First Monday

Ladders, samurai, and blue collars: Personal branding in Web 2.0 by Robert W. Gehl

Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Eva Illouz, and Mark Andrejevic, this paper critiques the personal branding literature, particularly as it applies to Web 2.0 social media. I first describe the three–part logic of personal branding: dividuation, emotional capitalism, and autosurveillance. Next, in a sort of mirror image to the self–help literature of personal branding, I offer a critical “how to” guide to branding oneself in Web 2.0. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of why personal branding can be seen as a rational choice, given the circumstances of globalized capitalism and precarious employment. Individuals who brand themselves willfully adopt the logic of capitalism in order to build their human capital. However, I ultimately argue that the obsession with personal branding is no antidote for life in precarious times.


The three–part logic of personal branding
The goals of personal branding
How to brand oneself in Web 2.0
Conclusion: A rational choice




If précarité, contingency, and uncertainty are the economics of the day, it is quite clear why personal branding and Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have such an appeal. By presenting Web 2.0 as a chance for anyone to seize the means of media production, Web 2.0 advocates have touched upon a key anxiety in late capitalism: culture, economics, and politicas are systematically taken out of every day individual control, even as people are taught that they and they alone are responsible for the material and social conditions of their lives. We are told: only through seizing social media and building our personal brands will we thrive in precarious times.

This paper focuses on a very specific, Internet–mediated remedy to this anxiety. The personal branding literature, which began in the 1990s and has accelerated in the social networking sites of Web 2.0, has been offered as a means to alleviate précarité and to wrest back, if only in part, the control globalized capital has consolidated with computer and communication networks.

I argue personal branding is popular because it supplies an individualized approach to dealing with précarité. The personal branding literature essentially offers a technique for individuals to increase their social capital as a means to flexibly adapt to changing labor markets.

Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Eva Illouz, and Mark Andrejevic, this paper critiques the personal branding literature. I first describe the three–part logic of personal branding: dividuation, emotional capitalism, and autosurveillance.

Next, in a sort of mirror image to the self–help literature of personal branding, I offer a critical “how to” guide to branding oneself in Web 2.0.

Finally, I conclude with a discussion of why personal branding can be seen as a rational choice, given the circumstances of globalized capitalism. However, I ultimately argue that the obsession with personal branding is no antidote for life in precarious times.

Personal branding is one among many potential uses of Web 2.0. On its face, personal branding is very simple. It is a school of thought in marketing literature, and as its name implies, it is the metaphorical expansion of the practices of marketing of branded goods and services into the realm of individual workers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs.

While its roots are in early twentieth century self–help literature, the first appearance of the term “personal branding” is in T. Peters’s (1997) Fast Company article. That article engendered a new generation of self–help literature, centered on the promotion of the self.

As Lair, et al. argue, this process differs from prior self–help literature: “Rather than focusing on self–improvement as the means to achievement, personal branding seems to suggest that the road to success is found instead in explicit self–packaging: Here, success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are arranged, crystallized, and labeled — in other words, branded” [1]. Thus, personal branding appears to be a matter of surface appearance.

Lair, et al.’s analysis is insightful but lacks a clear explication of the relationship of personal branding to the overall history of the Web. This is what this article is meant to do. Given the concurrent popularization of the Web as a means of liberal self–expression, it is not surprising Peters’ original argument in the Fast Company article has since been expanded by a host of writers who offer techniques to brand oneself on the Internet.

For advocates of this practice, personal branding involves intense monitoring of one’s own sense of self as it is represented in images and texts which circulate the Web and other media. Many personal branding advocates ultimately suggest the branded migrate a particular, carefully groomed image of the self onto the Web, a process made much simpler (and more extensive) by the advent of Web 2.0 social technologies.

As such, personal branding is a microcosm of broader communicative practices made possible by the “Web as platform” (O’Reilly, 2007). In addition, as I will argue in the conclusion, personal branding reflects one logical reaction to the cultural and political economics of Web 2.0.



The three–part logic of personal branding

Despite its simple message — control of one’s own image is the means to control one’s social capital — personal branding is a very complex phenomenon, relying on a three–part logic which emerges from the historical context explored above.

First, personal branding deploys the longstanding scientific management technique that Deleuze (1992) called “divination.” In his “Postscript on societies of control,” Deleuze contrasts the what he calls the “society of control” with Foucault’s concept of disciplinary societies. Whereas the disciplinary society moved discontinuously from space to space (school, home, work, prison) and therefore was inscribed both across individuals and masses as they formed and re-formed with these spaces, the current “society of control” is concerned with what Deleuze calls the “dividual.”

The dividual — a play on the words “divide” and “individual” — is the infinitely divisible collections of data about subjects which can be extracted and manipulated across space and time. In this mode, hospitals work not on the sick, but upon the data about the sick. Corporations are not concerned with discrete spaces of production such as the factory, but with markets, stocks, and floating currencies.

All of this continuous control and data collection has fragmented the self into data, and this is only amplified on the Internet. As Robert Williams (2005) argues, “Because I am not physically present, I am thus reduced to my documented interests and behavior. Complex processes of self formation are thereby reified by a few formulae and data points in some electronic storage facility.”

