By Phil Jones
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 fourth and final entry.
‘Influence’ and ‘reach’, the most precious qualities in the world of self-branding, are becoming a new kind of currency, or so the myth goes…
‘Followers’, ‘Likes’, ‘Shares’, ‘Retweets’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Views’ are said to provide quantitative measures of one’s reputation, itself a measure of one’s ability to reach and influence others. For personal brand advocates, as well as for critics of neoliberalism, these metrics provide evidence of an emerging ‘reputation economy’ in which one exchanges their capacity to influence others for income. Under such conditions, the worker judiciously cultivates and protects their reputation by appreciating their personal value, measured through social media metrics, just like a firm might invest in and measure its brand equity. Such a worker treats their reputation, Niels Van Doorn explains, ‘like a vital asset that requires constant cultivation and appreciation to improve or at least sustain their position in multiple competitive markets’.1
If we read these ‘competitive markets’ as the labour market, then it becomes apparent that reputation is not the basis for a new economy but simply symptomatic of a more long-term capitalist problem: that of providing remunerative, stable and meaningful work. In our highly precarious, post-Fordist economy, anything even resembling this ideal is but a fantasy for most. The potential riches to be earned through a network of devoted followers and an expanding sphere of influence offers a tempting glimpse of this ideal; it carries the promise of a satisfactory, even meaningful, working life. But as I’ve previously shown, this promise encourages us to turn leisure into work.
Self-branding, therefore, not only asks the worker to promise their capacity and willingness to work, as mentioned in my previous post, but it also makes a promise to the worker: that the good life is still possible; you just need to work harder. This promise is cruelly optimistic, in the sense that Lauren Berlant uses the term to describe a fantasy of the good life that is simultaneously an obstacle to its own attainment. An optimistic relation to one’s brand is cruel because it ‘actively impedes the aim that brought [one] to it initially’.2 If the motivating factor behind self-branding is the insecurity generated by a competitive labour market, then putting oneself on that market as one brand among many only intensifies the competition. It does not deal with the concrete processes determining such competition – automation, surplus labour growth and the ongoing financialization of the world economy. Indeed, focusing on constructing a shiny brand image and a substantial following not only takes political energy away from imagining a state of affairs in which secure, meaningful work is the norm, but further bolsters the neoliberal myth that social problems are solved at the level of individual action.
Self-branding is symptomatic of a work culture that promises everything but gives very little. It is perhaps time, then, that we rethought both the promises we are encouraged to make and those that are made to us.
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.