Interview with Ilana Gershon
In your book, you persuasively argue that the social media producers you studied are not dupes conned into promoting others’ brands, but rather are involved in a system that provides “dubious reward structures” (221) for producing this kind of social media content. What does your book reveal about the dubious reward structures that shape the ways in which these people labor?
On a near-daily basis, I come across media/pop culture articles that hype social media-enabled “dream jobs” and celebrate the lifestyles of (pro) bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers. These individuals are the beneficiaries of the social media economy’s seemingly meritocratic talent system and its most dazzling prize: a career where you can “get paid to do what you love.” However, the cultural fascination with digital fame draws attention away from a much larger class of social media content creators who aspire to turn their talents into a lucrative, and fulfilling career. They produce creative content (often repackaged to flow across platforms) and promote themselves in earnest. But, of course, only a few achieve such staggering fame and entrepreneurial success.
The book focuses on the feminized creative industries—including beauty, fashion, styling, and design—and most of the social media producers I interviewed were young women. I learned from them that investments in time, energy, and even money serve as prerequisites for success in these fields. Certainly, it takes strategy, creative vision, and dedication to build up one’s digital brand: creating and editing content, ratcheting up followers and likes, generating “buzz.” All of these activities require sufficient leisure time: amassing—and maintaining—tens of thousands of followers is no easy feat.
Aspirants, moreover, are encouraged to attend industry events and parties (scholars describe this necessary networking as “compulsory sociality”) and participate in various kinds of instruction/training (I recently came across this how-to guide) to prepare themselves for an imagined future. There’s even a summer camp for aspiring YouTube stars! These activities require sufficient economic—and often social—capital, so it’s important to keep in mind the role that class plays in shaping content creators’ opportunities. Time and money are necessary to stage, shoot, and edit visual content. One of my interviewees explained that while the blogosphere is “a free domain,” it requires various resources: “You’re really spending your money on clothes and your camera equipment, and I know some people hire photographers…”
Despite these preconditions of economic, social, and aesthetic capital (looking the part!), I reject the “cultural dupe” argument (that is, the argument that people are unwittingly exploited). After all, the promises of the aspirational labor system propel the activities of so many of us (in the epilogue, I draw comparisons to the work we do as scholars in the digital era). In the popular imagination, at least, any of us can vie for success.
What I find especially concerning about the current aspirational economy is the extent to which it requires us to keep consuming and promoting—all while producing new content that ultimately benefits retail brands and platform owners. This lopsided system amounts to what Andrew Ross described as a “jackpot economy.” Model workers, Ross argued, are obliged to be “self- directed, entrepreneurial, [and] accustomed to precarious, nonstandard employment”—all in the hopes of “producing career hits.” Yet as with any jackpot, the “glittering prizes” are won by only “the lucky few.” The system succeeds both despite—and because of—profoundly highly lopsided nature.
In my own research on hiring, I have been struck by how often being authentic is described as the magic bullet – that one’s personal branding can only elicit the responses one wants from one’s public when one is truly authentic. In your research, authenticity seems to be more multi-valent, and open the door for a class critique as well as gendered vulnerabilities. I was hoping you could explain some of the work that the concept of authenticity was doing for those you interviewed.
Authenticity is among the most resonant ideals of the social media age but, of course, it’s by no means a “new” imperative. Nor does it have a stable definition. Snapchat is thus deemed “authentic” because of its real-time presentations of the self and ephemeral imagery.
Social media personalities, meanwhile, routinely present themselves as “just like us”—or, at least, different from those who appear in mainstream media’s slickly produced imagery. Against this backdrop, many of the content creators I interviewed emphasized the importance of presenting themselves as ‘relatable’ or ‘real.’ Some accounts of such “realness” overlapped with those from commercial culture (Dove or Aerie’s definition of “real women”). Despite this upbeat sentiment, I argue that many of the top bloggers and influencers conform to traditional, heteronormative beauty standards.
Authenticity was not only discussed in explicitly gendered ways, but it was also classed. My interviewees were careful to tout products/brands that a middle-class reader could afford; if not, they might be deemed “unrelatable” by audiences. Being “unrelatable” has all the trappings of the traditional culture industries from which creative aspirants work so hard to distance themselves.
To this end, appeals to authenticity played a crucial role in how my interviewees professed their loyalty to various brands. That is, the lucky few who scored sponsorship deals from advertisers assured readers that they “really” loved the product they were plugging (lest they be accused of just “doing it for the money”). Authenticity was thus a way to anticipate—and deflect—claims of crass commercialism.
What does it mean to be professional for social media producers when so much of their online performances involve undercutting the work/personal life divide?
Much-hyped ideals of “doing what one loves” or monetizing one’s “passion projects” are based upon an imagined workstyle where one’s personal and professional lives are perfectly harmonized. But even those who were able to earn a sizable income from their social media-enabled professions reflected on the less auspicious realities. For instance, those who were able to “work from home” thanks to their digital careers found that “work” bled into all hours of the day. While this “always on” incitement is something many experience in the digital age, it’s especially problematic for those who must present their “everyday lives” to mediated audiences.
Honeymoons and family vacations are understood as photo opps, and there’s a hefty cost for taking “time off.” Moreover, participants felt compelled to express life through what one informant described as an “Instagram filter.” For these women, life becomes a stage, with family members and friends as supporting cast—or else photographers, which is captured humorously in “Instagram husband.”
In your book, you don’t talk much about the etiquette of liking and sharing other people’s content. But I am wondering about what the social norms were for circulating other people’s content, since so much of the personal branding practices I came across seemed to revolve around some version of citation (re-posting someone else’s content, and so on).
One of my first analyses of the fashion blogosphere examined the independent fashion bloggers network—a vibrant community of aspiring pro-bloggers. In addition to discussing professionalization strategies, they reflected on community norms, including how to contribute to the larger network of bloggers. There was an emphasis on what some described as “link love” (sharing other’s links) and “comment karma” (being a good citizen by leaving thoughtful comments). These and similar directives highlighted the culture of reciprocity that is so central to sustaining the digital attention economy. Like, comment, and favorite with the expectation that others do the same—it’s the social media version of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
I was recently speaking with a fashion blogger who has a substantial Instagram following. She mentioned how influencers often create informal communities to make sure they “like” and “comment” on each other’s Instagram content as soon as its posted. And so there’s a social, relationship-building element to these activities, but one that’s profoundly instrumental. Of course, all of this activity is a form of invisible, emotional labor.
After all this research, what do you now tell people who are concerned about creating their personal brands?
Admittedly, there’s something deeply unsettling about the fact that we’re constantly incited to project ourselves as brands; it’s a logic that is unapologetically market-driven and individualistic. Despite such discomfort, I realize that the social and economic costs of wholly rebuffing the self-promotion mandate can be profound—especially for young people. “Opting out,” it seems, is only for the most privileged.
So, instead, I think it’s important to be critically aware of this encroachment of market values on our personal lives. Some of my informants were especially self-reflexive; as one put it, “[Even if] you’re the best, if people don’t know you’re the best it doesn’t really matter, you just have to be good enough . . . and well marketed.” Moreover, it’s important to carve out spaces—both online or off—where we can escape the pervasive mentality of self-branding. I’ve been talking with young people who create “finstas” (fake Instagram accounts), and I see this as a way to challenge this constant state of surveillance.