Likewise, personal branding is concerned with the migration of the individual’s personal data to the Web. However, this is not imposed upon the personally branded from without, but rather is consciously chosen by them. In this sense, subjects who brand themselves are adopting control logic to their own ends, willfully dividuating themselves.

Second, personal branding advocates recognize and operate within what Eva Illouz (2007) calls “emotional capitalism.” According to Illouz, emotional capitalism is

a culture in which emotional and economic discourses and practices mutually shape each other, thus producing what I view as a broad, sweeping movement in which affect is made an essential aspect of economic behavior and in which emotional life — especially that of the middle classes — follows the logic of economic relations and exchange. [2]

To explore this, Illouz traces the rationalization of emotion in twentieth century American thought. She argues that seemingly unquantifiable emotions are actually made quantifiable and thus commensurable via the technologies and techniques of post–Freudian psychotherapy.

Emotion, which she defines as “the inner energy that propels us towards an act” [3] has been marshaled by a “therapeutic discourse” to provide employers and businesses with new tools to manage workers. According to Illouz, “because corporate hierarchy began demanding an orientation to persons as well as to commodities and because the corporation demanded coordination and cooperation, the management of self in the workplace increasingly became a ‘problem’.” [4]

Her ultimate claim is “that the making of capitalism went hand in hand with the making of an intensely specialized emotional culture.” [5] Similar to Deleuze’s society of control, Illouz focuses upon corporate use of emotional exchange to regulate labor.

However, personal branding is an individual reaction to this form of regulation; the personally branded willfully engage in emotional exchanges in order to profit and build their personal capital. The branded have adopted the “management of the self” as a discipline.

Finally, personal branding’s proponents and adherents recognize, internalize, and seek to profit from what Mark Andrejevic calls our surveillance economy (Andrejevic, 2007; 2003). Pointing to the recent trend of “reality TV,” Andrejevic argues we have begun a time of enclosed synopticism, where we watch each other within the confines of the digital enclosure. We do so in the hopes of gaining control over the production of media objects; if we are willing to have our private lives made public via the mechanism of surveillance, we can influence the course of mass media by shaping it from within.

Personal branding relies upon this logic, but modifies it, engaging in what I call “autosurveillance.” The personally branded are especially attuned to their image and others’ perception of that image; if we are all watching each other (and if marketers and corporations are watching all of us), then the personally branded have chosen to constantly monitor and groom their images in an attempt to control how they are perceived.

Thus, whereas most of us are simply using the network to gather information, connect with acquaintances, and check our bank accounts — all the while under the scrutiny of new media capital and marketers — the personally branded have adopted the three–part logic of scientific management (in the form of dividuation), emotional capitalism, and surveillance economics to forge a new relationship to the network.

Ultimately, we might scoff at the language of personal branding advocates who look to Web 2.0 for new self–marketing and self–commodifying possibilities. But it would be unwise to easily dismiss this activity; personal branding advocates have demonstrated a savvy understanding of our current mediascape and are simply making a rational choice to fully incorporate themselves into the network.

Individuals imagined by this literature are in fact self–dividuated subjects, willfully plugged into the Web as such, willfully trading emotion for personal gain, willfully watching themselves.

Ultimately, however, as I will argue below, this is not a progressive use of social media; while the personally branded might gain social and economic capital from this activity, personal branding does little to address the problems and inequalities of life in precarious times.

But first, I will explore the personal branding literature in more detail.



The goals of personal branding

Web 2.0 discourse has largely been utopian [6]. Focusing on marketing literature about the potentials of Web 2.0 to aid in personal branding, it is immediately apparent that utopian language has been amplified by personal branding advocates such as Dan Schwabel, Susan Hodgkinson, Tom Peters, and Dave Saunders (the self–proclaimed “personal branding samurai”).

These authors sell millions of books, maintain popular Web sites [7], and conduct speaking seminars. What draws people to their works? As Illouz argues, discourses become popular precisely because they do something useful. People who purchase self–help books do so because those books provide them with a language to make sense of a host of complex–concretes: the self, the family, work, community.

Specifically, what the discourse of personal branding does is offer people a way to theorize and negotiate the changing employment landscape of globalized capitalism, a point I will further explore in the conclusion of this paper (see also Lair, et al., 2005).

According to the literature, advocates of personal branding offer several key arguments about the nature and the potential benefits of personal branding:

  1. Personal branding is universally available to all people, not just the employed or the white–collar worker.
  2. While it is universal, it also allows individuals to express their unique identities.
  3. One’s personal brand is an inalienable possession. It cannot be taken away, but it also imposes a responsibility upon all people.
  4. Personal brands, if cultivated, lead to financial and personal success.

These goals are consistent with the ideology of liberal individualism. I will explore each in turn.

Personal branding for all

First, personal branding advocates present it as universal and democratic; it is for all workers, from managers to executives to blue collar workers, from the retired to the laid–off to the “stay–at–home mom ready to reenter the job market.” [8]

To illustrate this universality, personal branding advocates draw a discursive continuum. On one end lies the practices of transnational corporations who seek to produce not things but immaterial values. This continuum runs from the corporation itself through executives and managers, then down to lower–level employees and out the doors to entrepreneurs, contractors, and the self–employed.

