Identity Labor: Self-Concept in the Age of the Personal Brand

by Ivana McConnell

In A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow states, “our identities have no bodies.” In context, the statement is about the impact of current governments on the internet; however, its implications today stretch far beyond governance.

Starting in the mid-90s, the internet afforded us the anonymity to explore our identities without consequence. We could talk to anyone and be anyone and explore our fringes, without the risk of marginalization or “real life” consequence. To that end, it’s arguable that this freedom allowed us to become richer, multi-faceted people.

As we enter the era of the ‘personal brand,’ however, opportunities for self-exploration are under threat. Modern apps and services insist upon connecting identities with bodies before we’re ready to let them. The “authenticity” movement commoditizes identity, demanding intimate knowledge of what’s on the other side of the screen before we’re ready to give it.

As a result, we fall victim to the concept of identity labor— performing an identity for others to consume, rather than exploring and expressing the one which reflects our beliefs and experiences.

We will not explore any ideas beyond the norm, because we fear compromising that personal brand. Our identity, self-image, and self-esteem suffers as a result. When our identities are commoditized and tied to our bodies before we’re ready, we partake in identity labor and compromise self-care in the process.

What is Identity?

So what is identity? Simply put, it is our self-concept, the sum of our qualities, beliefs, experiences. As the answer to “who am I?”, identity includes past, present, and future— who we’ve been, who we are, who we want to be— and influences how we interact with the world. It has many facets: gender identity, racial identity, religious identity, social identity, and so on.

There are many theories on identity formation, but on the whole, it requires experience and exploration. We are constantly assessing ourselves and our interactions with the world— forming, reinforcing, and evaluating our experiences and beliefs. This assessment results in an evolving, multi-faceted image of who we are that strengthens with time and exploration. We may reveal different parts of our identity to different people, at different times— a concept called code switching. Identity is something that we are always assessing, creating, and destroying.

Identity & Anonymity

One of the pillars of identity is our social group, and in the age of the web, our potential social group is expanded massively— just like we build communities and social networks in ‘real life,’ so we build them online. In the internet’s early days, these usually took the form of forums such as Usenet or BBS, followed later by Yahoo chat rooms, Livejournal and Geocities.

Anonymity was key; we didn’t have to connect personal lives to online worlds. We could enter and exit communities as ourselves or someone else, sharing as much or as little as we chose. This is a luxury not afforded in everyday life where, others have formed their own conclusions about us, for better or for worse, before we’ve said a word.

Online, we could control others’ perceptions. For example, a teenager in a conservative small town questioning their sexuality may have nowhere to explore that curiosity in real life — not without risking negative consequences from those around them. As a result, they may choose not to explore, instead stifling a piece of themselves which could make them happier. Anonymous online communities may be the only venue to explore that gender expression safely.

We can also call this pseudonymity. This practice “enabled me to create multiple identities and experiment with emphasizing different fragments of my sense of self freely,” says Alyce Currier. These fragments were necessary and possibly enjoyable explorations of how the world changes when we try something new. After all, we often reveal different parts of ourselves to different people— our partners, friends, families, co-workers— the internet simply allowed us to take code-switching to an extreme. The aforementioned teenager could “come out” online first, gathering support from a safe community and asking otherwise difficult questions. They can build a new sexual identity or reinforce an old one— either way, they haven’t risked potentially negative “real world” reactions.

Recently, we have been remembering (and missing) this freedom. elizabeth tobey says that “[anonymity] is a beautiful thing that allows us to try new things, test the waters, speak to and about people who we never could otherwise.” It would be disingenuous to acknowledge that it doesn’t allow us to harm each other— though Ned Potter points out that most abuse comes from those with their names and photos next to their usernames. Zoe Quinn, during a presentation at XOXO, said that “anonymity is not the enemy. It’s sometimes the only thing keeping people safe.”

Furthermore, initiatives which erroneously connect authenticity with safety, such as Facebook’s real-name policy, can actively endanger. Violet Blue describes Facebook’s desire ‘to keep its communities and users safe’ by demanding user ID, but then publishing (without consent) information about the user that they haven’t volunteered. Women, people of colour, LGBT folks, and other minorities are forced to expose private information and open themselves to abuse, in the name of authenticity.

It may be true that perhaps we’re seeing the early Internet through rose-tinted glasses. But despite misgivings about anonymity and its social-media-related complexities, consequence-free self-exploration is valuable. It allows us to explore ourselves in ways not afforded otherwise.

Anonymity offers support in building our identities to become stronger, more prismatic— and it should not be lost.

Enter the ‘Personal Brand’

As social media permeates our lives, self-exploration is endangered even further by the concept of the personal brand— particularly for those of us in the tech industry, where our online presence is now inextricably tied to our careers.  As Jesse Weaver puts it, “our current version of the internet lives and breathes off a currency of human attention.”

