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I’ve just finished reading Alice Marwick’s book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, and it has left me thinking about many things, including academic labor and the way we live now.

Marwick studied the culture of those who have worked in Silicon Valley over a period of years and finds certain cultural traits have embedded themselves in the social media platforms we use every day.

Young tech workers who Marwick studied preferred entrepreneurship over working for someone else, believed that creativity and one’s “authentic” public identity are expressed through one’s work, and that such work can lead to a meaningful life (and can also bring great wealth  - how very handy!) It’s a version of the American Dream, one that believes self-starters who work hard and have tech skills will succeed, and that anyone who doesn’t simply isn’t smart enough or hasn’t worked hard enough. She unpacks the conflation of work with personal value that is developed and groomed in public and how all of these assumptions play out in terms of gender and class. And does it ever - because it’s a very white, male world in Silicon Valley that rarely recognizes its own privilege.

The social media platforms these smart young professionals have developed are designed to encourage entrepreneurial thinking, branding of the self, and the public performance of an identity, an edited self that dissolves the boundaries between work and not-work. As she puts it in her concluding chapter,

In fact, the values promoted by users of social media are those of the enterprise business culture. Although the top-down, hierarchical management style of the 1950s and 1960s was replaced in the dot-com era with one that emphasized the leveling of hierarchies in the workplace, creative self-expression through labor, and independent workers, this has not significantly improved the lot of the individual worker. If anything, the free-agent culture of enterprise labor justifies neoliberal policies, which dismantle socioeconomic protections like pension plans and employee-sponsored health insurance, and so both provide less protection to workers and normalize instability.

Boy, does that sound familiar! As institutions save money and gain “flexibility” by eliminating tenure-track lines and relying on hard-working but badly paid contingent faculty, as states defund public education and expect students to pick up the tab as a personal investment in an uncertain future, as we all are encouraged to engage in greater productivity and constant individual branding, we’re adopting (while knowing better) the notion that hard work and talent might just put us ahead of the rest, that in the competition for the few decent jobs that are left, giving a few more papers, publishing more articles, producing ever more proof of productivity while cultivating friends and followers online will one day pay off. 

I’m thinking about this mania for identifying oneself with work and the fact that a Nobel prize-winning physicist recently confessed that he couldn’t get a job today because he never published enough papers. What great ideas are lost in this frantic activity? I’m also thinking about the fact that the big publishers – Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis – are gearing up to capture the new open market for research. The Wellcome Trust, which funds research and wants it open to the public for maximum impact, paid Elsevier a million pounds last academic year, almost all of it for articles in journals that are “hybrid” – meaning if you want to read them, you need to subscribe, but individual articles can be set free by authors if they pay the publisher a fee that, on average, is well over 2,000 pounds. Talk about predatory journal publishers! These outfits get subscriptions and author fees – it can’t get better than that. At least PLOS, which got 350,000 pounds from Wellcome, didn’t simultaneously extract money from subscribers.

Arguments for open access too often point toward better metrics, more influence, and a better payoff for individual scholars who are building their brand. This is neoliberal malarkey. There are much better reasons to want a world where research can make a difference.

While we’re at it, let’s do everything we can to avoid the trap of acting as desperation-driven entrepreneurs and work toward a system that is more fair for all of us.   

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