The corporate practice of imbuing brands with transcendent value becomes a universal, transparent practice available for all. Branding is no longer the domain of large corporations. As T. Peters (2007) argues,

That cross–trainer you’re wearing — one look at the distinctive swoosh on the side tells everyone who’s got you branded. That coffee travel mug you’re carrying — ah, you’re a Starbucks woman! Your T–shirt with the distinctive Champion “C” on the sleeve, the blue jeans with the prominent Levi’s rivets, the watch with the hey–this–certifies–I–made–it icon on the face, your fountain pen with the maker’s symbol crafted into the end ... You’re branded, branded, branded, branded. It’s time for me — and you — to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work. Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Here, Peters extends the logic of branding down to the atomic level. He invites readers to take this logic and literally absorb it into their persons — incorporating the corporate logic of branding into the body of Me. “All of us” is a universal appeal, and moreover it presents personal branding as an inevitability which individuals must perform since their competitors are doing it [9].

As Rollett (2009) argues, this logic is not just for executives but is needed by blue collar workers in order for them to rise out of their social class: “The working class, entry level and blue color workers have the skills, experience and drive that can get them out of paycheck to paycheck by promoting [their personal brands] through new media outlets.” Rollett even argues homelessness can be addressed with personal branding.

Personal branding is thus a skill available and necessary for everyone regardless of economic circumstance. Like Web 2.0 in general, it is presented as a panacea for a host of social ills, and like Web 2.0 it does so by promising to democratize the practices and techniques of large corporations.

Personal branding makes one unique

Second, we see a paradox: personal branding is a universal logic meant to make everyone unique. Personal branding advocates argue anyone who uses this practice can (to use a common phrase in this literature) “stand out from the crowd.” Each member of the faceless masses who participates in this logic can become particular. As Owyang (2008) argues, “... you are a company of one. Even though your paycheck is being delivered through your employer, you are solely responsible for your direction, what you learn, how you perform, and how much you’re paid.”

Moreover, this universal language can be personalized and differentiated for each subject like any other custom–made commodity. Personal branding advocates offer their service as consultants to all who want it, and these advocates are able to customize their advice for particular people.

Ostensibly, by adhering to this logic, those who brand themselves maintain their autonomy and individuality even in the face of rampant layoffs, outsourcing and crowdsourcing, economic downturns, and intense competition for work, situations which affect masses of people (Goldsmith, 2008). Workers faced with the choice between “becoming a statistic” (i.e., being part of an undifferentiated mass of laid–off workers) or becoming a brand might see the appeal of personal branding.

This explains the popularity of personal branding in late capitalism, where workers are referred to — depending upon one’s point of view — either as “e–lancers” (Malone and Laubacher, 1998) or precariats. Despite hard times and the tremendous dissolution of full–time work, “The good news ... is that everyone has a chance to stand out. Everyone has a chance to learn, improve, and build up their skills. Everyone has a chance to be a brand worthy of remark” (T. Peters, 2007).

The inalienable brand

Third, a personal brand is presented as an inalienable possession. These books and advocates stress a sense of ownership. Personal branding advocates argue individuals need to control their images in the same manner that large corporations control their intellectual property.

According to the literature, our personal brands are the most important assets we own, more valuable than possessions, family, or friends [10]. Even in the most dire economic situations, advocates of personal branding argue we — and only we — own our brands. As such, personal branding is microcosmic of Web 2.0 as a whole; in the discourse of Web 2.0, users are argued to be in control over the sites they participate in, despite the fact users do not own those sites [11].

And yet, while this possession is inalienable, it is an asset which is open to the world to manipulate — unless the would–be branded actively assert their ownership. “If you don’t take control of your own image, you essentially yield that to the world to decide for you — for better or for worse” (Singer, 2009). Likewise, Roffer and Ober simply state “If you don’t brand yourself, someone else will.” [12]

Put another way, very few of us might own businesses, but each of us owns an inherent personal brand and therefore have a responsibility to cultivate it ourselves.

Here, personal branding advocates are using the language of human capital theorists. We all have human capital/personal brands, and it is our job to build them. We have an inalienable right to our personal brands, and we have an inalienable responsibility to build them.

Personal brands lead to success

Finally and unsurprisingly, personal branding advocates unabashedly promise personal branding will lead to financial or personal gain. “... If you want to be rich and famous,” writes Al Ries, “read [The Brand Called You].” [13]


Of course, becoming “rich and famous” is not always as simple as reading a book. For example, in Roffer and Ober’s Make a name for yourself, financial gain arises from more than reading, it arises from “daring”: “Jillian [a client] would like to bring in $40,000 to $50,000 a year... We agreed she’d dare to think in terms of earning $60,000–$70,000 a year.” [14] If you “dare,” they argue, “you’re very likely to get what you ask for, because when you finally uncover and get serious about your heart’s desire, the universe starts listening.” [15] Here, in their language, the individual logic of branding creates a relationship to “the universe,” and the branded individual begins to appear unique.

