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Talking About “Personal Brands” Makes Me Sad and Disappointed in Humanity At Times

Don’t judge — or, go ahead, I suppose — but I was reading Cosmo awhile back as kind of mind-candy mental junk food, and there was this bit about “honing your personal brand” in the life advice section of the magazine Instantly I got a sinking feeling inside me, like, Blergh, yet another thing to worry about? The online presentation of my personality? I hate the Internet! Boo, Internet!

Personal branding advice generally boils down, in a very pithy clickable Internet kind of way, to:

1. Use the same name and pic and font and graphics and whoo hoo on all your social media profiles!
2. Pick three words that express who you are and make sure you express, like, one or two of them with everything you share online!
3. Follow the 80/20 rule and be your weird self, like, one-out-of-five shares! The rest of the time, STAY ON BRAND!

Okay, I’m being sarcastic. (I’ve been watching “Daria” on DVD.) The infiltration of capitalist logic into the nooks of personal identity will do that to you. (Being sarcastic again.) Of course, I get personal brands and why they’re a nice strategy in professional life. If you’re doing any kind of work online, it’s a good way to make it easy to communicate who you are and what you’re about quickly. I’m actually really fascinated by branding — giving a personality to companies and objects that don’t have innate personality as a way for people to connect to them. As a storytelling type, a professional “imaginer,” I can’t help but be fascinated in a car-wreck kind of way.

And it is kind of helpful: “personal brands” can help you stay disciplined when you make work on the Internet. (Maybe I should follow it here?) And there is something to be said about knowing who you are — and who you are not — and communicating that without apology anywhere you go, much less on the Internets.

But sometimes you get a weird feeling with all the personal branding talk. It becomes about marketing who you are, about staying “on message,” and well, it becomes anti-human, letting the imperatives of business and capitalism get in the way of genuine expression.

I was talking about the early Internet with a friend — back to the Livejournal/personal website days, like late 90s/early aughts — and personal brands were not a huge concept at all. If you had a website or a Diaryland or a Livejournal, it was just expressing something honestly and finding community and solidarity within that. People definitely had distinctive styles and like everyone, I gravitated towards some but not others — but there was more experimentation and eccentricity, a sense of exploration that was exciting. It was less about expressing a static, chosen image and more being excited by watching a self or identity in progress, in a way. Yes, it was all “performative” (performative was such a late 90s thing, no?) but the process and results were much less predictable and “disciplined.” It was, you know, life and people finding themselves, experimenting with selves. It felt uncharted, unprofessional…but genuine and more exciting.

I don’t really find this dynamic as much anymore on the Internet, probably because there is SO MUCH STUFF on the Internet now and so much commercialization of the Web in general. And maybe that’s why personal branding has come to the fore at this moment, because it makes it easier to be found on the Internet and Google. We have always had many selves and faces in the world, but sometimes the burden of having a Facebook self or a Google search-results self is limiting in a way very specific and peculiar to now.

(If you can’t be searched on Google, do you really exist?)

It’s something I think a lot about when it comes to writing here, and I’m still wrestling with it — how to keep privacy and discretion, while still giving something valuable, how to create beauty without sacrificing boundaries, how to be as fully human here as I try to be in real life without letting self-consciousness cloud me. Tightrope, right?

Humans can present themselves with easy-to-digest facades that make it easy to interact with them at work, perhaps, but I don’t know…seems like such a pity to flatten yourself to fit into a self-made container? Like when you go to someone’s house and they have this perfectly curated record collection, and you’re like, “Where the eccentricity? The spots of early yet beloved bad taste? The unexpected pleasures and desires?” If a “personal brand” is the smooth veneer, then anything offbrand to me is a chink of human imperfection, and something to celebrate in my mind.

But when it’s all “be your personal brand to be a success!”, I don’t know. I have a style here and a sensibility, and often that works as a compass, but I don’t want it to limit me. The self is always evolving and growing, and sometimes it doesn’t lean towards just the light — it leans in ways we don’t anticipate, and we are always outgrowing beliefs, lifestyles and personality traits.

But I don’t want to whine. Sometimes, honestly, I like the “offbrand” things about me best — I take a weird pleasure in throwing myself in situations and tastes that don’t fit with who I think I am or want to be, just for the pleasure of feeling the harmonies and dissonance. Being off-brand for me means stuff like:

Disco > “Art”
Having no dietary identity
Shopping at the mall and liking it sometimes
Listening to “bad” music at the gym

But, by admitting to these, am I actually complexifying my “personal brand” anyway? Am I making “unpredictability” part of my personal brand? Oh, who the hell cares. Be more than a personal brand, people. Be your full, glorious, rascally, weird, unclassifiable self!

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All Things Glorious and True: Love Letters to Pop Culture, New York, Fashion and Other Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring how my crushes on music, dive bars, books, outfits and so much else gave me a braver soul, more open heart and even love. All Things is like a great, stylish mixtape: surprising, kind of punky, fun and often heartfelt.


Tags: identity, Internet, personal brands

4 Responses to “Talking About “Personal Brands” Makes Me Sad and Disappointed in Humanity At Times”

  1. John says:

    To be un-Googleable is my fondest desire. For better or worse, I have always kept my various Internet presences as separate and mutually invisible as possible. I miss the days when being online meant having no history and no identity, no connection to the real world. I think this was ultimately the failure of my blog–too much commitment, to write something and have it Represent Me. Forever. My brothers still call me on it anytime I say something that contradicts something I said when I was 12; it’s the last thing I want for anyone else to be able to do something like that. Of course in this day and age, under the reign of Facebook, Google, and the NSA, it’s getting to be more and more impossible to compartmentalize your life like that.

    I don’t think I’m especially multifarious, but having a personal brand sounds like the world’s worst prison to me. So I try to keep each egg in its own particular basket. I’m resigned to the fact that that means I’ll never make any money off of any of them, but that’s fine by me.

    (psssst…did you start writing nogoodforme again?)

    • Kat Asharya says:

      i miss the days when i could have a ridiculous username and picture as my internet identity and that was fine and dandy! (i had a series named after various hole and pavement songs.) i do think it’s impossible now to be compartmentalized on the Internet, and it’s a real pity how the lines between real life and Internet have blurred sometimes. i’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing and blogging under my real identity, and i slightly hate it, yet feel trapped…trapped by my own name! ha. i do worry that i’m inadvertently creating some kind of personal brand by it, and will be judged by employers, future boyfriends, etc. by it. but then, of course, part of me doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

      (ps….yes! just for march and perhaps the rest of the spring, for various job/professional reasons. but if you’ve missed ngfm, this springtime is for you!)

  2. Amelia says:

    You basically wrote exactly what I was thinking these past few weeks on this whole online personal brands based on a series of spam emails.

    I do try to compartmentalize my online life which is why I am very careful who follows me on certain social media. The fact I never use my full real name also helps.