OurChickenLife: Byproductive labour in the digital flock
by Catherine Oliver, University of Cambridge
In a Birmingham street, if you wake up with the sun and open your window, you might hear the not-too-distant sound of a cockerel. Or, in a residential corner of London, as the morning grows long, you might just hear the bak-bak-baaak song of a hen laying. Alternatively, you might open a browser and head to OurChickenLife to hang out with the ducks and chickens being live streamed from Utah, USA (Figure 1). In this post, I write about my digital encounters with the chickens and ducks of OurChickenLife during a period of isolation from my other-than-human friends.
Galline digital ecologies
The chicken has long been a source of deep interest, solace, and exploitation for human communities. Scientific knowledge of chickens has been studied alongside, and intensely entangled with, human biology (see Boyd, 2001), and they are the most experimented on of all animal species. Chickens (and their eggs) have been the ‘premier model organism of science,’ from Darwin’s theory of evolution to contemporary genome sequencing (NIH, 2004). Gallus gallus domesticus is a global bird. First through cockfighting, then through breed shows (akin to contemporary dogs shows, such as Crufts), and finally for meat and eggs, “the chicken crossed the world because we took it with us” (Lawler, 2016). In 2019, the global numbers of chickens totalled around 25.9 billion, living across every country except Vatican City and every continent except Antarctica.
OurChickenLife is a Twitch stream with 15 cameras that can be controlled by subscribers to provide over 50,000 unique angles from which to watch and interact with a group of chickens (and other animals) in Utah. It is run by Farmer Spence, who has kept chickens since 2015 and set up the stream in 2018. With 71,000 followers on Twitch, over 1000 YouTube subscribers, and an active website with profiles of each of the chickens, sheep, roosters, and ducks living on the farm, OurChickenLife has proven popular to a wide audience (Figure 2).
OurChickenLife allows subscribers to interact with the chickens via the Twitch chat, primarily through “feeding” them. Subscribers (who pay in tiers starting at $4.99/month) can feed the chickens once per day by posting one of a selection of word commands in the stream chat, including words like ‘food’ and ‘feed,’ but also ‘noms,’ ‘dindins,’ ‘tidbits,’ ‘munchies,’ or ‘chow.’ When a subscriber enters one of these commands in the chat box, “M&Ms” (mealworms and millet) drop from a chute next to the camera, and the chickens rush towards it. Subscribers can also use commands to switch camera views 24/7. These commands include ‘inhouse,’ ‘coop,’ ‘nest,’ and ‘shade,’ each of which correlates to a space the chickens live in. The feeder is filled once a day and once it is empty, a message is posted in the chat. This regulates the treat consumption for the chickens out of concern for a healthy balanced diet.
On the OurChickenLife website, there is a page dedicated to biographies of each animal. Their profiles contain their names, breed, and relations to one another, as well as a note on their personalities, pictures and videos. When a bird dies, their profile is moved to the ‘Memorials’ section. In the subscribers’ chat, visible alongside the livestream, subscribers chat about what the birds are up to, and refer with affection to the birds by name and nickname: “Hai Blueberry, you are very roundt; oh little Pip you are not a pip at all, you are a beautiful chicken; I just wanna zoom in on Blooby; Pepper go nyoom.” Users often chat in language akin to “Lolspeak” (Figure 3, see de los Santos, 2015). The “feeding” of chickens brings together subscribers and viewers (who are watching for free and cannot feed or move cameras) around this digital animal encounter.
In this galline digital ecology, there are longer beyond-human digital relationships being established, on the part of the human at least. Whether the chickens “know” the camera is there, or if particular behaviours are likely to produce more “noms” is uncertain. Farmer Spence shares compilation videos on YouTube and updates on their website of the “many random, fun things [that] happen each day.” It is obvious that no two days look the same, especially when non-human visitors enter the livestream and produce unexpected and unpredictable encounters:
Many random, fun, things happen each day. A particularly funny one was the day sweet Millie, a white fluffy Silkie chicken, was walking along without paying much attention. A deer had come on stream and was laying down relaxing. Millie didn’t even see the deer, running right into the deer’s face. Looking up and seeing the deer, she jumped back with great surprise, and then started looking up and down, seemingly trying to figure out how a deer had just plopped into her path.