Personal branding leads to value, because just as in the corporate world of branded goods and services, personal brands are perceived to have innate and powerful value, and those who brand themselves will be compensated for their efforts. This can take the form of pay, or if employers or clients do not offer higher pay, they might offer fringe benefits like increased personal publicity and credit (Singer, 2008). As Griffin (2008) notes, “Return [on your investment] can mean more than just dollars in your pocket. Return can be about those people who continue to ‘return’ to see what you are up to because they appreciate what you do. Again, notoriety and identification can be this measure of success.”

Thus, either by gaining money or social capital, personal branding advocates argue the branded will undoubtedly realize their material and social goals.

In addition, these advocates do not just promise financial gain or professional acclaim, but argue personal branding will lead to enhanced personal relationships. Recounting an interview with Will Powers on National Public Radio, Pettis notes

Will theorized that “Branding works for our clients, why won’t it work for me and help me ‘sell’ my ‘product’ (i.e., me) to my ‘customer’ (i.e., my wife)?” Through questioning, Will created a series of brand ladders, including one for picking up his clothes after a trip. (Brand ladders are a method for finding the higher–level benefits and emotional rewards of features, services, or values.) To do this, Will asked his wife, “What does picking up my clothes do for you? Why is that important?” She responded, “It makes me feel like we’re a team. When you are helping me out, it makes me feel like we have a strong relationship.” Ultimately, the brand ladder led to a feeling of greater love and reassurance (Pettis and Communicator, 2006).

As is illustrated here, a consistent theme in this literature centers on skills and emotional competencies which can be valorized in the marketplace are easily transferred to the domestic sphere, belying what Illouz recognizes as the penetration of the language of economic exchange into the language of the family [16]. Personal branding is thus a process for success not only in the work world but the domestic sphere.



How to brand oneself in Web 2.0

These promises — everyone can brand themselves, doing so leads to individuality even among masses of like–minded people, our brands are inalienable possessions, and the personal brand can be leveraged into personal and financial gain — are the hooks used by personal branding advocates. They draw people into the literature, promising a theory and practice to cope with technological, social, and economic change in globalized capitalism.

These hooks are relatively easy to spot and their appeals are obvious. However, exactly how individuals can see these promises fulfilled is less clear unless one takes a big–picture view of the literature. From the literature I have reviewed, the most common steps include:

  1. Self–examination resulting in differentiating oneself via textual and hypertextual representations.
  2. Adopting the language of transparency and authenticity.
  3. Making connections with others by offering quantifiable affective exchanges.
  4. Most importantly, engaging in autosurveillance.

These four common steps reflect the three–part logic of dividuation, emotional capitalism, and surveillance economics which I outlined above. The process typically begins with and ends with the individual, reinforcing the individualistic discourse of personal branding advocates and inscribing these logics at the level of the subject.

Self–examination, differentiation, and hypertextualization

In order to be branded, the common first step has the would–be branded undergo intense self–scrutiny [17]. This involves articulating in text various qualities the user might have. Rollett (2009) suggests, “Everyone that I encounter has a special intangible quality. You need to take this quality and put it on paper and work backwards to see how you can use that special quality and improve your career situation.”

Likewise, Owyang (2008) instructs readers to “reverse–engineer” the jobs they want by putting their desired career on paper and cataloging the skills needed. Then, “develop your own plan, both short term and long term plans, and set goals on how to reach them. Often, these goals don’t have titles or companies in them, but they describe the environment, or the end outcomes of which you want to reach.” All of this is to be in writing, crystallizing what are seen to be “intangible” qualities of the self.

Putting this step in its historical context, Illouz notes the act of writing was seen among psychologists in the twentieth century as an act of making emotions pure and ontologically autonomous, even alienable. Illouz argues, “the locking of emotions into written language gives rise to the idea of ‘pure emotion,’ the idea that emotions are definite discrete entities and that they are somehow locked and trapped inside the self, and that they can be inscribed in texts and apprehended as fixed entities, to be detached from the self, observed, manipulated, and controlled.” [18]

While post–modernism has undermined the idea of textual utterances having a center of meaning, the post–modern critique certainly is not affecting the personal branding literature. Personal branding advocates argue goals, skills, and personality can only be made authentic and visible through the act of written self–evaluation.

This is the emotional capitalist equivalent of Deleuze’s process of dividuation; as Braverman noted, modern capitalism relies upon the immaterial aspects of conception and execution being abstracted from their corresponding work processes (Braverman, 1975; see also Sohn–Rethel, 1978). Mental work has been separated from physical work, allowing for a new group of workers such as managers and engineers to gain control of the work process. Moreover, and more germane to this discussion, the facts about physical workers (rates of work, hours worked, skills and accomplishments) have been collected into files to be manipulated and exchanged by corporate bureaucrats and managers.

Personal branding involves using this record–keeping technique on oneself. Textualizing personal attributes and emotions is a first step in making them commensurable, essentially quantifying aspects of ourselves which always appear qualitative. Once commensurable, emotional capital can be exchanged for other forms of capital. The personal branding literature draws on this tradition.

