The only way is up (via anxiety and endless self-promotion)

The folded sheet of paper, one of those fundraising notes that regularly turn up in kids’ school bags, asked me to buy a photoshoot that would furnish me with an image for my LinkedIn profile. The parents behind the note are talented and lovely, but the missive still managed, in a few short lines, to tap into the river of anxieties modern parents and workers flail about in: the niggling worry that your school just might not have all the resources your child needs to thrive. The expectation that you are involved daily in all aspects of your child’s life. And the reminder that we are always at work now: even if it’s just our online avatar promoting the work we are doing, or sending out round-the-clock signals we’re looking for new work.

There are articles that describe in detail the ideal LinkendIn photo (no bare shoulders, don’t show yourself on vacation drinking cocktails). Other sites dole out advice on how to network and promote yourself on LinkedIn (one recommends updating your status as least once a week: ‘Tom is reading The New Rules of Marketing and PR and highly recommends it!’). Working life now consists of increasing numbers of hours of unpaid work; Guy Standing, author of The Precariat, calls this ‘work for work’. For the unemployed and precarious worker it means taking part in compulsory retraining and work-ready programs. It means more unpaid time filling and filing forms and waiting in queues – requirements that, as we’ve seen recently with the Centrelink saga, can be dehumanising and ruthlessly punitive. For the salaried worker (the salariat class, to use Standing’s taxonomy), it means spending your own time and money upgrading your skills through formal and informal courses – training now increasingly outsourced to individual workers. It means attending networking events, reading widely, ‘keeping abreast of the latest industry movements’. And it means ‘engaging’ on platforms such as LinkedIn, presenting yourself as an always work-ready professional.

For the salaried worker and the self-employed, all this unpaid ‘work’ is not a nonsense: it’s a rational attempt to sandbag yourself against the threat of falling permanently into the precariat class. Falling wages and the rise of contract and insecure work means working harder just to stand still: we work more intensely in the jobs we do have, and we keep one eye on the next job. As Standing writes: ‘People are labouring more because the returns to any one job are low and risky.’ Many of us now cobble together a series of short-term contracts and piecemeal work. We constantly retrain for the skills and knowledge we hope will be needed in the next revolution in work. This push for agility and innovation is fine – except when we forget that it’s occurring alongside a privatisation of risk and uncertainty onto individuals (see Claire Parfitt and Kirsty McCully’s comprehensive description of this process in a recent Overland article).

In this precarious work environment, as Standing notes, part of the ‘work for work’ we do involves ‘cultivating goodwill and pre-empting badwill’. Anyone in the creative industry, for example, will be familiar with the need to promote themselves – and their friends – on any number of social media platforms (though the growth of online liking and endorsement circles is not confined to the arts and media world). In a new book by Angela McRobbie about the growing class of creative workers, Be Creative, McRobbie describes the entrepreneurial work that is now increasingly needed in the precarious and ‘speeded up’ work of the cultural sector, where aspiring creative workers now must hold down several jobs at once, and engage in ‘intense self-promotion’.

While work has become less secure and predictable, we’re investing more and more of our time and ourselves into it. We don’t so much have jobs anymore but passions. For many of us, work is increasingly a form of self-expression. And as McRobbie notes, ‘the sheer “pleasure of work” is assumed to compensate for workplace security and protection’ (italics added). There’s a paradox operating here, McRobbie notes, particularly for anyone in the knowledge and creative industries: while work is increasingly a form of self-expression, something that appears to offer a kind of freedom for the individual, as workers we face more uncertainty than ever.

In this environment, LinkedIn may not yet be the one-stop shop for anyone looking for work, but being on the platform increasingly feels mandatory for anyone wanting to stay employed. And we are joining: the platform claims it now has 467 million members, adding two members per second. It may feel creepy when you’re notified that people have viewed your profile, and annoying when you’re approached by recruitment companies for jobs you don’t actually want, but LinkedIn is increasingly seen as the price of staying in work. Writing this article the most common response when I asked people about what they thought of LinkedIn was that it was an irritating, but non-negotiable, part of working life now: it’s an ‘online CV’ one person suggested; it’s a way to ‘veto’ job applicants, said another.

With Microsoft’s $26 billion takeover of LinkedIn last year, it’s now hard to imagine having a career – at least one with any level of computerisation or specialised knowledge – without having a lifelong relationship with the tech giant. The era of a job for life, one where you could have a life long relationship with an employer, is all but over; now permanent job seekers are having a lifelong relationship with Microsoft/LinkledIn. Announcing the merger between the two companies, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella boasted of the ‘synergies’ that would now be possible. He talked of developments that might seem relatively benign – linking resumes in Word directly to LinkedIn updates and to applications – to ones that appear coercive and monopolistic – training packages on LinkedIn will be tied to the Microsoft Office ‘ecosystem’, Nadella said.

More worryingly, even before the merger was complete Microsoft’s Scott Guthrie was spruiking the potential of merging data gathered from users of LinkedIn and Microsoft:

The insight you get from a sales reps’ or customer service reps’ inbox with Exchange and what we have in Office 365, the insight you get from someone’s calendar, and even with Skype all of their phone and voice communications and IM traffic, you take all that together and have a cloud that can do deep insight and analytics and machine learning and AI on top of that. You create the ultimate selling tool, the ultimate customer support tool in the industry because you have so much insight that can assist a sales rep or assist a customer service rep that no one other vendor can provide.

