Myself, Tom Berman and Joseph Connor were recently commissioned by digital arts commissioner The Space to produce The Work We Want, a digital art project investigating how the web is transforming the world of work. We discovered, from digital workers around the world, what it is like to sell your services to employers online through platforms like Freelancer and Upwork. Rather than 'belonging' to a company with the security and social support that accompanies traditional employment, digital workers are transformed into disposable units of labour that can be bought and sold when needed. For digital workers, the online profile is a commodity that circulates competitively in the labour market, and its value depends on the proverbial gold stars attached to it - haven't got a 100% success rate with employers? Only averaging 4 out of 5 stars? Why would someone employ you, when the next worker in line has a perfect score?
Thinking about this pressure cooker situation brings to mind David Eggers' dystopian vision of The Circle, a monopolistic tech company which measures its employees' success and commitment by recording and rating their every activity. As a customer service employee, the novel's main character Mae Holland is expected to average at least a 98% customer satisfaction score; She becomes embroiled in raising her PartiRank score - a measure of her follower numbers in The Circle's social network, and maintaining her Conversion Rate (stimulating sales through recommending products online) and 'Retail Raw' - the total value of the products recommended. The ceaseless quest for forms of networked validation, followers, ratings and recommendations is exhausting, demanding that Mae spend frenzied hours commenting, responding, completing surveys, rating, ranking and reviewing products and services.
I am sure that many of us can relate to the pressure of having to maintain an online identity. If 77% of employers Google potential employees to find out more about them before hiring, you had better keep your website and LinkedIn profiles up to date, your Facebook pages clean or private, your Twitter accounts reflecting your 'self' in just the way you want, right? But this takes a lot of time and effort, and can even seem like another job. So, what if you've had enough of all that work? You're tired of constructing this online version of yourself and would prefer to engage in the good stuff like say, having a meandering one to one conversation with a friend in a park, or cooking or canoeing or just 'being yourself'? If online identity construction is a form of labour, maybe it can be outsourced to a worker in our transforming digital labour markets? But surely I hear you saying - you can't outsource the production of your own identity, as if it were some kind of commodity good?
I posed this question on Twitter recently to the brilliant academic Alison Hearn, and she disagreed, pointing me to Arlie Russell Hoschild's The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, an exploration of outsourcing intimate parts of our lives. The book proposes that once sanctified areas of life - love, intimacy, grieving, child rearing - are being outsourced to experts who sell experience back to customers as a kind of product. Don't know what you really want out of life? No problem - hire a 'wantologist'. Looking for an authentic home cook dining experience? No problem - rent a grandma. Haven't got time to scatter a loved one's ashes? No problem - hire a mourner. Although these are astonishing examples of how the market has crept into even intuitive and intimate parts of human experience, the people who are being hired here aren't 'being' their clients - they are scaffolding the production of the clients self.
But here's a thought experiment - what would it be like to rent out your own Twitter account or Facebook page? What if you paid someone to literally 'be you' online for a given period of time? What kind of job description would you have to write? What would you pay them? Why would it feel so creepy and weird to enter into this kind of ventriloquism? I would argue it is because 'being' yourself online is not only an experience produced (and potentially exploited) by market forces, but also an inner one, which can and should remain beyond the reaches of companies and corporations. We shouldn't reduce the production of our selves to market logics - we aren't units of value available on demand, and our selves are not simply the result of 'work'. We are reflective creatures, living and becoming who we are, alone and together, sometimes with the help of an industry dedicated to selling the idea of the self back to us.