Days spent videoconferencing are making me feel like a crap influencer as we are all forced to blur our public and private selves. It’s yet another way that the spread of coronavirus and life under lockdown is making class disparities more visible.
The pandemic was already raising big, urgent questions of class: why can a celebrity without symptoms access a test for Covid-19 when nurses working on the NHS frontline cannot? Which people, from which social groups, are forced to put themselves at greater risk by continuing to travel to work, and using public transport to do so.
We have observed poorly-paid, precarious and previously unwelcome workers being elevated to the status of key worker and hero. We have mused that Jeremy Corbyn was right to deem broadband as an essential utility for the modern economy.
For the middle classes, who have been enabled by the internet to work from home, days appear to be largely filled with video conferencing colleagues and Instagramming wholesome activities with their children, as public evidence of private attempts to home school their offspring. The move to remote working has been surprisingly easy. Insultingly so for disabled activists who have long asked for – and been denied – this type of inclusion in the modern workplace.
I’m lucky to have a job I can continue from home and a partner with whom I juggle childcare. But new social norms require new etiquettes. This week I Skyped with a colleague and was accused of wearing pyjamas (I promise I wasn’t!) My partner was laughed at in a Google hangouts job interview for donning a suit, despite not leaving the house.
As we broadcast ourselves from our homes, quarantine makes extremely low-rent influencers of all of us. We’re suddenly seeing inside the houses of people we previously only meet in public spaces. I can see how nice my colleagues’ houses are. Who has room for an office. And they can see inside mine. My desk is in my bedroom; it’s the only space with both adequate wi-fi and a door to shut out my toddler. As a result, I have to be very careful about what makes it into the frame.
On one side I carefully crop a shamefully cluttered surface one might aspirationally call a dressing table. Point the camera an inch too far the other way and a mirror reveals my unmade bed. My students and colleagues don’t need to see that. Having trained the webcam on a narrow but adequately neutral spot, I have become obsessed with the unfinished paint job on the door in the background, convinced that is now an integral part of my professional-personal brand. (Despite having been unmoved to do anything about it in the previous five years.)
Perhaps this focus on dove grey paint availability is an anxiety management strategy, a comforting way to fiddle while Rome burns. It’s certainly more fun than my other habit of refreshing the BBC’s webpage of hospitalisation statistics set out by region.
But this melding of professional-personal has long been coming and is now accelerating as we’re asked to connect professionally via personal social media and communicate with colleagues in spaces in which we usually socialise. It is another breach into our personal lives. A new itinerary of constant Zoom meetings and webinars means we must now think about the image our domestic life projects in a professional context.
Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser has theorised that “self-branding” brings the logic of business into our most basic personal social relations. Our everyday lives, individual identities, and personal relationships become acts of self-commodification.
The digital influencer is a figure in modern culture who perhaps most typifies the age of self-branding. Digital media gives (some) power to (some) people to participate and represent themselves in ways not previously possible – but requires us to constantly commercialise our own selfhood, policing who we are, how we present ourselves, and how we exist – even in our own bedrooms.
I am grateful for the lifeline in these desperate times – but those of us privileged enough to still be working will likely see work encroaching further and further.
Dr Hannah Yelin is a senior lecturer in media and culture at Oxford Brookes University