— Farmer Spence, Streamovator Interview
Paraphrasing Donna Haraway, if you follow the chicken, you will find the world; in encountering the digital flock, we participate in finding and creating new worlds of galline digital ecologies. Opening the twitch stream, typing the command “goodies,” panning the camera towards the chute, and watching the chickens dash to the food brings into being expansive more-than-human networks. This, as I will discuss in the rest of this blog, has the potential to renegotiate chicken-human relationships through a communing of “care” and a conscription of chicken labour that ekes capital from them in novel ways (Gillespie, 2018).
Digital encounters with chickens
While OurChickenLife at first appears to centre around virtual feeding, this galline digital ecology expands beyond this one encounter. It is Spring in Utah, and the hens have been setting their eggs for weeks, with the chicks finally hatching. The subscribers have been on the journey with them, from laying to setting to hatching, cheering them on through the chat, throwing treats through the camera as sustenance. One subscriber posted: “It is nice to see Ada finally getting at least a little bit of sleep” and another replies “I bet it’s difficult when little ones keep wiggling under her.”
Utah is in the Mountain Time Zone, putting it seven hours behind GMT. My working day typically runs from 8am to 4pm, meaning that for the first seven hours or so, the chickens at OurChickenLife are asleep. Often, at around 3pm, I log onto the livestream and watch the hens wake up, potter around, and mingle with the rabbits and ducks in the barnyard. Farmer Spence pops on screen to put out their food, refresh water, and check on the animals. The hens lay eggs on screen daily and, during March, OurChickenLife’s hen Ada has hatched four chicks, a process documented in a compilation video on YouTube (Figure 4).
Turnbull, Searle and Adams (2020) have categorised different forms of digital encounter – creaturely cameos, avatar acquaintances, and background birding – which are linked by their capacity to generate real-time, more-than-human affects through their liveness, raising questions of care, capital, and power. Viewers are making an active choice to log in, open up, or enter the digital encounter space, opening questions about how chickens encounter the camera, and the networks, human and non-human, that bring them into (digital) encounter with the human observer. Our Chicken Life does not offer a unidirectional gaze on the digital chicken onto human screen, but rather a curated intersubjective encounter with chickens. As founder Farmer Spence explains:
The main feature of OurChickenLife is cheering Bits to send M&Ms (mealworms and millet) to the chickens, getting them running to the camera. I’ve worked hard to shift control of the stream from me to the viewers. There are over fifteen cameras which can be displayed in one of four windows on the stream page and can be changed by using chat commands. Plus, many of the cameras are PTZ (Pan Tilt Zoom) which viewers can also control with chat commands. This isn’t so much “my stream,” but rather everyone’s stream, as anyone can participate in the caring of the chickens.
This shift towards collectivity in the livestream is important, relying on a series of human and non-human interactions, digital and visceral to commune the care of chickens through digital visual and interactive encounters. Subscribers become a digital community of “carers,” supporting the chickens’ costs through their monthly fee whilst also controlling parts of their daily lives. This communing of care is not limited to feeding. OurChickenLife’s livestream also includes hens laying, sitting, brooding, and hatching their eggs. Those familiar with chickens will know that privacy during laying is very important to the hen. When a hen is broody, she scrapes up straws and ground to build a nest and ‘utters a faint peculiar kind of cry.’ Burke recommends leaving the hen without interruption, shut into the coop after being fed, she will lay and ‘she never utters a complaint; but when it is over she utters screams of joy until let out’ (Burke, Farming for Ladies, 1844).
