Work/Life Balance In The ‘Social Factory’

In a piece ostensibly about Marissa Meyer, her famous sleep habits, and her ‘having it all’ lifestyle of rich CEO with newborn baby, Sarah Leonard uncovers a dark truth about the technorati using social tools to ‘brand’ themselves:

Sarah Leonard, She Can’t Sleep No More

The practices in Silicon Valley power centers put the lie to any concept of work life “balance.” As theorist Kathi Weeks likes to say, this is a site of contradiction, not mere imbalance, the contradiction between production and reproduction that has long existed for women. How one combines the two is dictated to a great degree by the economy; you can bet that if it was popularly believed that the American economy was suffering due to a lack of female middle management, all efforts to relieve working women of home duties would be celebrated, rather than held up to “but is she a good mother?” scrutiny.

Silicon Valley adds another twist to this formula — many of the women rising to the top are doing so in an office culture that is relentlessly sexist, but also dedicated to building products that focus on the “social factory.” The term sounds coined for and by people seeking degrees in media theory, but it’s a useful descriptor for the work we do commodifying our social relationships: think Facebook profiting from our clicks and Twitter from our tweets. AsJacobin contributing editor Melissa Gira Grant points out in a forthcomingDissent essay, Facebook was driven from the get-go by men’s relationships to women. It originated as Facemash, a sort of “hot or not” for Harvard women, in Mark Zuckerberg’s dormroom.

Employees at such social media companies now are required to maintain profiles themselves and operate as model users. Grant notes that Facebook hired a photographer to take their workers’ social media photographs, and employed photographers at all events so that the glamour could be shared in a brand-building exercise premised on the attractiveness of employees. The post-Fordist workplace makes more porous the barrier between personal and professional, and therefore the boundaries between work and home.

The second shift is now something of a permanent shift. Even after every job is done for the day, one updates Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter. Free time is enclosed for an uncompensated personal branding exercise important to a corporate world eager to use up workers’ personalities alongside their skill sets. Users may not perceive their experience this way, but social media companies profit directly from clicks and the impetus such sites create to “keep up” are a form of subtley imposed labor. And it means that there is absolutely no time that cannot be dedicated to work. There is no work life balance because work makes its way into life and life is the raw material with which to brand oneself for work.

I often say that I have given up on balance: I’m going for depth instead. But it appears that most people are pulled the other way: they lose balance, but are stretched out across too many social connections and too many contending social contracts. 

One of the characteristics of our time is a fragmenting of identity, what I called ‘networked identity’ for some time. However, the psychologist Kenneth Gergan was one of the first in discuss these thoughts, and he used the term multiphrenic identity:

Karin Wilkins, Moving Beyond Modernity: Media and Multiphrenic Identity among Hong Kong Youth

Gergen conceptualizes a new sense of self, contending that “the social saturation brought about by the technologies ofthe twentieth century, the accompanying immersion in multiple perspectives, have brought about a new consciousness: postmodernist”. Thus, Gergen believes that the proliferation of communication modes and of mediated products have contributed to what he terms the “multiphrenic self.”

Further, “cultures incorporate fragments of each other’s identities. That which was alien is now within”. In other words, the self may be interpreted not as a monolithic construction, but as a set of multiple socially constructed roles shaping and adapting to diverse contexts (cf. Weick). Rather than assume multiple identities pose a deviant condition, I prefer to assume their existence, moving toward an understanding of how these are constructed and supported within a media-saturated setting.

My sense is that the transition from the postmodernist era – post WWII until 2000 – into the postnormal is only accelerating this trend, and we are all becoming multiphrenic. We invest ourselves into relationships that are shaped by the affordances of the tools and the particular social contracts of the contexts. Through these relationships new and perhaps unexpected insights into others and ourselves arise. And we participate in dozens of these social environments, possibly with non-overlapping constituencies.

At some point for many, a complete blurring takes place, and there is no balance, no modulated transition from one situation to another. 

And our willingness to live this way means that we are offering up our selves, one fragment at a time to different constituencies, like a product placement in a TV show.

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