Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Against Amateur Economies: Spec Work Competitions and the Anti-Spec Movement

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Against Amateur Economies: Spec Work Competitions and the Anti-Spec Movement

Article excerpt

The rise and rise of the amateur cultural producer has been greeted with a spectacular amount of celebratory rhetoric, in both popular and academic writing.1 Despite some criticisms of amateur participation in cultural economies-because it results in inferior quality productions compared to the fruits of professional labour,2 because participatory, amateur cultures are not really participatory,3 or because new opportunities for profit-making and control result from the extraction of data from amateur content4-optimistic, celebratory discourses of the amateur prevail. This article counterbalances the dominant celebratory discourse surrounding amateur economies by focusing on some of its more negative consequences. Specifically, it concentrates on spec work competitions and the anti-spec movement within the field of design.

Spec work, short for speculative work, involves people producing goods, usually cultural goods, without a guarantee of getting paid. For some designers, the most troublesome manifestation of spec work is the spec work competition, which brings amateur and professional designers together in competition with each other for payment for a design job which they all undertake. In this sense, the spec work competition is one manifestation of the amateur economy. Spec work competitions mobilise a process that is becoming increasingly central to amateur economies: crowdsourcing, or the outsourcing of tasks historically carried out by paid employees to the collective labour of a group of volunteers.

Crowdsourced speculative work competitions are criticised by anti-spec design professionals for a number of reasons. These include that such competitions devalue design; they offer unfair compensation; they can result in problematic lawsuits; they employ minors; and they lead to a host of unethical practices, by clients, competition hosts and designers. Instead of participating in speculative work competitions, therefore, critics propose pro bono work as a more ethical alternative. Here, I argue that such responses to spec work are not simply the panicked reactions of a profession under threat of invasion by amateur troops, as is implied in some academic commentary. Rather, critical responses to spec work need to be understood in relation to the professional ethics of designers, which many feel are thrown into question by this particular amateur economy.

As well as countering celebrations of the amateur, this article highlights the role played by ethics and values in professional creative labour, building on other discussions of ethics and cultural work.5 At the same time, it exposes the tensions that arise when amateur and professional workers, paid and unpaid work, are brought together. And it draws attention to yet another example of the increasingly precarious conditions of creative work, which have otherwise been well documented.6 Finally, the article contributes to debates about amateur economies valuable empirical research with professional media producers about the impact of amateur production activities on their work, which to date has been somewhat lacking.

First, I map out the rise of amateur cultural production, with particular attention to the networked environments which facilitate crowdsourced activities like spec work competitions. I then go on to describe spec work initiatives, before discussing critical responses to them from within the design professions. I draw on online material from anti-spec campaigns such as NO!SPEC (, AntiSpec (http://antispeccom/) and SpecWatch (http://www., as well as dialogues with people working in the anti-spec movement.


The term amateur is used to describe a person who engages in particular pursuits without pay or formal training because of a passionate interest in, or love of, the pursuit-the word does, after all, derive from the French 'amateur', or 'lover of'. The recent rise of the culture-producing amateur is generally associated with the birth of Web 2. …

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