The Internet Isn’t the End of Intern Exploitation

Now that Anthony Weiner’s all-around jerkdom has been well established, commenters have turned to a slightly less stale facet of the candidate’s never-ending meltdown: Olivia Nuzzi, former campaign intern and alleged “slutbag.” Fortunately, Nuzzi hasn’t been scrutinized as much or as harshly as Huma Abedin or Carlos Danger’s partners in crime. In fact, she’s been the object of (very tentative) praise from both The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta, who brunched with Nuzzi before she entered the spotlight, and New York’s Jen Doll, who asks what her newfound visibility means for not just Nuzzi herself, but her fellow interns. Doll believes Slutbag-gate shows that social media gives interns and other low-level employees an opportunity to craft public identities separate from where and with whom they work, upsetting the age-old power balance between employer and employee. But while Doll’s right in pointing out that social media, and the Internet at large, throws a monkey wrench into conventional workplace politics, it’s far from a panacea for intern rights — and it’s misleading to depict it that way.

It’s true that Nuzzi’s done far better for herself than the average 20-year-old ex-intern. She’s currently a contributor to the Las Vegas-based politics site NSFWCorp.com; in fact, she’s the author of the site’s current featured story, about Rush Holt’s New Jersey Senate campaign. More importantly, she’s doing an excellent job of owning her story, conducting a follow-up interview with Talking Points Memo and even changing her Twitter bio to “Slutbag, twat, and cunt” in a winking appropriation of Weiner staffer Barbara Morgan’s profane rant. Impressively, Nuzzi’s managed to maintain just the right level of public exposure post-Morgan: she comes out of this looking canny and ambitious, not self-aggrandizing.

It seems clear that all of that is a victory for Olivia Nuzzi, not the thousands of other interns across the country. But Doll’s “Interns in the Age of the Selfie” begs to differ. “Once upon a time,” Doll writes, “interns were hired to do the work their superiors gave them for very little money, or none at all.” Never mind that underpayment (or nonpayment) is still par for the course for the vast majority of those who participate in the internship economy these days, or that the rise of unpaid internships actually happened relatively recently, not “once upon a time.” Doll posits that the uncertainty of employment in the post-2008 economy has irrevocably altered the workplace social contract, leaving interns free to strike out independently from, and even speak out against, bosses who probably weren’t going to hire them anyway.

Honestly, Doll’s vision of the modern internship economy doesn’t sound half bad. It’s a place where millennials can build their futures on “personal brands” built on Twitter and Tumblr, and interns can speak their mind knowing their own voice counts for more than a solid professional reference if they make it sound smart enough. “Why shouldn’t an intern speak out, and reap the benefits, while her employer… deals with the repercussions of what we can only presume was truth?” Doll asks rhetorically. After all, 2013 is “an age of empowerment and individualism, with unprecedented Internet resources [and]… a bunch of new opportunities that go beyond the old intern model.”

Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works. With her gig at a well-established blog and a boss who was already disgraced, Olivia Nuzzi is very much the exception, not the rule. Nuzzi didn’t have to worry about making Weiner or Morgan angry with her tell-all — she already had a foothold in political media, and a recommendation from Weiner wasn’t going to carry much weight after last week. Doll’s other major example, Brendan O’Connor, doesn’t do much to help her case either. O’Connor was fired from his service job at a food truck after calling out some non-tipping customers on Twitter, but O’Connor makes it clear that the food truck gig was always temporary, meant to support him financially while he works his way up to writing professionally. In fact, O’Connor penned “Millennial Fired for Tweet,” published on The Awl, in his capacity as — you guessed it — an intern for the site.

O’Connor’s situation illustrates why Doll’s vision of the internship economy won’t come to pass anytime soon: it’s one thing to use social media to tip-shame customers at your day job, or a national media outlet to embarrass your former boss mid-scandal. Using social media to alienate professional connections in one’s chosen career? That’s a whole different ball game. O’Connor was perfectly willing to gamble a job that wasn’t particularly important to him on a tweet. Something tells me he wouldn’t take the same kind of risk with his position at The Awl, a respected site where most young writers would jump at the chance to be published. Which is totally normal; most interns wouldn’t hit back at a place where they’d actually like to get a job.

And that’s the problem with internships: the Internet may be a game-changer, but it hasn’t altered the basic power imbalance between interns and their employers. As long as interns are worried about getting a job, or at least professional contacts, they’re in no position to speak up about long hours, lack of pay, or other workplace infractions. Interns have an incentive to keep working in the hopes of breaking into their chosen field, and employers have an incentive to keep hiring them. Change isn’t impossible, as we’re seeing with lawsuits against Hearst, Fox Searchlight, Condé Nast, and other large companies. But it’ll be slow and achieved incrementally, one ruling at a time. Disappointing, sure, but it’s the truth.

Doll’s vision of the empowered intern isn’t just inaccurate, though; it downplays just how far interns have to go before they enjoy the same rights as other workers. For now, stories like that of Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, the two Fox Searchlight interns who sued after fetching coffee and taking out the trash for no pay, are far more common than Olivia Nuzzi’s. In order to change that, the last thing interns need is a declaration that they’re free agents in charge of their own destinies, with no right to complain. Articles like “Interns in the Age of the Selfie” tell readers the fight’s already over; as Footman and Glatt could attest, it’s just beginning.