You’re on Your Own: The Importance of Self-Branding Becoming the Result of a Gig Economy

Recently, I was offered a full-time job after I graduate in December 2019. My parents expected a “9-5” position where I had to wear business professional from Monday to Friday. They were taken aback when I explained that my new job did not even have an office, but that we met weekly at a coworking space. This is becoming the norm for many people. A Forbes article titled “A Changing World: The Shifting Gig Economy in 2019”, defines the gig economy as “the rising labor market that hires temporary, contracted workers instead of traditional employees.” The emergence of the gig economy has forced people to continually feel like they need to advertise themselves on social media positively. The fascination of being a Youtuber, an Instagram influencer, or a known public figure stems from the need to be perceived positively. 

A study by Brooke Erin Duffy and Jefferson Pooley reinforces the point that the massive push for self-branding among celebrities today is linked to the fact that society is turning to a “you’re on your own” mentality. To come to this conclusion, Duffy and Pooley used Leo Lowenthal’s research as a framework to their own.

It is imperative to know the inspiration behind Duffy and Pooley’s study to fully understand it. “The Triumph of Mass Idols” by Lowenthal, was published in 1942 to bring attention to the obsession about idols’ (a term he used for celebrities) personal lives. His study is extremely relevant in the context of media research. 

Lowenthal studied biographies of various celebrities published in Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post between the years 1901 and 1941. As a result of his work, two categories emerged. During the early 1900’s he found that politicians and business icons were very prevalent, but by 1941 Hollywood stars and athletes became more popular. He deemed politicians and business icons as “idols of production” and Hollywood stars and athletes as “idols of consumption.” Duffy and Pooley explained that Lowenthal “related cultural renown (famousness) to wide-framed economic conditions.” Politicians and business icons were relevant during the 1900s because those were the type of people that everyone wanted to be. 

Duffy and Pooley used Lowenthal’s findings as a foundation for their research on today’s celebrities. Their goal was to “map the contours of mediated adoration in the present era, using Lowenthal’s original framework while responding to the need to reappraise symbols of popular culture amid a profoundly transformed media ecology.” They collected data from three places. They utilized magazines Time and People from 2016 to 2017, the social media platforms Twitter and Instagram, specifically the “bios” on them, and a series of guest star interviews from two top-ranking talk shows: The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Through their qualitative analysis, Duffy and Pooley found three key themes of self-branding. 

Promise of Meritocracy 

Duffy and Pooley described 21-century success as “overwhelmingly attributed to hard work, talent, or both.” Hence, a promise of meritocracy being a theme of self-branding. For instance, a feature on the supermodel Gisele Bündchen, shed light on the fact that her “success didn’t come easy.” She then went on to talk about 42 rejections and then confessed, “I remember some people telling me my nose was too big or my eyes were too small, that I could never be on a magazine cover.” Duffy and Pooley had various examples like this from Time and People, where celebrities would explain how they started at the bottom and made their way to the top. Duffy and Pooley explained that these “profiles celebrate the self-made success of entertainers far more often than the business figures and politicians who dominated Lowenthal’s sample.” The constant hustle to achieve success is becoming mainstream, and celebrities reflect that. Whereas during Lowenthal’s research in the 1900s, the corporate business was mainstream.

Spirit of Cross-Platform Self-Enterprise

The theme of cross-platform self-enterprise regarding self-branding was clear when Duffy and Pooley analyzed celebrities’ textual self-descriptions (“bios”) on Twitter and Instagram. Duffy and Pooley found that the “most consistent feature of the Twitter and Instagram bios was unabashed self-promotion, with figures casting themselves as cross-media entrepreneurs.” Nearly half of the bios in their sample contained a self-promotional reference; Kim Kardashian had her website in her bio and Selena Gomez promoted her new album. While self-promotion is common in celebrity’s bios, they also like to describe themselves as “jacks of all trades.” For instance, Demi Lovato’s bio reads, “”Singer, Songwriter, Actress, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist.” These entrepreneur-like actions are a result of the push for independent employment.

Incitement to Express Oneself Authentically

Authenticity is attractive, especially when it comes to self-branding. Celebrities have to work hard to come off as genuine people. For instance, Tyler Oakley told Time, “authenticity is more important than attempting to seem relatable. I would rather be me than something that’s more retweetable”. Phrases like these are often seen when celebrities are talking about themselves. In one passage, Jennifer Lopez was described as “a surprisingly down-to-earth super-star and hands-on-mother,” and in another, Hillary Duff said her life was “more normal than people think,” despite growing up as a Disney star. Authenticity shows that celebrities are ordinary people, just like us. 

Duffy and Pooley’s findings resulted in the rise of the “idols of promotion,” a new addition to Lowenthal’s idols of production and consumption. The idols of promotion are “the heroes of media, and the product they are selling is themselves.” They are “their own mastery of the publicity arts, inviting fans and followers to emulate their example.” Celebrities are becoming authors of their own careers, with the ability to promote themselves through platforms like Twitter and Instagram. This makes people that follow them want to do the same. Stories of “self-made success” makes other people want to become successful through independent work, which is exactly what the gig economy entails. Lowenthal, Duffy, and Pooley’s work shows us that our idols reflect the kind of economy we live in.

Written by Tori Gatanis.