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It’s not about who you are but who you appear to be

In the not so distant past, personal power was often associated with a slow, deliberate and controlled demeanour. An unhurried manner showed that one had time. One could take time in the moment. More importantly, such poise subtly announced that one had had the time, and money, to cultivate this demeanour. Today we seem to seek credit for ostentatiously showing that we have no time.


There seems to be a need, and a desire, to look busy. Why do so many of us need to carry paper coffee cups in the street or around the work place? Is our work and our time so precious that we could not take twenty minutes for a break? Phone calls end with ‘ok, goodbye, bye, bye, BYE!’ (Loosely translates as ‘In a hurry. I’ve other things to get on with. BYE!’). Expressions like ‘I know you are a busy man’ or ‘I know your time is precious’ are a form of flattery. Most of us have heard people boast about working from morning to evening without a break. Being pressed for time has become a mark of status.


There seems to be an aesthetic of ‘busy-ness’. Part of this might be aspirational imitation. CEO’s are successful, and busy, so perhaps by aping their ‘busy-ness’ we can look and become successful too. There may also be a deeper structural motivation. With the relentless destruction of permanence and stability in labour markets, looking busy may be a psychological response to existential doubt. Doubt about the significance and permanence of our working lives. Like a warped version of Weber’s protestant ethic, being busy distracts us from worry and signals to others that we are one of the elect. As George Costanza in Seinfeld understood it may be more important to look busy than to actually get work done.


The flexibilised, neoliberal labour market has created a link between appearances and employment prospects. As job-security evaporates almost everywhere, individuals must act to secure their current job, or to find their next. Whether one goes it alone or operates within a network of peers, the cultivation of a good reputation, as a worker, and as an individual, becomes central to career chances.


We must now carefully manage our professional appearance. In the world of art, the artist or performer is always working. In public, they must constantly maintain an air that preserves their perceived value. This is now true of other industries like media, IT, advertising, finance and so on. As the structures of working lives are liquidised the task of maintaining a career is thrust entirely upon the individual. Professionals are, increasingly, ‘always on’. Social occasions become opportunities to get noticed, and arenas for reputational gains or losses. The labour market becomes, in part, an economy of attention and reputation.


Social media are now shop windows for many of us as potential employees. As Alison Hearn pointed out in many respects facebook is an extension of ‘self-branding’, which is itself a product of an atomised and insecure labour market. Of course many avid users of social media are not hawking their skills or personalities. They are keeping in touch with friends, uploading party pictures and sharing youtube videos. Nevertheless, our engagement with social media and the labour market have something in common. Both involve highly personalised economies of attention and reputation.


Like success or failure in work, online environments are tied to our emotions. They can generate feelings of pride or shame. There is a pleasure to getting a positive response to a picture, a status update or a post. We are being told that we are recognised, we are liked, or we belong. Similarly, there is a double disappointment to something being disliked, or worse yet, ignored. The second part of the disappointment lies in the frustration with oneself for caring about something so venal and trivial.


People have always managed the impressions they give to others as part of business, and everyday life. Nevertheless, social media do something new. They encourage us to create a disembodied impression of our selves that echoes the pressures of a precarious labour market. In work, and our online leisure time, we compete for recognition and approval. We vie for hits, friends, retweets, likes, notoriety and popularity. As such our online self may be an instrumental, competitive and limited alter ego. More than a product of technology or popular culture, the way we use social media may be a symptom of our globalised society and its values.


Some Irish politicians have a worrying habit of speaking about themselves in the third person. In a respect they are right. They know that they are talking, not about themselves, but about a character that they play, a political brand. They are worrying because they sound detached and a bit demented. They want to have their cake and eat it; embodying a political personality while tacitly saying that it is nothing to do with them. Perhaps we have a similar relationship with our online manifestations. They are an outward display but nothing to do with our true selves. Yet, we devote hours to writing, updating and commenting. We spend time looking at the expressions of other online personas. The online world can occupy our thoughts when we are away from the internet. Maybe we need to admit that wanting, or needing, to be noticed, at work and online, is an unlovely but central part of life in an insecure market-led society.