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MoviePass Is the Latest Example of Tech Enabling ‘Job Creep’

Karl Marx's idea of "surplus labor" shows up at the modern box office.

by Rick Paulas
Apr 2 2018, 10:17pm

Photo by EVOK/R.Lauren/Getty Images

I’m a big fan of MoviePass, the subscription service where customers pay less than ten dollars a month to see a movie a day in theaters, partly because I enjoy watching movies on the big screen. And despite growing complaints about the service—the company admitted to tracking app users without their consent and some people claim their accounts were cancelled unfairly—it turns out that a lot of other folks are fans too: The service recently surpassed two million subscribers and says it buys five percent of all movie seats in the U.S. each week.

But as much as I love getting a deal on movie tickets—subscription prices are as low as $6.95 a month—I’m also interested in how the company's business model exposes many flaws in our tech-disrupted environment: Mainly, how it converts the cost of customers’ movie tickets into “data” that it turns around and sells. (What data it actually sells is still kinda vague right now.)

But my absolute favorite example of something else that the model exposes is the workplace phenomenon known as “job creep.” Allow me to explain.

Using the MoviePass system isn’t overly difficult, but it does take some getting used to. Users must first “check into” movies via an app, but they can only do so on the day of the screening, while within 100 yards of the theater. Under those conditions, a ticket can be claimed with the physical MoviePass debit card, but customers have to do so within 30 minutes of checking in. Due to those physical and time constraints, there can be stressful moments at the box office, and due to MoviePass’s own lackluster customer service, the person left dealing with those stressful moments is the theater staff.

I’ve been a MoviePass user for only a month and have already seen the job creep scenario play out a few times already. Typically, it's an innocuous, easily missed interaction, with the customer asking one or two questions to the theater employee, who’ll either answer quickly or say “this is between you and MoviePass,” and that’s that. (Surely, knowing how people are, there are worse stories out there.) These interactions are over within seconds, and no one thinks twice before moving on.

This is bad.

In times like these—most times, really—I find it’s helpful to consult the work of Mr. Karl Marx. The idea at play here is Marx’s concept of “surplus labor,” which is, the labor that a worker does in excess of covering their own cost. The example that made sense to me was a worker being paid $10 an hour and selling pies for $5 a piece; the first two pies cover their hourly rate, an additional two or so cover the cost of production (the ingredients, the oven, etc.), and every pie after that goes into the boss’ pockets. See, surplus labor goes by another name, too: “profit.”

How does that fit into that micro-moments at the box office? There are extra profits being realized in this business model. MoviePass is making money by its model of selling user data, and the theaters are making more money, through MoviePass reimbursing the cost of the ticket. But one group that isn’t making more money out of this deal, even though they’re doing the extra labor of answering questions to confused MoviePass users, is the theater staff.

This is the essence of “job creep.” Here’s how psychologist and business consultant Michael Wellin defines it in his book, Managing the Psychological Contract:

“Job creep involves ongoing pressure on employees to deliver more than the normal requirements of their jobs. This is a situation where the norm of reciprocity which has evolved over time no longer applies. Instead the employer is gradually increasing their requirements from employees. Behavior and performance that was previously discretionary now becomes increasingly expected or taken for granted by the employer.”

Are you a victim of "job creep"?

Perhaps you’ve seen this in your own work. When you were first hired, your responsibilities were a, b, and c, but then the boss felt it was time to put more on your plate. When someone’s out sick, you might have to pick up their slack. If a worker quits, sometimes a company weirdly doesn’t hire someone to take their place. Perhaps you’re pressured—overtly, or more likely, through veiled comments—to attend an off-hours work function during which you’re not getting paid. Maybe you are being urged to keep that phone handy for emails coming in before or after you’re officially “on duty.”

Or you could be answering customer service questions for a company you don’t work for while working in a place that isn’t paying you more.

None of these instances are “bad,” in and of themselves. But when they occur without a conversation where you agree to perform the extra work, during which you agree upon a compensation for said extra work, then it’s simply an increased extraction of your surplus labor. Or, from the boss’ perspective, it’s more profits without costs.

So, when situations like this arise, however minimal they may seem, it’s valuable to keep the immortal words of Mac Dre handy and ready to use, if necessary. Of course, that could also get you fired, so it's best to have a back up plan—and a Fuck You fund, just in case.