrepreneurialism with the dramatic technological advancement brought along by the boom of the Internet, which on the one hand offered new professional opportunities, and on the other hand shrank the existing demand.

The rise of social network sites and platforms has substantially intervened within the practices and dynamics of employment and recruitment in the industry, to the extent that social media today is the main instrument for job searches. The most common social network sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are increasingly used for professional scopes, and it is of no wonder that one of the most successful social media worldwide, LinkedIn, is an employment-oriented social network. A plethora of websites dedicated to different kinds of work-related matters and niche job markets proliferate on the web. Digital marketplaces such as Upwork, Freelancer, Guru and others grow at a large scale year after year, having as their core business the allocation of workers and the meeting of different kinds of supply and demand on various job markets.

Most importantly, however, digital technologies have significantly been integrated into processes of production and organisation over the last decade, contributing to quickly and dramatically reconfigure the processes of valorisation in the knowledge industry as well as the meeting of demand and supply. The McKinsey report of January 201520 suggests that online social tools are being used at a very large scale by a variety of businesses and especially those active in communication-related areas of the knowledge industry, such as public relations, marketing and product development, for a plurality of managerial activities. Also, these tools are increasingly utilised by individual workers themselves as instruments for job procurement, for the enactment of practices of self-branding and networking, and to expand the marketability of their professional profile by showcasing their skills, competences and taste. As one’s professional networks and connections become visible through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and similar services, the management of connections and networking becomes therefore ever more required for one’s career. The skilful curation of a personal profile on social network sites has become essential for professional advancement, as recruiters often evaluate candidates and assess their recruitability by screening their social media profiles first.

Existing research has extensively evidenced how central is the role played by social capital for job procurement in professional contexts where workers lean on their personal connections to get jobs and the only thing that matters is ‘who you know’.21 However, on the other hand, there is much less research that questioned the nature of the social capital at stake within such professional contexts where digital interaction becomes as important as face-to-face interaction, in an industry where employment regimes based on project work and flexible arrangements, particularly freelancing, are advocated by many as the new standard of work.22

The combination of these instances brings forward the hypothesis that the role played by one’s personal reputation within the knowledge economy is today a newly determinant element for career success. As the social buttons regulating social activity on digital media platforms—likes, shares, mentions, retweets—account and record one’s entire online activity, measuring it with numbers and figures, the reputation of an individual user/worker becomes publicly visible, tangible, accessible and potentially measurable. This is why reputation comes to be the main object of study at stake within this work and is here framed through the idea of a reputation economy. Reputation, traditionally an intangible asset of the corporate economy, analogous to the role of the brand for the scope and meaning of corporations, seems to regulate the job market of the knowledge economy by operating as a specific form of capital or asset for individuals in a context made of networked and newly mediatised social interaction where actors pursue economic outcomes by leveraging on social relations—which are accessed and mobilised by making use of one’s reputational capital.

In an economy characterised by the diffusion of project-based employment and the rise of freelancing—an economy principled on the fact that social interaction intrinsically connects with economic valorisation across networked environments—the acknowledgement of such a central role of reputation seems key to the understanding of how knowledge work has evolved within today’s socio-economic context, where interaction does not necessarily take place face-to-face, but is mediated via various digital tools. The notion of the reputation economy is the one proposed here to describe these dynamics. This book contends that existing research has not sufficiently examined the extent to which reputation, in a digitising labour market, has become the element shared by independent professional actors in the knowledge economy as a cultural conception of value that translates social interaction into economic outcomes.

In the pages that follow, I will give account of this claim and argue that the protagonists of such a digital and freelance knowledge economy based on reputational conceptions of value are a ‘new’ kind of knowledge and creative workers, who operate as independent professionals in this labour market, making extensive use of social media for various reasons and leveraging on their personal connections and reputational capital to engage in economic behaviour and advance their career, status and jobs, having completely interiorised the entrepreneurial stance of their professional capacity as an ideological form of venture labour.

