Research Findings

Stand-in labor and the rising economy of self

July 31, 2019

In a hyper-mediated society, dominated by a culture of consumption and celebrity, the need for people to produce and project their “authentic” selves have gained new urgency. Whether on dating applications, on social media platforms, in college applications, or in professional settings, the crafting and presentation of “authentic” selves has become integral to today’s economy.  

Importantly, this increasing focus on crafting such selves coincides with the parallel development of what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild referred to in 2012 as the “outsourcing of self”—or the hiring of others to perform what are usually thought to be “personal” and “intimate” acts.

As a result of these two trends, there is a growing number of workers in the contemporary economy whose job it is to help others produce their “authentic” social selves. From love coaches (who construct online profiles and even “swipe” for their clients) to resume writers (who craft employable profiles for job candidates), many people get hired by individuals who need to build their authentic brand.

We define the labor performed by these workers who produce someone else’s self as “stand-in labor” and ask in our study what is the experience of workers who engage in such labor?

To answer this question, we analyze one type of stand-in labor: the ghostwriting of personal memoirs. Relying on an analysis of interviews with 72 ghostwriters and publishing-industry insiders, we document the unique experiences of these stand-in workers.

In particular, we explore how they navigate the central tension in their work – namely, the lack of recognition for their work, which we refer to as recognition estrangement. Since authenticity can only be achieved if the presented selves appear to be solo-authored, those hiring these workers will attempt to conceal and keep secret the extent of stand-in workers’ cooperation in the production of self.

We found that recognition estrangement was constant, and proved particularly hurtful – even among more experienced ghostwriters – when the books were publicly received.

In one instance, a ghostwriter expressed resentment after he was called a “hack” during a public appearance. He explained how he responded to the charge, with the wordplay these ghostwriters have developed over their careers: “I remember once I was at a conference with a bunch of biographers, and one of the guys was a prick, and he told me, ‘You shouldn’t even be on this panel because you’re a hack. You’re a ghostwriter.’ You know, and I wanted to kill him but I kept my cool… There was hundreds of people in the room… And then I remember turning to him and asking him about the Bible. Like, ‘Who wrote the Bible?” I mean we don’t know. It’s a kind of a holy ghostwritten book.’”

In light of this tension, we identify two main ways in which workers manage this form of estrangement. First, we show that they make sense of their invisibility by claiming a professional need to disappear – in order to properly present a subject’s “true” voice. In fact, almost all the ghostwriters we interviewed described their core aim as capturing a subject’s voice and erasing themselves from the picture. An experienced ghostwriter articulated what many saw as a trademark of their profession: “The challenge is really to try to find the voice of the person, so it doesn’t sound like me; it sounds like them…You want to just sort of nail every detail of their lives so it can be authentic.”

In capturing the subject’s true voice, ghostwriters often likened their work to that of actors. As another ghostwriter stated, “You see, the ghostwriter is basically an actor or an actress. I have to forget who I am, and I have to become that person.” A third one echoed that sentiment: “The best way I can equate it is to being an actor. You know, you try to get in this, you know, wear that guy’s skin, and then you are acting. You’re pretending.” Thus, we found that the ability to disappear successfully became a source of great pride for many ghostwriters.

Second, we show that ghostwriters regain agency by spotlighting their contribution to production of a subject’s self that differs from the subject’s “actual” self. That is, ghostwriters claimed that they provided added value to a project through their ability to construct an “alternate self” for a subject’s audience to consume. In this way, although ghostwriters often likened their work to acting, the role they described was actually more akin to directing. As one ghostwriter explained, “I immediately realized that the voice doesn’t come out of a transcript…. You can type up a transcript and that ain’t the person…. To create a literary character is an artificial act. It’s art … and so you have to kind of sculpt the quotes.” 

Ghostwriters often depicted this directorial process as an active endeavor, which allowed them to retain some agency in a process that often concealed them from public view. In doing so, they almost created a third person in the dyadic relation. One ghostwriter who claimed a directorial role in crafting the subject’s voice illustrated this creative process, “I used to tease [the subject]…. I said, ‘You know, I write things that you would have said if you had thought of them.’” She added, “And, like, one time she [the subject] said, ‘So you think I have a sense of humor, huh?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got the one I gave you.’”

No wonder, under these circumstances, that Donald Trump’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, has stated that he “created a monster” when writing Trump’s memoir. Thus, we found that the act of creating an alternative self is a primary way for ghostwriters to regain some agency in their labor process.

Overall, we argue, stand-in labor rests on a paradoxical dynamic: workers invoke their invisibility as a point of pride, and even as a trademark of their profession, yet also alter the subjects they are hired to impersonate, thus regaining some a sense of recognition while performing the work. More broadly, we posit that many workers engaged in this economy of self might alter the subjects they are meant to impersonate when asked to stand in for others, thus leading to an ironic situation where calls for increased authenticity breed heightened adulteration of selves.

Read more

Michel Anteby and Nicholas Occhiuto, “Stand-in Labor and the Rising Economy of Self,” Social Forces 2019. 

Image: Dairo Cervantes via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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