Thus, the first step of many personal branding how–to guides requires users to engage in a self–evaluation markedly different from cataloging work experience on a résumé. On a résumé, one puts work experience, education, and skills, aspects which are typically quantifiable: years on the job, degrees obtained, budgets managed.

In contrast, personal branding advocates argue their clients should not identify themselves with their job descriptions or the résumé–derived facts of their work since many people can hold the same job title or degrees. Rather, their clients must search for their core values in order to “wield [their] truest selves.” [19]

This involves intense self–examination: what are my values? What is my passion? Why do I work? How do I approach problems? In the personal branding mode, emotional competencies, desires, personal tastes are all potential sources of textual self–differentiation, along with the traditional material used in résumés.

As Pettis argues, “Your Personal Brand identity is the sensory, rational, emotional and cultural image that surrounds you” (Pettis and Communicator, 2006). Like traditional brands geared towards consumers, then, personal brands involve mixing of the material (the actual person who can physically do a job) and the ideal (the personality, emotional competencies, and desires of the person) in order to create a purportedly unique and more authentic self. This process reflects what danah boyd calls “writing [oneself] into being;” social media demands conscious textual and media composition of identity in ways that are radically different from the day–to–day presentations of self we engage in in unmediated life [20].

Thus, those who complete this first step of branding create texts, typically short lists, of their emotional competencies. For example, both Roffer and Ober (2002) and Paprocki and Paprocki (2009) offer worksheets which ask the reader to list (among other things) core values, talents, a brand description, and a short “tagline” or “elevator pitch” (akin to the familiar slogans of major brands — think of the phrase “Nationwide is on your side”). The act of writing these things down is, in the personal branding literature, an act of making them “real.”

In the context of Web 2.0, this material is easy to move to the Web. In writing down what makes a user unique, that user is creating a profile which will eventually become a sort of marketing bot on the Web which can perform for an online audience.

Many social networking sites have ready–made fields to accept this data. Facebook, Myspace, and LinkedIn all provide space for personal taglines. LinkedIn is perhaps the most geared towards accepting this data; it asks for specialties and a summary. Since every member of LinkedIn must fill in these fields to make a complete profile, the personal branding technique of differentiating oneself through text is a necessity to stand out from the tens of millions of other members.

Moreover, when this material is migrated to the Web, it becomes hypertext: easily linked to and ported via XML/RSS from one site to another, “freeing” the personal data to become an autonomous agent online. This is the dividuation Deleuze hinted at: our very selves are splintered, fragmented, and spread across the Web, especially if we brand ourselves.

Transparency and authenticity

The goal of personal branding is to create a highly marketable image set apart from the competition. This might appear to be an invitation to pad one's résumé, especially since the Web is often viewed as a potential site of anonymity. Yet personal branding literature relies upon the language of authenticity, arguing the responsible self-brander is a person who is honest with herself and others. “... Branding is not about tricking people into buying your services or pretending to be someone you are not. It’s about clearly establishing who you are, what you are good at, or even what you like to do, so you can stand above the competition.” [21]

Personal branding advocates suggest the branded achieve this by using details from their personal lives. As Jenkins (2008) explains

For example, over the last year, I used social media to show you my move from Maryland to North Carolina, including drama with the movers, picking the house, and getting it set up. I also pulled back the curtain to show what it takes to run a product launch. When I did my last product launch, I was Twittering every day what I was doing to get ready for this site. Most of the gurus out there would keep everything under lock and key, [but] I was being very clear, saying, “This is what I’m doing to get ready for this launch.” It actually helped me have a better launch, even though I told everybody exactly what I was going to be doing ... So be transparent. Let people know what you’re doing and why you’re doing It [sic], and they’re going to learn how to trust you.

Thus, while Jenkins’s goal is to launch a commercial product, his social media use includes not only details of the product, but also the daily life and personal details of an entrepreneur.

To be transparent and authentic requires nothing less than the revelation of intimate personal details — the migration of offline lives onto the Web (O’Brien, 2009). This strategic revelation of personal detail is argued to be a key indicator that the branded person is being honest. In fact, personal branding advocates suggest the best method of being transparent and authentic is to write the story of one’s self. This story obviously includes the written components I’ve described above, but also includes family life, hobbies, and personal convictions.

This sort of radical, personal openness is part of the surveillance economy which Andrejevic (2007; 2003) describes. Authenticity and transparency — or as Andrejevic calls it, “getting real” — are seen as antidotes to the homogeneity of mass culture. The mass production of the Fordist and Taylorists modes onward is seen now not as a cornucopia of consumer goods but as the bland path to conformity. “Getting real,” expressing one’s personal beliefs and values, is offered as a means to individualize consumption.

We see this in targeted advertising and personalized marketing. In the case of the personal branding literature, then, authenticity is presented as a way for the branded to connect to consumers, instead of alienating them with cookie–cutter products and services.