This argument will be outlined using a variety of theoretical and empirical sources. To begin with, Chap.  2 gives evidence of how today’s knowledge economy is largely freelance-based and made of various independent and self-employed professional subjects active across a plurality of digital contexts. Chapter  3 discusses how and why reputation is here conceived as the social capital of a digital and freelance knowledge economy, offering a contextualisation of the definition of ‘ reputation economy’ through a theoretical perspective that aims to establish a link between the academic traditions of critical management, the sociology of culture and media studies.

Subsequently, the book turns to offer evidence of the nature and the functioning of the reputation economy as this emerges from the various studies that represent the empirical basis of this work. Chapter  4 accounts for the role of reputation within two urban networks of freelance and independent professionals, evidencing the interplay of reputation and trust within these contexts. Chapter  5 focuses on the more strictly digital forms of knowledge work, discussing the main findings of an international study on social recruiting and offering an exploratory overview of Elance, now known as Upwork, which is one of the most important and renowned digital marketplaces for knowledge contractors worldwide. Both contexts, we will see, prove how reputation comes to prominence as the element that regulates socio-economic interaction in this particular labour market.

Chapter  6 turns to a socio-cultural interpretation of the ‘ digital work’ that characterises today’s knowledge work, intended as a form of venture labour principled on the managerialisation of bohemianism. I will discuss how the broader implications of this transformation challenge existing and new cultures of work and value as they appear to originate from the various sources of analysis, including here some of the preliminary findings that emerge from the first year activity of the EU-FP7 project ‘ P2Pvalue’, where I have participated as a Research Fellow in 2014. Chapter  7, on a similar line, offers a contextualisation of the phenomenon of the rise of coworking spaces, which represent the most relevant organisational novelty of the digital and freelance knowledge economy. The chapter discusses the extent to which coworking spaces may represent the new organisational modality of work for the nomadic digital professions and critically assesses this in analogy with pre-industrial forms of labour and organisation.

Chapter  8 returns then to reflect on how this relates to the neoliberal framework offered in the introduction, particularly looking at what the Left can learn in order to more adequately interpret today’s context of work and employment—which constitutes its founding condition of existence—and how to respond to a transformation that calls very much into question its own foundational principles, particularly the institution of class.


  1. 1.

    Gina Neff, Venture Labor (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012).

  2. 2.

    Angela McRobbie, “Clubs to Companies: Notes on the Decline of Political Culture on Speeded-Up Creative Worlds,” Cultural Studies 16.4 (2002): 516–31; Angela McRobbie, “Everyone is creative. Artists as pioneers of the new economy,” in Contemporary culture and everyday life, ed. E. Silva, T. Bennett (Durham, UK: Sociologypress, 2004), 186–199.

  3. 3.

    On the transition between fordism and post-fordism, please see Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1994). For a definition of post-industrial society, see Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York, Basic Books, 1973).

  4. 4.

    For definitions of knowledge work, see Peter Drucker, The Future of Industrial Man (New York: John Day, 1942) and Peter Drucker, Landmarks of Tomorrow: A Report on the New “Post-Modern” World (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).

  5. 5.

    Karl Marx, Capital: a critique of political economy. Vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin in association with New Left Review, 1976).

  6. 6.

    For extensive referencing on neoliberalism, see David Harvey, “Flexible accumulation through urbanization reflections on ‘post-modernism’ in the American city,” Perspecta 26 (1990): 251–272; David Harvey, A brief history of neoliberalism (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); David Harvey, The enigma of capital: and the crises of capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2011).

  7. 7.

    Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Volume I of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1996).

  8. 8.

    Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism (New York: Knopf, 1992).

  9. 9.