As I watch, a subscriber pans the camera to zoom in on Ada hatching her last chick. In March 2021, broody hen Ada began the incubation of four eggs, placed under her by Spence. Eggs develop once the hen begins sitting on them, meaning that a clutch laid over a period of a week or longer will all develop and hatch together. During the incubation, hens turn eggs to ensure the embryo doesn’t get stuck to the shell membrane, that the gases move around, and a steady temperature is maintained. A day or so before they are ready to hatch, a chick begins to peep in the shell, establishing ‘a barely audible “communications network”’ between chicks and mother (Smith and Daniel, 1975, 316). The chick then saws its way out with its egg tooth; the hen does not break the egg but remains sat on her clutch as each chick breaks slowly emerges from their shell. Peeps emerge from under Ada. Her body lifts and falls as she protects the chick and guides them out, clucking along with their peeps. Their sibling, born a day earlier and now fluffy and bright-eyed, pokes out from under her to watch the commotion. She looks down at a black chick emerges from underneath her, wet and shiny.
This labouring of reproduction is visible not only for the keeper, but to the collective gaze of subscribers and viewers. This raises questions asked before by critical animal studies over captivity and the ethics of surveillance (Gruen, 2014), but also about how the digital encounter communes the care for these chickens by offering up intimacy in exchange for subscriptions, and how we might understand and approach this digital encounter.
Byproductive labour and the digital flock
OurChickenLife has seen a huge surge in both viewers and paid subscribers during the pandemic. While Farmer Spence does not track data on why people are watching or subscribing, the growing popularity of the livestream is likely related to the temporalities and isolation of lockdowns and a wider rising trends in keeping chickens. When I log on to watch the chickens, it is not to feed them or to pan the camera, but to seek solace from my loneliness and separation from my companion animals. Usually, I would spend time with my dog, cat, and chickens who live with my parents, but the pandemic has prevented this. In Spring 2020, the last chicken from our flock, Primrose, died. Watching the birds on screen or putting the livestream on in a tab and listening to their clucks settles my anxiety and brings a sense of ease and peacefulness to my day.
In the digital flock, byproductive labour is not found in laying, but in the chickens’ absorption and metabolizing of human affects, through being diminished as agents and intentional authorities, they are constructed instead as sites of ‘affect disposal … affect accumulation’ (Whitney, 2018, 639). “Byproductive labour” not only produces affects for others to consume and does the reproductive work of maintaining positive affective atmospheres, but also metabolizes “waste” affects and affective byproducts. The chicken as a byproductive labourer metabolizes waste or excess affects, and becomes a receptacle for the disposal of affects and emotions, creating an ‘affective offal’ (Barua, 2018) as the chickens take affects out of circulation. My anxiety is absorbed through the screen; when a subscriber releases pellets for the chickens, their squawks and excitement breaks my ruminations of hopelessness. As the chickens scoff their treats, with them goes my own affective waste, that otherwise overwhelms the locked down isolation of my bedroom. The digital flock are enlisted into byproductive affect-metabolizing labour, alongside traditional re/productive labour of laying and hatching, beginning before they are born.
The byproductive labour of these chickens has intensified as OurChickenLife’s popularity soared during the pandemic, opening and complicating questions of labour, circulation and commodification through a byproductive lens. In the digital flock, a communing of control and care and conscription of labour exist, uneasily, side-by-side (see Giraud and Hollin, 2016). The digital flock’s conscription in byproductive labour might also be understood as an exploitation of human knowledge about chickens to shape their environments to accommodate human pleasure. The negotiation of care and control through paying to ‘treat’ the chickens whilst offering constant insight into their lives raises troubling examples of conditional more-than-human digital ecologies. How might we see this as an under-studied consideration in other-than-human labour? How does this novel form of encounter allow us to differently understand chicken-human relationships, and how might it allow us to critique the eking out of capital and conscription of galline labour in ever more intimate ways?
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Barua, Maan. 2018. “Animal Work: Metabolic, Ecological, Affective.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, July 26. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/animal-work-metabolic-ecological-affective
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Turnbull, J, Searle, A and Adams, WM. 2020. Quarantine urban ecologies. Cultural Anthropology https://culanth.org/fieldsights/quarantine-urban-ecologies
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Whitney, Shiloh. 2018. Byproductive labor: A feminist theory of affective labor beyond the productive–reproductive distinction.”Philosophy & Social Criticism 44:6, 637-660.
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