Ostensibly, if the consumer can connect with the branded at the personal level, he or she is more likely to buy. The personal branding literature thus calls for the would–be branded to expose their private lives to Web scrutiny.

Connections through reciprocity

Personal branding also involves emotional exchanges. To place this in a historical context, Illouz’s examination of the explosion of self–help literature in the United States during the twentieth century is useful.

She examines two key foci of self–help psychology: the workplace and the domestic sphere. In the workplace, twentieth century management theory began to turn to psychology to solve intra–office conflicts, resulting in an intense focus on managers and employees being able to competently communicate their emotions. Managers and employees were advised about new methods to become more emotionally competent. Each individual member of the firm began to be evaluated for his ability to express his feelings and recognize others’ feelings.

As for the domestic sphere, Illouz examines quizzes such as those that appear in women’s magazines such as Redbook, where women are asked to rate their mates on numerical scales, thus quantifying and making commensurable emotional exchanges. In both spheres, psychologists argued intra–personal conflicts must be solved by recognition of the other and emotional exchange. After one recognizes the other, these psychologists argued, then one can demand to be recognized in turn.

As Illouz argues, due to the influence of psychology, the division between private emotional lives and public economic lives becomes illusory: “The economic sphere, far from being devoid of emotions, has been on the contrary saturated with affect, a kind of affect committed to and commanded by the imperative of cooperation and a mode of settling conflicts based on ‘recognition’.” [22]

Personal branding advocates also engage in this language, and their advice is remarkably similar to the advice offered in Redbook: give freely in order to receive. In Matt Peters’ “The paradox of self–promotion with social media,” this conflict between what might be called the “spontaneous emotionality” amplified in Web 2.0 and the instrumentality of personal branding is explored (M. Peters, 2008). On the one hand, Peters argues Web 2.0 has allowed for the emotionality of asserting opinions and being a demagogue. Due to the self–publishing of blogs, people are able to publicly express all manner of emotional and confessional content.

On the other hand, Peters argues Web 2.0 has a “codex of etiquette” which prohibits self–promotion. While we are free to express ourselves online, there is a cultural taboo against promoting our own work.

This is a contradiction: how can one promote oneself without being self–promotional? The solution Peters and other personal branding advocates offer is to be “giving” (Saunders, 2009). Like the manager who manages “by walking around” and thus has emotional exchanges with each employee multiple times daily [23], or the housewife who seeks new potentials for emotional exchange with her husband in the pages of Redbook, the branded are advised to first offer their attentions to others in their social networks.

M. Peters (2008) offers three steps:

  1. If you want to contact a blogger about featuring you, make sure you subscribe to them first. Read their stuff so you get a feel for who they are. Comment intelligently on their posts over the weeks that you are getting to know them. Only after you have built a rapport can you then approach them.
  2. Do not spam people. It will get you banned.
  3. Always respond to people who comment on your blog posts. This helps foster a relationship and will help increase subscribers.

In short, do not expect to receive without giving. Jenkins (2008) makes a similar argument:

You have to be willing to be involved in the conversation, and you have to be willing to give as much or even more than what you’re going to get in return. The people who do that are growing so fast it makes my head spin. I feel that I’m a pretty giving person but I see some other folks out there that just keep on giving, giving, giving and they just build up a huge following and that social capital is a real asset to your business.

This mode of quantifying exchanges of affect is nothing new; along with the literature Illouz describes, there have been multiple instances of measuring personal interactions by the number of exchanges (rather than the qualitative content of the exchanges) on the Internet [24].

However, in the cross-pollination of Web 2.0 practices and personal branding, the object is to provide an easily measured quantity of emotional content to others in order to receive emotional content in return. On blogs and in social networks, connections and comments are counted in an accumulative logic: this blog post has 53 comments; 10 people like this; this person has 148 connections. One provides these comments and offers of friendship in order to receive them in return.


While the prior steps could exist independent of Web 2.0, the final step of autosurveillance is directly determined by the logic of Web 2.0 and the existence of the social networks associated with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace. Many of the personal branding guides written after 2005 include autosurveillance as a key step in the process of personal branding.

Once we upload our hypertextualized personalities, after we have networked, and after we have contributed to others’ projects, we must maintain a watchful eye over our brands as they begin to exist seemingly autonomously online on social networks. Social networks’ raison d’être is to monitor their users’ activities and serve those users with contextual advertising (Cohen, 2008; Coté and Pybus, 2007; Scharman, 2006).

Thus, users confront and learn about the rationalized techniques of surveillance when they sign up for and use a Web 2.0 site. By engaging in autosurveillance, they are merely adapting this logic to their own ends.

For example, a very common tactic suggested by personal branding advocates is the use of Google Alerts set to a user’s name [25]. As Schawbel argues,

As you grow, mature, and accelerate in your career, everything you’ve created has to be updated and accurately represent the current “brand you.” Also, you need to monitor your brand online to ensure all conversations about you are positive and factual. You can do this by using a combination of tools, including a Google Alert for your name (Goldsmith, 2008).

Google is recognized as the cybersurveillance corporation par excellence. By adopting the logic of Google and using an alert system originally intended for news, users who autosurveil create a feedback loop: they watch the watchers watching them. This automates the “vanity search” process, creating a search bot which watches the personal branding bot.