    On economic policies for the creative industries in the UK, see: DCMS, Creative Industries Mapping Document (Department of Culture, Media and Sport, UK, London, 1998) and DCMS, Creative Industries Mapping Document (Department of Culture, Media and Sport, UK, London, 2001). For a critical review of cultural policies during ‘cool Britannia’, see David Hesmondhalgh and Andy Pratt, “Cultural industries and cultural policy,” International Journal of Cultural Policy 11.1 (2005): 1–14.

  10. 10.

    Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

  11. 11.

    For references on creative cities, see Charles Landry, The creative city: A toolkit for urban innovators (London: Comedia, Earthscan, 2000); Sako Musterd and Alan Murie (eds), Making Competitive Cities (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); Dominic Power and Tobias Nielsén, Priority Sector Report. Creative and Cultural Industries. European Cluster Observatory, (2010) accessed October 28, 2015,

  12. 12.

    For critiques to the concept of ‘creative class’, see Jamie Peck, “Struggling with the Creative Class,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29.4 (2005): 740–70; Andy Pratt, “Creative Cities. The Cultural Industries and the Creative Class,” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 90.2 (2008): 107–117; Andy Pratt, Rosalind Gill and Volker Spelthann, “Work and the City in the E-society: A Critical Investigation of the Socio-spatially Situated Character of Economic Production in the Digital Content Industries, UK,” Information, Communication & Society 10.6 (2007): 921–41.

  13. 13.

    Michael Storper and Allen J. Scott, “Rethinking human capital, creativity and urban growth,” Journal of Economic Geography 9.2 (2009): 147–167.

  14. 14.

    For Autonomist Marxist approaches to knowledge work, please see Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, “From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks,” Fibreculture 5 (2005), accessed October 28, 2015,; David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker, “Creative Work and Emotional Labour in the Television Industry,” Theory, Culture and Society 25.7–8 (2008): 97–118; Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, “In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture and Society 25.7–8 (2008): 1–30; David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker, “A very complicated version of freedom. Conditions and experiences of creative labour in three cultural industries,” Variant 41 (2011), accessed October 28, 2015,; David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker, Creative Labour: Media work in three cultural industries (London: Routledge, 2013).

  15. 15.

    Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1997), 133–147.

  16. 16.

    Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (New York/Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004).

  17. 17.

    Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, “In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture and Society 25.7–8 (2008): 1–30.

  18. 18.

    Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, “From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks”, Fibreculture 5 (2005), accessed October 28, 2015,; Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, “Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception,” Theory Culture and Society 25.7–8 (2008): 51–72.

  19. 19.

    Arlie R. Hochschild, The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983).

  20. 20.

    McKinsey, “Transforming the Business Through Social Tools”, January 2015, accessed October 28, 2015,

  21. 21.

    On social capital, networks and employment in creative forms of knowledge work, see Helen Blair, “ ‘You’re only as good as your last job’: the labour process and labour market in the British film industry,” Work, Employment & Society, 15.1 (2001): 149–169; Susan Christopherson, “Project work in context: regulatory change and the new geography of media,” Environment and Planning A, 34.11 (2002): 2003–2015; Susan Christopherson, “Beyond the self-expressive creative worker: an industry perspective on entertainment media,” Theory, Culture & Society 25.7–8 (2008): 73–95; David Lee, “Networks, cultural capital and creative labour in the British independent television industry,” Media, Culture & Society 33.4 (2011): 549–565; Irina Grugulis and Dimitrinka Stoyanova, “The missing middle: communities of practice in a freelance labour market,” Work, Employment & Society 25.2 (2011): 342–351; Irina Grugulis and Dimitrinka Stoyanova, “Social capital and networks in film and TV: Jobs for the boys?” Organization Studies 33.10 (2012): 1311–1331.

  22. 22.

    See Chap.  2 for extensive discussion of this topic.


  1. Gill, Rosalind C., and Andy Pratt. 2008. In the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work. Theory, Culture and Society 25(7–8): 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alessandro Gandini
    • 1
  1. 1.Middlesex UniversityLondonUK

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