Our personal brand is made up of everything that the internet knows about us. We might’ve volunteered that information at some point, but maybe not; increasingly, that choice is disappearing. When searching for work, our brand is our stock in trade, far more so than the portfolios and the CVs we carefully curate.

This impacts identity expression, whether we want it to or not. How many times have we hesitated or not posted a photo or Tweet because we worried about its impact on others’ perception of us, either now or in the future? Our personal brand may be a platform to career success, but it can also stifle self-expression.

It is at this intersection of identity and brand that we find identity labor: a consequence of today’s tech communities and workplaces we inhabit.

Rather than being freed by the communities of the web, we find ourselves performing an identity for others to consume, rather than for ourselves to explore.

Identity Labor: When personal brand and self-exploration meet

These days, anonymity (or pseudonymity) on the internet is hard work. It requires effort and technical knowledge out of the reach of many. As a result, the internet ends up dictating what we say (or don’t say). After all, if we’re afraid that belonging to an online community will affect our employability, we won’t join that community, for fear of being identified. This blurring of lines between personal and professional lives lead us to explore less, for fear of compromising our careers– exploration is risky, after all.

As a result of this fear, we end up not exploring an identity, but performing one, more concerned with consumption rather than exploration. This is identity labour. It’s true that “everyone needs a safe space and for many, the kind of safety needed can only be found online.” However, when every online space is tied to us via Facebook or Twitter or Google account, anonymity and exploration becomes impossible. Facebook in particular and its insistence on presenting a single real-life you is damaging the multi-faceted self.

We become accountable to our personal brand. We become hyper-aware that we are being ‘consumed,’ and identities become constrained by society’s standards.

We become less likely to explore for fear of harassment or bullying, and contribute to the echo chamber instead; it’s safer. Identity labour stops us from knowing each other, and it isn’t a stretch to add that it stops us from knowing ourselves. Lara McPherson calls this self-editing “life airbrushing.”

Worse still,  compartmentalization of identity unintentionally forces diverse individuals to stagnate because it does not allow for the expression of other, equally important, aspects of one’s identity.” The desire to be ‘authentic’ and immediately tie one’s face to every online interaction brings real-world judgment into communities which once were separate from it. The aspiration to ‘authenticity’ promotes the very opposite, and compromises not only identity, diversity, but also intersectionality at large.

Previously, the internet offered a chance to explore our identity’s intersections in new ways, to allow them to shape us and— when we were ready to— share them. However, when ‘personal brand’ enters the picture, we become afraid, and simply pass through these intersections for fear of being caught standing there, unsure of ourselves.

Where do we go from here?

The consequences of identity labor can be profound. In performing an identity instead of exploring, we can compromise our individuality, self-esteem, and happiness. It’s difficult to feel that our image online does not reflect our true self. Identity labour only amplifies the negative emotions we experience when others don’t perceive us the way we see ourselves. The personal has undermined the freedom fostered by anonymous online communities.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, states that “the ability to be anonymous…gives people control…it lets them figure out their identity and explore what they want to do, or to research topics that aren’t necessarily ‘them’ and may not want tied to their real name for perpetuity.” Identity labour ties our actions not only to perpetuity, but to our careers, identities, and bodies. In a great article on the internet and homogeneity, Luciano Floridi points out that while identities are malleable, the internet and its social networks make us predictable, driving us all towards the same interests and reinforcing those choices. This creates a lack of certainty around who we truly are, creating unhappiness on a personal level and destroying social diversity on a broader one. Furthermore, once we take part in identity labour, extricating ourselves is near-impossible; others can post pictures of us on services we don’t even use and tag us without consent.

However, as people who participate in the web and help to build it, we have the power to build empowerment and identity freedom into our communities. elizabeth tobey, asks the question, “How do we foster the inspiring, positive behaviors in the communities we create?” This is not an easy question, but as participants in these communities, our behaviors and priorities are what shape them. Emphasizing anonymity (or pseudonymity) and resisting the urge to tie every social network, every photo, every word written to someone’s face is a good place to start. A great example of this is Neocities, whose mission is to “make the web fun again by giving you back control of how you express yourself online.”

Yes, there is a certain nostalgia here. Yes, anonymous corners of the internet can themselves be dangerous, and abuse prevalent. However, safe spaces in which we can explore our identities are paramount and, for some, those spaces can only be found online. The personal brand and associated identity labour compromise those safe spaces and stifle our curiosity and expression in the face of risk— but they don’t have to.

It’s now a collective responsibility to recreate those spaces, either in nostalgic reincarnations or something new entirely. We can choose which communities we create, and choose not to commoditize the identities of others. It’s a process, but a worthy one, in which we the internet returns to being a tool for expression, not marginalization.

Photo credit: WOCinTech/Flickr

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