You are a brand. The sun-drenched, chrome-filtered frames of your Instagram feed; the captioned albums on your Facebook profile. Your six-word Twitter bio, clever without pretension. The resume you’ve made public on LinkedIn. These are our platforms, our digital stages, our chances to be seen by a broader and more interconnected audience then ever before. The disparate but linked faces of our new, computerized selves.
Or so say the countless career advisors and self-help guides that tout the power of “personal branding”—that is, the calculated curation of a unique and memorable online persona that embodies some idealized you. The term is generally used in a professional sense. Just as a respected brand name, like Kellogg’s or North Face is more likely to sell products than an obscure one, a polished personal brand, we’re told, is more likely to “sell” your professional skill set to prospective employers and clients. Like soda or yoga pants, the better the packaging, the easier the sale. And, in an era where social media is an integral part of many entry-level job positions, where Career Services offers regular LinkedIn workshops, and having your own website is advisable in almost every field, maintaining a clearly defined, desirable online identity seems more essential than ever for real-world success.
Though typically associated with social media, the roots of personal branding reach back to the mid-twentieth century. In his 1937 book Think and Grow Rich, Napolean Hill claims that, “all the great fortunes began in the form of compensation for personal services, or from the sale of ideas.” The notion that an idea—something totally immaterial— could have economic value took on new meaning with the rise of mass media in the 1950’s. In Simulacra and Simulation, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard proposes that, in the age of television advertising, consumer goods have become subordinated to the commercial fantasies they represent. Rather than buying a dress, for example, customers are merely buying the depiction of beauty and confidence used to sell it. This observation holds true today: more immersed in advertising than ever, most of us have simply accepted that these images don’t market a physical product so much as some illusion of class, freedom, or sex appeal.
The idea that a person can be branded much in the same way as a corporate product can also be traced back to the birth of pop culture. Andy Warhol’s 1962 prints of Marilyn Monroe are probably one of the most famous illustrations of the extent to which an individual’s image—when mass-produced and marketed—can become commodified. But personal branding didn’t enter the business world until the 1980s, when consultants Al Ries and Jack Trout suggested professionals use “positioning strategy”—that is, defining one’s brand in relation to others—in their own careers.
With the advent of social media, personal branding has gone from being the exclusive concern of celebrities and a small fraction of businesspeople to a buzzword among young professionals in a wide range of disciplines. Of course, cultivating an attractive online image is more important in some fields than others.
In traditionally tracked professions, like law, medicine, and finance, where hiring is heavily based on GPA and test scores, having a witty Twitter handle is largely irrelevant. But in more creative areas: art, media, marketing, even academia—engagement on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn is becoming increasingly integral to success.
Writers and artists, in particular, are often encouraged to establish “brands” to gain an audience for their creative work. In many ways, this makes sense. Rather than belonging to a firm or corporation, artists must be institutions unto themselves, working only under their own name. Before platforms like Facebook and Twitter, creative hopefuls had to rely on agents for publicity; now, social media enables young artists to share their work on their own terms. And these sites have benefits beyond simply providing constant access to an audience. Art—especially art with a confessional component—has a tendency to spark curiosity about the artist. Perhaps as a result of this, it’s in creative professions that success most closely aligns with fame. Social media, with its emphasis on likes, follows, and shares, is the perfect machine to gain and maintain public recognition.
The flip side of this, of course, is that individuals who choose not to engage in this kind of self-promotion are left behind. This past summer, the Atlantic ran a piece by Megan Garber titled “Could the Internet Age See Another David Foster Wallace,” which questioned whether the famously celebrity-phobic author could have succeeded in an era that demands writers constantly engage with their readers. According to Garber, the author’s discomfort with public attention was part of the cult of his image, a sort of detached nobility that transcended the all-too-human temptations of fame. Garber argues that the rise of the Internet has made this respectable shyness an artifact of the past: she writes, “The kind of detached sanctification alternately enjoyed and resented by David Foster Wallace—DFW to those in the know—may no longer be possible in an age that insists that its authors be the most brilliant and boring of things: human.”