However, given what Turkle (1995) calls the “holding power” of computers and the Web, one Google Alert per day might not be enough. Web Search companies are beginning to cater their services to the demands of trend watchers, a class of people that decidedly includes the branded.

The streams of affect flowing on sites such as Facebook and Twitter mean someone with a large network of contacts will be discussed 24 hours a day. The branded are advised to use new “real–time” search engines such as SocialMention ( or Scoopler (now extinct) which are geared specifically to this sort of narcissistic monitoring (Solis, 2009). These engines promise to search the streams of material flowing in sites such as Twitter which rely on short and constant updates of 140 characters or less.

SocialMention attempts to categorize these real–time search results based on affective categories. The results are collected in the center column, and to the left are four measures: Strength, Sentiment, Passion, and Reach. Strength is “the likelihood that your brand is being discussed in social media,” Sentiment is a ratio of positive mentions to negative, Passion is a measure of how often people are discussing the subject, and Reach is a measure of the diversity of mentions of the topic.

SocialMention is thus based upon the commensurability of emotional content which is loaded onto the Web. It relies on rationally quantifying textual sentiments which are subjective and qualitative. In short, it is specifically made to monitor branding, including personal brands.

Autosurveillance is by no means the final step in the personal branding process; as the literature reveals, personal branding is a recursive process. Thus, autosurveillance becomes the first step in a new process: the monitoring of one’s online persona.

This persona becomes a reflection of one’s efforts to self–brand. As such, it becomes a semi–autonomous marketing bot, not unlike other bots which traverse the Web and interact with other entities.

Consider the asynchrony of a Facebook profile: I might post an update to my profile, close my browser, and go to sleep. While I sleep, my friends interact with my profile, commenting on it, adding images, linking it to other profiles and sites.

With enough profiles and content, spread across myriad social networks, video sharing sites, virtual worlds, and blogs, I can create a personally branded, automated machine that can stand in for my real–world existence, operating and persisting for days or even years. The only responsibility I have at that point is to monitor it and the responses of users to it.

While this is my sole responsibility, the demands of a 24/7, networked, autonomous personal marketing bot require me to spend increasing amounts of time monitoring my presence on the Web. This bot takes a life of its own, demanding constant upkeep.

This reveals a contradiction in personal branding. While the personal branding literature holds one’s personal brand is inalienable, personal branding advocates are ignorant of or do not consider the highly alienated status of the online persona.

This is the contradiction described both by Deleuze and Andrejevic. Both argue the fragmentation of the self and its exposure in surveillance economies is presented as the sole means to achieve freedom in late capitalism. In order to experience the fullness of unalienated social life, one must trade away one’s personal data; only then can one enjoy precisely individualized goods and services.

Similarly, in the personal branding literature, the only way to attract customers — the only way to “stand out from the crowd” — is to trade away all of one’s personal life and create an alienated market bot on the Web. Couple this with social networks, which seek to collect personal data to improve their own branding and marketing bots, and we have a process as old as capitalism: the meeting of the individual and capital and, after mutual negotiation, the capture of the individual’s previously inherent value–laden content by capital.



Conclusion: A rational choice

As Illouz argues at the end of Cold intimacies, “Critique is most forceful when it moves away from Olympian purity and is grounded in a deep understanding of the concrete cultural practices of ordinary actors.” [26] She criticizes cultural studies and other disciplines for a sort of defeatism which grows out of being removed from the day–to–day knowledge of “ordinary” actors.

Rather than repeat the mistake she accuses cultural studies of, in this conclusion I want to consider the use of personal branding by “ordinary actors.”

Précarité in workplaces has increased dramatically in neoliberal globalization (Ross, 2008; Davis, 2007, 2006; Harvey, 2006, 2005; Aronowitz, 2001; Aronowitz and DiFazio, 1994). In the global North, adjunct instructors, part–time consultants, freelance writers, or any number of workers with uncertain futures can be thought of one of two ways: either as “free agents” capable of shifting jobs, tasks, and even personality depending upon pay conditions and the vagaries of employment markets, or as precarious employees adrift in a time of globalized capital.

Likewise, in the global South, so–called “microentrepreneurs” work to eke a living in states which have, due to structural adjustment or the vestiges of colonialism, failed to create public, modern infrastructure such as waste treatment and water distribution systems.

The appeal of personal branding, like social networking in general, is it offers a way for individuals to cope with this uncertainty; friends, colleagues, and family are always there, online. Our brands are always there, growing online, gaining comments, getting feedback. Even as getting and keeping steady employment becomes more and more difficult, we can control our own brands.

In addition, even without statistical evidence (comments, visits, friendings, etc), we can imagine our personal branding bots are reaching others throughout the world. Contact is a click away. A properly maintained brand is a bulwark against an uncertain future. Structurally, personal branding is one method of coping with the increasingly hierarchical structures of globalized capital. The personal branding literature is a discourse of democracy and ownership which is powerful, just as the discourses about Web 2.0 are powerful.

