by Phil Jones

January 2019

As part of his ongoing project on employability for Autonomy, funded by CHASE, Phil Jones is writing a monthly blog fleshing out the research field. This is his first entry.

brandyou

‘Your branded, branded, branded, branded… When everybody has email and anybody can send you email, how do you decide whose messages you’re going to read and respond to first — and whose you’re going to send to the trash unread? The answer: personal branding. The name of the email sender is every bit as important a brand — is a brand — as the name of the Web site you visit. It’s a promise of the value you’ll receive for the time you spend reading the message’

(Tom Peters, ‘The Brand Called You’).

Written at the peak of the dot-com bubble, these words suggest an author intoxicated by excessive liquidity. It’s 1997 and new internet-based companies are enjoying the gains of unrestrained financial speculation; fortunes are being made from bloated IPOs (Initial Public Offering) as the online world is treated as a kind of limitless goldmine. Computers are hailed as a productivity miracle, occasioning a new era of democratized work free of class conflict. We are each our own makers now: all one needs is online access and a touch of entrepreneurial panache…

 

Considering the various crises and recessions that have characterised the years following the dot com era, we might expect such boosterish rhetoric to now ring as hollow as the bubble it emerged from. Instead, the idea of ‘personal branding’ has become an ideological motif of twenty-first century working life. So ubiquitous is the term that we hear it applied to everything from the LinkedIn profile of a senior accountant to the video content of a famous Youtuber. This is its malignant genius: a discursive vagueness that applies just as readily to a worker in a traditional office setting as a viral sensation.

 

But this is perhaps the point: self-branding is a response to a world of work without clear borders – a workplace without walls where self-promotion is a job that never ends. For gurus such as Peters, new media translates this emerging world of work into unbounded opportunities for the worker; it provides new and exciting ways of communicating one’s employability in an increasingly flexible and fragmented labour market. Similar to Peters, the management scholar Peter Montoya claims that an effective self-brand clearly conveys a worker’s employability by drawing their various jobs, projects and ventures into a single cohesive image of their working life, ultimately giving them a competitive edge.

Self-promotion is, therefore, no longer a career choice but a necessity. To opt out is to be left behind; to successfully compete one must create a glossy package for the self. In the world of personal-branding, success at work no longer centres around skills and experience but an attractive self-image. Style over substance is the new order of things, as Peters advises, ‘don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle’. Of course, this imagined ideal has not played out exactly according to the literature. Robust skills and experience are still more important than a fabulous self-image. Yet, the impetus to sell oneself – and indeed, to do so at every available opportunity, more than resonates with our present use of social media to enhance employability. LinkedIn was developed for this express purpose, and the way that many use Twitter solely as a vehicle for promoting their career offers an uncanny reflection of this ideal.

 

More specifically, there is a near unanimous agreement across the literature that the individual should promote themselves as a promise. Peters, for instance, reiterates that a personal brand is a promise to the customer or investor; in Me 2.0, Dan Schawbel tells the reader that they must embody their brand promise; while Montoya and Vandehey contend that much like, say, Apple, a personal brand promise should create and then meet a set of expectations. Just as a consumer buys a MacBook pro for its promise of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, an employer selects a particular candidate because of their own individual promise – or at least, that’s what self-brand literature would have us believe…

 

In the next post, I will analyse more closely this promissory logic and the financialized conditions that generate it through a reading of Marx’s ‘fictitious capital’. Each of the remaining blog posts will deal with a different aspect of this logic, offering analyses of the various historical, cultural and political factors that constitute a working culture premised on the promissory.

Phil is a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex focusing on cultural representations of the digital economy. Alongside his report on employability for Autonomy, he is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.