From our careers, to our relationships, to our offspring, each of our major life events is faithfully recorded on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We are writing our memoirs in real time, and along the way, we have become brands—peddling idealized versions of ourselves for likes, retweets, and reblogs.
The social media experts that populate the Internet have embraced the personal brand, churning out dozens of listicles with titles like “5 Steps to Building a Personal Brand (and Why You Need One)” and “14 Steps to Creating a Powerful Personal Brand.” If they are to be believed, personal branding is the new networking. And as with networking, participation is not an option; it is a requirement.
I hope they are wrong.
Placing such a high value on the personal brand inevitably ties that brand’s success to your self-worth. The brand is meant to be the idealized version of you. So if your brand is not popular on social media, the implication is that you are not valued. Society has decided you are not a brand worth buying. And that’s assuming that your brand actually comes close to reflecting the real you. It almost never does.
Crafting a brand that truly resembled you would require telling stories that don’t end happily. It would mean sharing the scenes where you might not be the hero—you might even be the villain. Those stories, it turns out, don’t sell particularly well.
And because social media makes it hard to write in anything but present tense, even the positive stories often leave out major plot points. Traditional memoir writers have the benefit of hindsight. They know how their stories end, so they can choose which ones are worth telling, and they can prune out the subplots that aren’t essential to those narratives. On social media, you are telling stories as they unfold. That means you don’t always know how they will end. So rather than risk telling a story that ends poorly, many of us wait until the happy ending arrives to post about it. The struggles faced on the journey to success usually get left on the cutting room floor. As a result, we appear to hop from triumph to triumph. This might seem good for a personal brand, but it could not be further from an honest reflection of the human experience.
In real life, happy endings are neither permanent nor effortless. Arguably, they don’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be people who believe you when you act as if they do. In theory, I know better, but I still find myself buying into some the narratives of success perpetuated on social media. And when I compare my own life to those narratives, not surprisingly, I always fall short. I always end up feeling inadequate.
At its core, I think personal branding feeds on this sense of inadequacy. People overcompensate for their feelings of inadequacy with posts that exaggerate the best parts of their lives and skip over the worst parts. Their friends and followers feel bad that they have not achieved the same level of happiness. So to hide their perceived inadequacy, they craft their own happy endings. And the cycle continues.
Social media can be a wonderful tool. The power it has given to regular people to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences is incredible. However, I think we need to engage in a serious dialogue about the ethics involved with personal branding. Perhaps there is a just manner in which to go about branding yourself, but the way personal branding currently operates in our culture is deceptive and unhealthy. And if that kind of personal branding is truly a requirement for success in our society, I’m not sure I want to be successful.