I'll be honest. Few things in life make me cringe involuntarily more than reading something which tells me that I should have a personal brand.
By 'personal brand' I mean a conscious or subconscious set of traits and beliefs that we as individuals want to put out into the world for others to associate us with. It could involve certain styles or aesthetics, a political stance or tone of voice or a set of interests, which, put together, form what you want others to see as 'you'.
Instinctively, I balk at the idea that I should have to distil how I present myself so that people see me the 'correct' way. But if I'm honest with myself, that measured, constant self-policing has become an integral part of how all of us behave on social media, whether we mean to or not.
The idea not only of having a personal brand but needing to have one feels ubiquitous in the age of social media, but it’s not an entirely new concept. Fast Company popularized the idea that you should carefully craft your own image in 1997 with an article entitled "The Brand Called You". In it, Tom Peters states: "We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc."
"To be in business today," he wrote, "our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You." He finishes by stating (somewhat ominously): "It’s that simple – and that hard. And that inescapable."
It definitely feels inescapable now. What was once corporate speak for a way to get ahead in the workplace has become the de facto framework of our internet lives: our Instagram feeds are meticulously curated and many people make entire careers out of influencing us through gifted and sponsored posts. People develop a particular tone of voice that defines their Twitter or reflects their work ethic.
We were inadvertently introduced to the idea of a personal brand the moment we started creating a social media profile – a digital self-representation via which we attempted to convey our best, funniest, most 'authentic' self. The language used by social media platforms – 'followers' not 'friends', and performance-based participation which depended on how many 'likes' something got – created a digital space where, over 10 years later, performing for one another with the goal of others engaging in our output is the norm. Whether or not this output is truly reflective of 'you' is no longer the point.
With the rise of the freelance economy, many young people's livelihoods have become dependent on their personal branding. From self-employed people in the media industries (creatives and graphic designers) to those in more 'traditional' roles (freelance accountants and mortgage brokers), having the right 'brand' as portrayed by the font on your website, the clients featured on your Instagram or the affability of your tone on Twitter can be a lucrative way of standing out in a fiercely competitive gig economy. This is even before we take into account the influencers and bloggers whose personal brand is literally their job. The choice of pictures, the 'correct' political beliefs and language used in captions can either send brands clamouring to invest in #sponcon with them or see them running for the hills. The rest of us who don't depend on social media for our livelihoods follow suit and, even though we don't necessarily need to, curate our own brand image to try and replicate the success we see in others.
But by doing this, we are tricking ourselves into seeing our personhood as a commodity, to be constantly refined for an audience who comes to expect one version of you. And that could end up being someone entirely divorced from who you actually are. People are not brands; they evolve and change, make mistakes and take chances. What you believed five years ago may not be true today. To treat yourself as a brand when you express yourself online is to do yourself a disservice. By considering whether something is 'on brand' before you post it, you're placing how others will perceive you on a higher pedestal than being true to yourself.
By holding on to a certain digital rendition of yourself, and constantly working on how that version of yourself is seen, you don’t give yourself space to make mistakes, or grow, or change your mind – all of which is integral to the human experience. And when those changes inevitably happen, people who bought into that personal brand can get deeply offended. Just look at how followers reacted to the ex-vegan influencer who plans to eat mostly meat from now on.
There are many small ways to break the personal brand spell. You could, as many people do, have a Finsta to post your uncurated, unfiltered thoughts separately from your public-facing account. Equally, choosing to publicly post things you secretly love (even if they seem deeply uncool) can be surprisingly freeing. And if you're someone with a relatively big following, setting clear and firm boundaries between you and your followers can be key to not being hounded if you shift opinion. If we can all recognize that someone's social media presence is only ever one version of them, and that you can't really know someone if you just follow them and never interact with them, we'll all be less rigid in our views of one another.
The concept of a personal brand is just another way in which we are expected to restrict ourselves for the sake of capital, but it's a rigged game. We should be working towards an internet where your social media presence is not an integral part of your livelihood – or if you have no choice in the matter, allow each other to change. Your online presence is only one part of who you are.