Ethnography of the University: Focus on Knowledge 2020 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Moving Away from Materiality: The Work of Personal Branding, By Sabrina Wu (Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge.” It was originally posted in the category “Online Communities.”

Consumerism is usually defined as being preoccupied with spending wealth on superficial, material things. However, the materiality of what is being consumed becomes harder to trace with the increased use of personal branding where media users sell their image and lifestyle rather than a physical object. Social media sites such as LinkedIn are offered as free platforms, shifting labour responsibilities to the consumers who use them. Labour on the internet is an “activity that is not immediately recognized as work, does not produce material goods, and is not defined by terms of a wage-labor relationship, yet it produces value for capital” (Cohen 2013, 181).

LinkedIn users create a profile with their credentials, industry interests, and post about their accomplishments. In so doing they provide the platform with data that can be packaged and interpreted for third-party entities such as advertisers or talent management. Users are not merely valued customers but also workers since they produce content and data that are transformed into profit for media companies. A contractual relationship is suggested in the terms and policies that users must accept in order to use the platform’s services. Not only do social media users present the coveted commodity of data, but their work also constitutes a multi-tiered labour system that manufactures products. LinkedIn users supply marketable data while also creating trends that inform buyers what type of knowledge is gaining traction in their industries. As Ted Prodromou (2019) notes of LinkedIn: “to really gain value on the platform, you need to provide value to it in exchange” which includes having a complete profile, standing out with multimedia and well-written content, and expanding connections. This exchange system commodifies the user and the user’s production work.

According to Cohen (2013), “the notion of double commodification speaks to the dual role of social media users: a source of free labor as well as providers of information that is sold for profit or used in the process of profit generation” (179).

Users can navigate their dual role through personal branding, a simultaneous promotion of the online self and the services of the platform. For example, several UX and graphic designers have used LinkedIn as a partial portfolio, posting images and inspirational stories of their work to establish themselves as authorities on particular design styles while suggesting LinkedIn as a trusted site to find such trending content. Curated profiles and user-generated narratives are emphasized as the selling point for the site. These are packaged in LinkedIn products which include paid accounts that organize users according to criteria of recruitment, targeted advertisements, services, and intelligence data insights.  

Users can construct their personal brand and design their profiles, creating a form of immaterial value. While social media sites allow users to sign up for their services for free, the cost of participating in these platforms is the supply of free labour that can be turned into capital by oneself and others. Individuals are supposedly in control of choosing whether to participate in these free labour systems yet they are captured by capitalist monopolies, the promise of job opportunities, and desires for money (Lordon 2014, 14-15). This contradiction helps maintain the system of unpaid social media labour and moulds new kinds of consumers.


Cohen, Nicole S. 2013. “Audiences as Labor, Consumers, Interpreters, Fans.” In The Routledge

Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture. Edited by Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West: 177-191. London: Routledge.

Lordon, Frédéric. 2014. Willing Slaves of Capital. Spinoza & Marx on Desire. Translated by

Gabriel Ash. London: Verso.

Prodromou, Ted. 2019. “12 Ways to Make More Money Through LinkedIn.” Entrepreneur, May

22, 2019.

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