You don’t need to be a privacy activist – or understand everything Guthrie is saying here – to feel alarmed by his words. Sure, we can sign up to LinkedIn for free, but then we donate our time and our data to the platform. Data that Microsoft-LinkedIn can monetise. In one sense, this is no different to the way in which other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, monetise your membership – except that Microsoft/LinkedIn’s monetisation goes to the very heart of your ability to find and keep work. Job seekers can already purchase a premium LinkedIn membership to see how their skills and qualifications compare with the competition. With a premium membership you can also see what schools and organisations an employer is hiring from, and you can become a ‘featured’ job applicant, moving your CV to front of the queue.

I’m not suggesting here that there aren’t people who find a platform such as LinkedIn a kind of liberation. If you’re a talented, well-connected extrovert who is (to paraphrase that noted public intellectual Derek Zoolander) really really really ridiculously good at your job, a platform like LinkedIn can feel – and be – a relatively uncomplicated meshing of your work- and non-work selves. But even if it doesn’t seem like it, it’s all still work. Work that can sometimes feel … strange. There’s the pointless and exhausting mental chatter it can trigger. From the relatively innocuous thoughts when a vague contact or old workmate sends you a connection. ‘Oh! They like me! They remember me!’ to the curious or even wary, when a friend becomes a work connection (‘That’s nice! Hang on, do they want something?’). And when you’re automatically notified of a connection’s new job/skill/connections, who can ignore the niggling self-talk (I really should get off my lazy arse and get another job/master Adobe Photoshop’s bump maps …)?

The strange push-pull of LinkedIn is also surely because while we sense now we must be onboard to be and stay employed, it’s sometimes hard to see the direct connections between the work we do on LinkedIn (and other social platforms) and the payoff. Finding someone who found work on LinkedIn is not easy (I tried) but how many of us can risk opting out? What if all that stands between us and your dream job is spending a few days making connections, perfecting your LinkedIn profile picture and furiously endorsing connections for skills as if we are all now work referees for everyone you’ve ever exchanged a work email with five years ago or sat in a meeting with ten years ago?

Despite all the injunctions and pressures to be passionate, innovative and creative about our work, and to be continually entrepreneurial in promoting ourselves and our personal brands, LinkedIn is still mostly an oddly dour environment that replicates the banalities and pleasantries of the business meeting. As Guy Standing observes, perhaps that is because writing a CV – ‘trying to demonstrate individuality while conforming to a standardised routine and way of behaving’ – is fundamentally dehumanising. That’s not to say that LinkedIn has avoided the zanier edge of the internet completely. In an endorsement bombing moment back in 2013, pranksters on LinkedIn were vouching for members’ proficiency in everything from ‘general awesomeness’ to ‘ear candling’ and ‘pole dancing’. In researching this story, one friend told me a true tale involving a fake LinkedIn profile, a giraffe in a Danish zoo sacrificed to lions and Russian spam bots. The details are too involved to go into here, but the point is it’s not true to say we can’t ever have fun on LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, there is room for the mischievous and nefarious. Mostly though, on LinkedIn we’re like grown-up scouts, collecting badges for completing courses and obtaining skills. Endorsing colleagues and clients for skills we’ve never heard of, liking and sharing a new article or new PowerPoint presentation on risk management in the mango industry, like some kind of benign reality TV show where all contestants are expected to praise each other all the time.

There’s a not-so-fine line between praise and sexual harassment though. LinkedIn has become a place where unwanted sexual propositioning thrives, as every second woman I spoke to while writing this article reminded me. In 2014, when the UK lawyer Charlotte Proudman made public a message from barrister Alexander Carter-Silk praising her LinkedIn picture the story went viral. Outrage predictably ensued. It’s alarming that someone can become a barrister and still make a basic social platform error. Most people seem to manage to understand the difference between LinkedIn and Tinder. But the real story of LinkedIn, I’d argue, is not that unwanted sexual advances are now moving into the virtual sphere – as much as this development is not good. Not at all. It’s rather the fundamental changes in world of work and social relations the platform embodies.

We’re no longer permanent workers: the pace of technological change, and the ever-faster mobility of people and capital means we’re now permanent job seekers. We now spend as much time advertising ourselves as we do scouring job advertisements. We’re always at work, and we make friends of our colleagues and we turn our friends into work connections. Ever increasing levels of passion and engagement from workers is matched by employers less loyal to employees than ever.

It’s a world where a few deep and collective connections with long-term colleagues now seems less pragmatic than having a wide range of loose connections with many people. And it’s a world where we can publicly like and endorse each other, but where can also pay to secretly size up our competition. Where you can meet someone at a party and, before you know it, find yourself endorsing them for ‘ideas generation’ or … pole dancing. And it’s a world where a LinkedIn photo shoot as part of a school fundraiser becomes another way to shore up the whole family’s work future.


Kath Kenny

Kath Kenny has contributed essays, reviews and opinion pieces to the Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin and numerous other publications.

More by Kath Kenny ›

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  1. Correct me if I’m wrong and Im missing the point of the article, but I completely agree. It’s so frustrating as a creative, having to do ones own self promotion. Its infinitely better than the days when you had to go through agents (if you could find one who wasn’t a cowboy) but its gotten to the point where in order to be a creative its no longer enough to produce work, one is expected to have connections and contacts and marketing skills and a brand. As much as I might enjoy rising to the challenge of pitching myself and my brand, its scary when it feels like more time is spent selling the product (your book, your art, your music) or ensuring that the product is sellable and can be pitched, than creating the product. Its scary, when you feel like you might have to be someone you’re not (extroverted, photogenic, marketable) because your job and reputation could depend on it.

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