One of the implications of Garber’s piece is that Wallace’s fame-phobia came from a place of superiority. Skeptical of fame, she argues, he did not want to descend to the level of his star-struck fans by meeting their demands for attention. According to Garber, the Internet Age makes this kind of disconnection impossible by demanding that even celebrities disclose elements of their personal lives. While it’s true that it’s hard to imagine the publicity-shy writer tweeting about baseball games or posting filtered photos of himself to Instagram, I don’t think Garber’s reasoning is entirely fair. The constant social engagement that the Internet Age prescribes might make it seem as though writers are “opening up,” disclosing parts of their lives we might not otherwise see. But if it demands they “share” more, it also requires that they have a certain comfort with fame; a willingness and ability to embody the exalted figures that fans make them out to be.
Garber says the Internet makes writers “human,” but I think there are few things social media does better than conceal our human imperfections. In a world of photo editing and deleted comments, we have far more power over our digital profiles than we do over our flesh-and-blood selves, where a stray pimple or impulsive remark can’t simply be blotted out. The very fact that our online communication is typed, rather than spoken (or even handwritten) means we can endlessly revise what we plan on saying. We have more control over what others see, but at the expense of expressing ourselves organically and spontaneously. In this sense, social media is perfectly suited for curating celebrity, or maintaining a carefully constructed, larger-than-life image.
Maybe Wallace wanted to remain “above” the all-too-human fame games his fans were caught up in. But maybe he simply didn’t feel like pretending to be the idealized, commercialized celebrity author his fans were so enamored with. Regardless, if we take Garber at her word, this kind of secrecy is no longer an option—and not only for writers. If we want to sell any creative skill-set, it seems, we also have to sell ourselves. Social media doesn’t just force celebrities to act like celebrities, it also forces the average user to act like one—and to become preoccupied with measures of social approval, such as followers, page views, and likes, even when these figures are quite small.
Of course, the irony of Wallace’s story—which Garber notes—is that he did become a brand. Without the aid of the Internet—though perhaps even more so, with it—the acclaimed author of Infinite Jest went from cult figure to cliché. His suicide—in a sense, the ultimate act of self-erasure—only increased his notoriety; fans were quick to romanticize his mental illness as the tragic cost of genius.
The Internet Age didn’t invent celebrity. Fame has always gone hand in hand with popular art, and with it the creation of a commercial public image. For some, embracing this image is easy; for others—like Wallace—it’s much more difficult. What social media has done, however, is demand that artists, writers, and really anyone working in a creative industry is branded even before they become famous. We have to sell ourselves even before we really know what it is we’re selling.
A while ago, I was in a resume workshop run by Career Services. “A resume,” the leader told us, “is about telling your story.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or gag. How did the handful of resume-worthy, pseudo-professional experiences I’d had add up to a “story?” A “story,” at least in my sense of the word, has depth, characters, intrigue; it moves you, conveys something deep and human. A resume is about as dry and superficial as you can get. Beyond that, though, the whole notion of reducing yourself to a single tidy, marketable narrative seems by nature impossible. If a resume can be called a story, it’s only one of a probably infinite number of ways of framing yourself so as to appeal to potential employers.
Personal branding feels a little bit like writing a resume, but with the illusion of creativity. If resume-me is supposed to be superhuman—pristine, competent, with one or two non-academic activities so as not to seem totally robotic—then appearing human is essential to a personal brand. But while our online selves might do plenty of desirable human things—eating, partying, traveling, mocking pop culture—the extensive control social media gives us over our images means that this appearance of spontaneity is where our humanity stops. We never have to show the moments of insecurity and vulnerability that make us people instead of branded personalities. In some ways, this is liberating, even empowering—if we can’t be perfect, why not appear to be? And building an online self is fun, even addictively so, especially when we’re rewarded with likes. But how free can we really be when our every move is measured in quantified social validation?
Wallace may have preceded today’s social media-saturated society, but his story—or, at least, the story that we’ve turned him into— raises questions about just how integral self-promotion should be to artistic success. In discussing the “humanizing” aspects of social media, Garber doesn’t address the broader question her piece raises: what does it mean if we now live in a world where one of the most celebrated writers of recent history wouldn’t have been able to make it? The sort of constant image-upkeep that Wallace famously resented is no longer just a pressure on celebrities. It’s part of our everyday lives. We all have an audience, 24/7, if we want it. But sometimes, I don’t want to broadcast my every move. Perhaps out of self-consciousness, perhaps because it’s tremendously time-consuming, I don’t want to put myself—or some version of myself—on display. I don’t think there’s any inherent nobility in this, and I don’t think there’s shame in it, either. I just don’t want to perform. I’d rather be.