Personal Branding Ruins People's Lives
Every so often someone pops up on my radar that has a bunch of tips about “building your personal brand,” the idea that you can build a public persona for yourself that does something for you. The idea is that if you hit enough of the right buttons and keep doing stuff in a particular way that you’ll gain a reputation for it, and thus make you more money or gain you more fame.
It is, when you fully engage with it, a truly evil way of living - if you are truly trying to create a “personal brand” you are shaving off bits of your personality and positioning them online so that you can manipulate people into believing things about you. It is a direct way of monetizing personality - creating your own influence capsule that people can take to feel a certain way and give you a certain amount of money.
The concept is built around the idea that you need to brand yourself to appease or appeal to certain people, which by definition involves enhancing or diluting parts of your appearance of personality to fit in. This is an extremely human tendency, and one that people do all the time without thinking about it while dating or networking - but the art of focused personal branding is something that can and will drain your humanity.
Presentation Versus Personality
The idea of personal branding - presenting oneself to the world at large in a way that gets you what you want - isn’t theoretically wrong. You want a clean LinkedIn, you want to have social media accounts that either appeal to the people who you want to hire or want to hire you or, at the very least, don’t scare them away. That’s fine. That’s the basic parts of being online.
But I think that a lot of people see personal branding as a permanent shift in their entire ability to communicate and interact with the world. They alter their external personality to fit into what they think the world requires them so much that they truly don’t enjoy or like anything, or only enjoy and like things that can fit down the tiny, vile flume of whatever personality they think will make them the most money.
To quote myself on the subject:
Most PR people have almost the same biography on Twitter – #PR Professional/Guru/Ninja/Maven, Love Social, Love Media, Love Running, Love Coffee, Love Cocktails, Love Puppies, Love People (in fact they may Love Everything), #Hashtags, and an endless stream of nonsense branding. They see Twitter as a place to create a personal brand, a vacuous statement, defined by Wikipedia as “the practice of people marketing themselves and their careers as brands”, which is another way of saying “lying”.
The way in which people think they are evaluated - in my industry and others - is that they care enough and talk enough about the right things, and that they are a collection of beliefs and allegiances that fit into a particular job role or industry well enough to be positioned for success. This is also yet another way in which people are disconnected from the actual process and output of a job - they are evaluated based on how their personal brand fits into the personal brand of an industry or a person.
In that same piece, I had a great quote: “Some people have confused having a personality with having a “brand,” the difference just being intention, I guess,” from Andy Orin, at the time a writer at Lifehacker. And I think that in some ways personal branding has filled a void in young people that have felt directionless and dispassionate, giving them the ability to construct a personality, which gives them a sense of industry and characteristics resembling a personality without the energy that comes from having one.
The pressure to make a personal brand is not new (How To Make Friends and Influence People is 85 years old), but social media has changed its impetus from “dress from the job you want” to “become the worker you want to be.” It has shifted the burden of presence and time from our professional lives - when we’re at work or work-related functions - to the time and places that are otherwise reserved for our private lives. Our public social profiles, and by extension what we say and do with our friends and peers, are permanently recorded in public (if we choose to interact in those channels), and thus the pressure is to create a personality within those channels that echoes the kind of enterprise we wish to be involved in.
This pressure, I believe, is why you see so many people that constantly talk about their work, that are constantly in a state of chaos as they evaluate and re-evaluate the world through the lens of the corporations they either work for or own. It isn’t simply that the pressure to be “on” all the time - it’s the pressure to be the person that must be hired, invested in, worked with and seen as valuable to those with capital.
The line between personal branding and genuine passion, I feel, comes from the actual substance of the life outside of it. The idea of having a composed, organized way in which you discuss the work that you do in a way that will attract those who might want to invest time and money in you is not inherently bad, but the obsessive quality that overrides the rest of your external persona is the problem.
I should note that this isn’t necessarily about those who only talk about work and have relatively quiet online lives. There are some that wish to keep their lives private, and their social media accounts only exist to tick a box - that’s fine, and perfectly normal. But the real issue - and it’s a common one - are those who go online and are constantly online and only talk about their work.
