‘Mum, I got the job! Check my LinkedIn for the details…’: Self-branding and unpaid labour on LinkedIn
20th September 2021
Author: Nicholas Gibbs, Teacher in Policing at Leeds Trinity University and PhD student at Northumbria University
Recently I have made a few career breakthroughs. I secured my first full-time academic job, got my first peer-reviewed publication, and did a presentation at a major criminological conference. I start on this rather self-aggrandising note because, instead of celebrating with family or excitedly emailing my supervisor, I first turned to my LinkedIn 'network' to share the good news. Advocates for the site I'm sure would rejoice at my efforts to 'build my professional profile' but, if we pause to reflect for one moment, why was a social networking site comprised of half-acquaintances and strategically-friended contacts my first port of call for such exciting professional milestones? In this piece, I want to address this troubling reality by leaning on scholarship around 'self-branding' and what this can tell us about how we present our digital selves on professional social media.
For my generation, LinkedIn forms the bedrock of the recruitment process as well as the ever-pressing prerogative of continuous professional development. One does not simply get a new job/publish a paper/gain a professional qualification anymore without sharing the news on LinkedIn in the hope that at least a smattering of one's 'connections' will laud this achievement. van Dijck (2013: 208, italics in original) contends that, '[i]t may not be an exaggeration to argue that LinkedIn profiles function as inscriptions of normative professional behaviour'. Therefore, the site can be seen as integral to the working lives of young professionals the world over. But how do we change when we opt to create a LinkedIn profile? Has this digital platform altered our workplace subjectivities, or is it simply an online manifestation of a culture of competitive individualism and amour propre (Hall et al., 2008) that has been inherent in the workplace for decades? I wish to argue the former.
LinkedIn has ushered in a new generation of digital 'self-branders'. That is to say, the fact that we can now cultivate professional online profiles means that there is a greater pressure to promote the self in order to stay afloat in the late-capitalist workplace than ever before (Khamis et al., 2017). Self-branding describes 'individuals developing a distinctive public image for commercial gain and/or cultural capital' (Hearn, 2008: 191-192), essentially becoming a commercial product with a carefully curated promotional skin to sell one's self to one's target audience. What this means is that, unlike the days before such platforms, where respect and reputation were sought whilst on the job, now we are compelled to commit unpaid labour time to cultivating a profile that enhances our employability and smooths over our flaws, in order to 'get noticed'. This follows a broader trend of unremunerated expectations from employers, which includes the increased onus placed on voluntary internships, protracted job application processes and 'assessment centres', and, most unethically, the numerous examples of aspiring creatives having their intellectual property (submitted as part of a job application) taken with no credit or pay received in return.
Self-branding, particularly in professions like journalism and creative media, is by no means new. However, the practice of representing oneself as a brand online has become ubiquitous in the contemporary professional job market. Whereas before it was only hopeful artists and photographers needing to curate a portfolio to build their creative brand, now everyone from account managers, primary school teachers, and indeed academics are expected to create and update several digital accounts simply to remain competitive in the game. It is this ethos that has spawned the laughable prevalence of the term 'dynamic' in almost every job description, as well as the universal mandate to love every second of the working day. But what this means in practice is that we cannot be seen to be struggling at work, or to be needing some time to recharge rather than being perpetually on the hunt for new opportunities to 'upskill'. Instead, we proclaim that we can't wait to get stuck into our latest project, that we are relishing the 'fast-paced' environment of our new role, or that the three-hour management meeting we were 'lucky enough to get invited to' wasn't a dreary waste of time. Truly, examining some of my contacts' LinkedIn profiles, you'd assume they bound around the office beaming from ear to ear each day, over the moon to have a fresh spreadsheet to take on.
But what if our unending quest to perfect our own brand has altered our behaviour on a more fundamental level? Khamis et al. (2017: 200) argue that the contemporary injunction to self-brand represents a 'seminal turning point in how subjectivity itself is understood', as we commodify ourselves to serve our employers and 'represent the company'. Therefore, does this reliance upon LinkedIn and other platforms represent capital's last victory over the self? Certainly, when I sit at home at 10pm writing a post about my workplace successes, it does appear that way. Khamis et al. (ibid.) further point out that 'workers are expected to be as adapted and nuanced as […] branded products' and therefore, depending on our employers' values, how desperate we are, or the wider trends in our chosen sector, our branded self needs to remain constantly adaptable. From this we can see that LinkedIn plays a central role in the cultivation of our professional brand online - something to consider before you share that next success.
I suppose the most apt conclusionary remark I can make is to get a little meta and ask myself the question: why am I writing this blog post in the first place? By using all these fancy words and concepts in a format that lends itself to being easily shared, what do I intend to gain from this literary venture? I'd like to say it's to challenge conventional thinking about normalised corporate culture, or to problematise the self-aggrandisement of LinkedIn users' posts. But then again, maybe this entire post is just me building my academic brand and stealing my slice of the attention economy. Well if that's the case, I may as well share it on my LinkedIn….
- Hall, S. Winlow, S. Ancrum, C. (2008). Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Hearn, A. (2008). ''Meat, Mask, Burden' Probing the contours of the branded 'self''. Journal of Consumer Culture. 8 (2), pp. 197-217.
- Khamis, S. Ang, L. Welling, R. (2017). 'Self-branding, 'micro-celebrity' and the rise of Social Media Influencers'. Celebrity Studies. 8 (2), pp. 191-208.
- van Dijck, J. (2013). ''You have one identity': performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn'. Media, Culture & Society. 32 (2), pp. 199-215.