Ian Bogost recently published a commentary on “Hyperemployment” in The Atlantic. It starts with the de rigeur comments on how we get too much email, then moves on to the obligations we’ve opted into through social media—especially Facebook. It would seem like the typical curmudgeonly ramblings of anti-Internet/social media types, until this part:
Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyperemployment?
I don’t consider posting on Facebook and Twitter to be exploitation, but the necessity of building a personal online brand is something worth discussing. As someone who is in the middle of job hunting, it certainly hits home. Job hunting in the age of social media is job hunting in the age of utmost scrutiny. It’s not uncommon for prospective employers to scour a candidate’s social media profiles. I did it myself when evaluating summer interns at my previous job. On Episode 41 of QUIT!, Haddie Cooke mentions a college professor who made one of their final class days “Facebook cleanup day,” and recounts a frightening story of what happened to a student who decided to skip it.
This goes way beyond not having pictures of yourself smoking weed on your Facebook. Even the already employed in some fields have to keep up a social presence, along with their actual work. Mimi Thi Nguyen is an academic in the digital humanities and writes that:
To remain relevant [in academia], we are told we must blog, tweet, and code (whether this means learning genetic and neurobiological chemical formulas or computing languages). But it is important to ask, To what end?
— Against Efficiency Machines | thread & circuits
Elsewhere, there’s a debate brewing about the ethics of requiring programmers to contribute to Open Source projects as a prerequisite to employment. Then there’s what Sarah Kendizor calls “the internship scam”, and the prestige economy that replaces entry-level jobs with unpaid internships. In other words, even the unemployed are working overtime just to be competitive in a job market.
Your social media profiles, your passion projects, the internships—paid, and unpaid—you take to get skills, all of these things become your personal brand, and the personal brand subsumes all. Maintaining your personal brand is a full-time job in itself. Vulture posted an interesting piece by Joe Jonas of The Jonas Brothers on the difficulties of living in the spotlight under the Disney brand that offers an interesting perspective on personal branding. It’s not quite that insane for the majority of us. There’s a reason Disney has a team of people to handle the hard work of brushing indiscretions under the rug. It’s just that the rest of us have to keep up our own appearances.
As Ian Bogost writes:
Today, everyone’s a hustler. But now we’re not even just hustling for ourselves or our bosses, but for so many other, unseen bosses. For accounts payable and for marketing; for the Girl Scouts and the Youth Choir; for Facebook and for Google; for our friends via their Kickstarters and their Etsy shops…
My personal brand got me my last job.  Having Sanspoint and Crush On Radio showed that I had the skills needed for the role I would take on, and could teach myself new ones. A few months ago, I considered shuttering Sanspoint and starting a new project to focus on my technology and culture writing. As I thought about starting from scratch, building a new audience, a new brand, I realized, first, how integrated this little blog was with my online identity. I’d have to do a lot more than just buy a new domain and set up a new WordPress installation. I’d have to build my personal brand all over again, and that is hard. It’s even harder when you’re already employed.
But is all of this hyperemployment and brand building exploitive? One reason why I was poking and prodding at the Facebook profiles of prospective interns is that they would be publicly representing the company on social media. If they know how to manage their own profiles well, it shows they would know how to manage a business’s profile just as well. It’s a skill, one they don’t teach in school (yet), and not every job requires it. There are still plenty of jobs where what you do outside of office hours simply do not, and should not matter, as long as it doesn’t affect your on the job performance. Why should they have to worry about their online persona and brand?
And what about those who opt-out? We may see people abandoning “traditional” social media in the future. If Snapchat and other temporary sharing services have staying power, how will its users build their brands? Even today, there’s still plenty of people in the first world who don’t use any of this stuff, or use it only sporadically. In 2011, 40% of active Twitter users didn’t tweet, according to an interview with Dick Costolo. Can a personal brand be an absence thereof?
My personal brand also lost my last job. Saying that might keep me from another job, but I think an important part of who I am, online and offline, is based on honesty and a sense of ethics. ↩