The reason I bring up PR people is that they fit into this category so well - my newsletter from Monday showed the kind of madness that happens when you create a personality entirely out of your work. Startup people and rise-and-grind hustler types are another - in many cases they’re even more insufferable, because their actual content isn’t about the stuff they do but the act of doing something, and doing it a lot. It’s the digital equivalent of being the first one in and the last one out at work - the appearance of productivity to give the world this idea that you’re this workhorse hustler that as a result must be battle-tested and “tough.”
Personal branding does leave the workplace - those who constantly post about politics come to mind - in the sense that we all on some level create personas to appeal to those around us. The overwhelmingly manufactured nature is what stands out - when every single element of every single thing you put into the world is only about one thing, the natural conclusion from a deeper look is that there’s nothing else and no-one else you care for.
It’s the conscious attempt to create an exterior image that overwhelms any personality that differs personal branding from trying to fit in. Real people who are really passionate about something aren’t particularly organized or constructed in how they do so - they tend to just do it. If their instagram and Facebook and Twitter are full of it, if their friends are all related to it, if their conversations center around it and every aspect of their lives are about it, most likely their “personal brand” has replaced any form of personality they once had. The argument can be made that behind closed doors they’re a different person, but one has to look at the evidence - how many more hours of one thing are they than the other?
Ironically, I don’t think that most people who heavily use personal branding get anything from it. The most mediated and organized people I see on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn don’t truly seem that successful, and if they do it’s from squeezing every moment of their lives to fit the most vile, capital-focused image. And in my personal experience, the stuff I create that comes from my actual emotions and actual passions seems to resonate the most, and when I try and create ‘content’ that I think will ‘have wide appeal’ it tends to fall flat.
One can have a personal brand without becoming a vile pod-person. You can talk about a subject all the time and still retain a social feed that isn’t about that subject, you can still be the person that is of X industry doing Y thing without only being that person. I just feel that society, through the breakdown of the separation between our personal and professional lives that social media has grown, has forced people into this belief that the only way to succeed is create false personas for capital gain.
Now, does this mean your social media profile should be totally insane, threatening the @Fazolis account with personal harm? No. But it also doesn’t mean you have to talk about your industry…ever. You can talk about food, or sports, or something else. I have never been good at fitting in, but I have from probably my first year at my job been very good at the specific thing that I do, which was mostly fueled by me pursuing a passion for reading stuff and talking to people about things I care about.
I feel as if it’s also an extension of the pressures of exterior appearance that social media asks for in general. We’re all scared of not fitting in, of being unpopular, or conversely having a big following and being popular. As a result we say and do things that approximate that which we wish to be or those that we wish to be with.
And as a result we end up at a place when we’re not sure what we enjoy, or what makes us happy.
I really encourage you to focus more on that than anything else.
Wow, such a sucker punch. I discovered you via Sara Campbell's 'Tiny Revolutions' newsletter, and I came here expecting something (darkly) funny. But this is kryptonite for the ego :)
I am what you might call a 'mental health influencer' - a role born out of decades of living with a bunch of vile conditions and my need to talk about it because talking is therapeutic. I used to be a business journalist in a long-forgotten lifetime. Now, I write about mental health as a social justice issue (just typing those words makes me feel important). My whole life revolves around this 'mission'. My Twitter feed is heavily curated, in line with received wisdom that your followers need to know exactly what to expect from you. In other words, don't give them food or sports when all they want from you is one more hard-hitting epiphany on suicide.
This constant race to produce 'focused content' became more urgent after I lost my job in December and had to turn entrepreneur overnight. Most recently, it drove me to live stream a panic attack on Instagram (and of course, write an article about it - always be repurposing), which in turn led to some vexing questions about who I really am and if I am merely milking my condition (wait, do I really even have a 'condition?!) for likes and subscribers.
After some soul searching I came to the conclusion that there's nothing wrong in taking something that gives me unfathomable pain and turning it into a source of (material and moral) sustenance, while also helping a few others make sense of their lives and struggles. Personal branding is, I agree, mostly an abomination. I'm just glad I get to use my personal brand to talk about *this* subject. Thanks for the piece, Ed. Be well.
It's so tiring to read articles about how to brand yourself. This article is the antidote.