Lair, et al. (2005) argue adoption of personal branding techniques results in the extension of the workweek. As Web 2.0 has continued to take hold, this extension of the workweek has increased dramatically, even beyond what Lair, et al. argue.

However, I argue personal branding self–help literature and seminars are popular precisely because of the extension of the workweek. In late capitalism, where flexibility is the watchword, laborers in many office and blue–collar settings are increasingly expected to play more and more roles and perform more and more tasks.

These tasks are not accompanied by increased pay or security, but instead are wrapped in a discourse of the need for flexibility in a time of global competition. Moreover, these tasks are symptomatic of a workplace without clearly defined roles or job descriptions.

As such, personal branding is not a cause of the extension of the workweek, but is instead epiphenomenal; is exists because the workweek is extending and competition for jobs is so fierce. Personal branding gives workers the tools to label themselves in positive ways, even against other descriptions of their work or personal identities are not as flattering.

In sum, personal branding is a reaction to the logic of the surveillance economy, and, to be fair, the pleasures of surveillance [27]. The personally branded enjoy connecting with one another, engaging in the synopticon, collaborating, and constructing their identities. They see the subjective possibilities of Web 2.0.

But there is more involved than those pleasures; personal branding in Web 2.0 is an explicit attempt by users attempt to use social media to increase their economic capital. It is the attempt to objectify the pleasures of the Web, much as the ideology and technology of Web 2.0 has been deployed by new media capital to objectify Web pleasures.

Thus, the personal branding literature acknowledges the power of new media capital and recommends users emulate — rather than confront or work around — that power. In the end, this corrosive individualism only feeds the logic of précarité, even as it promises to alleviate it. If we spend all of our time building individual brands, if we believe that each of us is alone in “owning” our circumstances, if our social lives are reduced to rationalized emotional exchanges such as “likes,” tweets, and friend requests, we are distracted from collective solutions to life in precarious times. End of article


About the author

Robert W. Gehl is an assistant professor of new media in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. His doctoral dissertation examines Web 2.0 from a political economy perspective. He has published articles on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and blogging in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, New Media and Society, and Television and New Media.
E–mail: robert [dot] gehl [at] utah [dot] edu



The author would like to acknowledge the feedback and support of Hugh Gusterson, Alison Landsberg, and Tim Gibson.



1. Lair, et al., 2005, p. 308.

2. Illouz, 2007, p. 5.

3. Illouz, 2007, p. 2.

4. Illouz, 2007, p. 17.

5. Illouz, 2007, p. 10.

6. Beginning with the inaugural Web 2.0 conference in 2004, a host of pundits have declared an age of participation in wide range of fields, including Library 2.0, Government 2.0, and Education 2.0. In each, pundits have argued social media are removing barriers to entry for “consumers” (understood broadly to mean “ordinary people,” i.e., not experts). Social media have also been linked to political revolutions in Ukraine, Moldova, Iran, and the broader Middle East in breathless – and unfounded – technological determinist accounts by pundits.

7. For example, see the Web site of Dan Schwabel:; Susan Hodgkinson:; T. Peters,:; and, Dave Saunders:

8. S.B. Paprocki and R. Paprocki, 2009, pp. 4–5.

9. Lair, et al., 2005, p. 322.

10. Saunders, 2009; Notestone, 2009, p. 6.

11. Cohen, 2008, p. 13.

12. Roffer and Ober, 2002, p. 2.

13. Montoya, 2003, p. xi.

14. Roffer and Ober, 2002, p. 43.

15. Roffer and Ober, 2002, p. 48.

16. Illouz, 2007, p. 32.

17. Lair, et al., 2005, p. 309; Tugend, 2009; Goldsmith, 2008; Roffer and Ober, 2002; Montoya, 2003; S.B. Paprocki and R. Paprocki, 2009, pp. 17–22.

18. Illouz, 2007, p. 33.

19. Roffer and Ober, 2002, p. 8.

20. boyd, 2008a, p. 121.

21. S.B. Paprocki and R. Paprocki, 2009, p. 6.

22. Illouz, 2007, p. 23.

23. Kendrick, 2006, p. 173; Adams, 1998, p. 153.

24. boyd, 2008b, p. 16. In particular, consider COBOT, a program used by researchers at AT&T who wanted to statistically analyze the interactions of users of LambdaMOO, an text–based Internet Multi User Domain. COBOT was programmed to count the number of interactions between various members; thus, it was not interested in qualitative differences in interactions, but rather the sheer number of them.

25. Notestone, 2009, p. 6.

26. Illouz, 2007, p. 93.

27. See Anders Albrechtslund, 2008. “Online social networking as participatory surveillance,” First Monday volume 13, number 3, at for a discussion of the pleasures of surveillance.



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Editorial history

Received 20 May 2011; accepted 8 July 2011.

Creative Commons License
“Ladders, samurai, and blue collars: Personal branding in Web 2.0” by Robert W. Gehl, Ph.D., is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Ladders, samurai, and blue collars: Personal branding in Web 2.0
by Robert W. Gehl.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 - 5 September 2011