Words by Hettie O’Brien.
Would anyone’s utopia have social media? Not mine. Twitter would never have been invented. (But everyone would have a permanent contract, parental leave and a spacious apartment.) In real life, however, having an online presence has become a means of attaining these things, a requisite for demonstrating your employability, a way of surmounting gatekeepers to enter industries without familial connections. Everyone understands the bad parts of social media: that it quantifies social status and assigns us all a score; that it collapses the border between private lives and professional selves, serving up both for the disenchantment of anonymous others. But what about the good: Is it even funny, or clever? Does mastering the form indicate anything beyond the form itself? Who knows.
What I do know is that this compulsion does not apply equally: Those doing socially useful labor, such as stocking supermarket shelves or caring for children, are not required to be online. But for a small minority of the workforce—those people chasing employment that confers social prestige in industries where job opportunities are scarce and digital technologies ubiquitous—the demand of being “always on” is inextricably and inevitably tied up with work.
One of the great ironies of human ingenuity is how technologies invented to save time in fact created more work. In her classic history More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan demonstrated that, instead of reducing domestic labor and traditional “women’s work,” inventions like the vacuum cleaner and washing machine redirected and even intensified it.1 Though these modern conveniences extended middle-class comforts to working-class women and housewives, by increasing the volume of work it was possible to complete in a day, and by prescribing new standards of cleanliness, they both extended and augmented the burden of domestic labor. The relationship between social media and work is similar. It’s not that social media has stopped us from being productive—stroking your phone while awaiting the next dopamine hit is perfectly consonant with holding down a job and a meaningful social life—rather, it’s that the expectation of being always available has both altered and prolonged the work we are expected to do.
“There’s a common feeling among employees today that it’s not enough to fulfill the tasks that have been circumscribed for you,” Josh Cohen, the psychoanalyst and author of Not Working, a book that criticizes our culture of overwork and lauds the benefits of idleness, tells me. “To be properly productive, and to be seen to be properly productive, you always have to be going a bit beyond what’s asked of you.” This pressure suffuses our jobs and the extracurricular enterprises that we feel “benignly railroaded into participating in, in order to increase [our] presence and profile,” Cohen explains, “whether it’s the podcast, the blog, the Twitter feed, the ‘side hustle.’”
Many employees and freelancers in industries where jobs are short-term or shrinking feel that it’s no longer enough to just do their work, and that it’s now incumbent upon them to tend professional profiles on multiple platforms, always looking for the next opportunity. “There is a kind of shame about dropping out, about saying you won’t be available online or on email,” Cohen says. “I wonder why a lot of my colleagues bother with out-of-office notices—they never seem to be out of office.”
This sense that we have to be our jobs, to divulge some deeper substrate of our selfhood in order to get ahead in the marketplace, is partly explained by economic shifts that have occurred over the last 40 years. From the 1980s onward, businesses began to offshore and downsize to reduce labor costs and chase profits. The result was an upsurge in outsourcing, and short-term or freelance contracts. Workers in this new economy have been forced to adapt to a life where jobs are fleeting and spending time as “independent contractors” is normal. At the same time, digital technologies such as email entered the workplace, allowing employers to indirectly monitor productivity and prolong working hours.2 The effects of these changes were both social and psychological: Workers are now expected to be flexible, entrepreneurial, reactive—and to demand less from the safety nets once offered by permanent employment.
In our new marketplace of short-term work, where online followings can be leveraged to secure employment opportunities, the distinction between personal and professional selfhood has become porous. In a blog post published during lockdown, Hussein Kesvani, author of Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims, wrote that “at a time when my generation have less access to the milestones of personal development, where ownership is a luxury… there are few things more reassuring than numbers. The numbers on our Twitter accounts and Instagram pictures.”
This technocratic, numerical evaluation of professional relevance and digital popularity can bleed into the way we approach relationships with other humans. “When your means of survival are partly dependent on you making connections online, you’re required to invest emotional energy into transactional kinds of relationships—on the basis that if you become good friends with a person, it could turn into a job later on,” Kesvani tells me.
“Perhaps the idea of logging off presupposes
that, at some profound level, we’re not really like this; that there
is a possible world where we could be happier, less
transactional, more guarded of our inner lives.”
The anxieties associated with integrating personal and professional identity recur in Cohen’s psychotherapy practice: “The more energy and anxiety we’re investing into cultivating our public external profiles, the less we expend on the cultivation of our private lives,” he explains. Lifting the curtain on the production of digital identity reveals a spectacle that is often narcissistic, vulnerable and politically expressive in all the wrong ways. There’s something—forgive me—so embarrassing about it all, this compulsion to perform one’s professional credentials for the accretion of numbers that indicate nothing more than elusive notions of “engagement” and “influence.”
It would be convenient to assume the answer lies in simply exiting the “virtual” world and logging off from the pressures it prescribes. But to assume that online and offline selfhood can be easily disaggregated is, regrettably, a fiction—particularly when the pandemic has dictated an unprecedented experiment in working from home, where remote employees are expected to be more online than ever before and Slack channels and virtual meetings have outmoded face-to-face contact. (Research shows that these workers—armed with all of the conveniences of digital technology—have, like housewives with microwaves, begun to work paradoxically longer hours.)3
Two questions I return to often are: What’s it all for? and When can I log off? Perhaps the idea of logging off presupposes that, at some profound level, we’re not really like this; that there is a possible world where we could be happier, less transactional, more guarded of our inner lives. But there is no realer real than the reality that most of us participate in, where the pressures of digital selfhood are internalized.
“Saying to somebody in therapy that you don’t want to hear about their social media field is incredibly naive and disingenuous,” Cohen says. “The public gaze, and the sense of forever being heard and seen in its presence and absence, is so much a part of their self-understanding.” When I ask Kesvani about logging off, he tells me that he often thinks about what being online would be like without its concomitant pressures of self-improvement and professional identification. “I was thinking to myself the other day,” he said: “When was the last time I had fun?”