The Problem With Personal Brands & The Labor Of Authenticity

As a proud member of the Oregon Trail Generation, I am not a digital native. But I did grow up on a computer.

My memories of childhood are pretty fuzzy, but some of the clearest are the ones that revolve around firing up the modem and getting on Prodigy or America Online (whichever had sent us a free trial CD most recently).

I also remember the very first time I was ever on the World Wide Web—which, it should be said, was while I was attending a blissfully air-conditioned computer camp.

In many ways, my understanding of self is an understanding of my self online.

The internet has been my mirror, my friend, and my mentor.

The cursor blinked where her mind was.

— Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This

Lately, it seems that (mostly straight & white) women-of-a-certain-age (ahem, my age) have taken to interrogating our experience of the internet and how it shapes our understanding of self. And I am here for it.

This conversation between Anne Helen Petersen and Patricia Lockwood was entertaining, familiar, and satisfying.

These conversations acknowledge all of the incredible things that the internet has given us. And they also recognize all of how the internet has twisted and obscured our understanding of who we are.

With few exceptions, the women broadcasting this personal reflection (because how else would we do it?) also acknowledge that we’ll continue to use the internet. Though, maybe we’ll use it in slightly different or more creative ways—despite how it both masks reality and makes reality despairingly hard to ignore.

One way the internet has distended our sense of self—even reshaped our sense of self in its image—is through the personal brand.

My personal brand is a way of externalizing what I believe makes me worthy of others’ attention.

Putting my best foot forward isn’t a problem in and of itself, of course. But it becomes a problem when I start to see the only valuable parts of me as those that can be traded on the open market.

If I know myself by who I am online, and who I am online is a brand, then my sense of self has been commercialized and capitalized.

I am the means of my own production.

My job—and I’m the only one who can do it—is to manufacture on-brand digital widgets that allow others to consume me™️.

Personal branding is often sold as a way to turn who you are into a valuable asset that you can possess and leverage. But the truth is that personal branding is labor.

It can feel like less work for me to run a half marathon than to perform my personal brand at a conference.

Of course, I am not trying to detract from the difficulty of other forms of labor. The labor I have done and continue to do is the height of privilege. But because it’s so easy to write off the labor of emotion, performance, and thought, I think it’s important to label this work clearly.

Work is such a big part of our identities now that we also need to reckon with how the work of performing our identities actually impacts our identities.

So what does it mean to perform the labor of personal branding?

The number one rule of branding is consistency.

Building a brand means crafting an image with a singular focus.

Building a brand means performing that focus in attractive and predictable ways.

When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to “be yourself,” what it really means is “be more yourself,” where “yourself” is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact, I don’t know what a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgments: “I like this” and “I don’t like this,” with little room for ambiguity or contradiction.

— Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing

We feel the need to focus, flatten, and optimize even more when we attempt to take our personal brand and grow its audience. As much as we like to say that we prefer to follow “authentic” lives in our feeds, our idea of “authentic” has become pretty uninspired and bland.

And even when “authentic” includes the admission of dealing with a mental health issue or a family struggle, it can feel either—in reality, or in perception—like another version of producing the brand.

The more your audience and platform grow, the more it feels like you’re required to live up to the “promises” you made about what you’d be interested in, how you’d show up, and what you’d share.

On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.

Jia TolentinoTrick Mirror

Authenticity can be work, too.

It’s tempting to think that, even if we have to show up in this kind of flattened way, at least we get to choose how we show up. We get to decide how we present our identity online.

But not if we’re looking for attention. Not if we’re aiming for credibility. Not if we’re trying to prove ourselves to potential clients, customers, or even employers.

The choice was made for us: by the algorithm, by the prevailing aesthetic of the day, by the status markers that society deems “professional” or “attractive.”

And those status markers are coded white, male, and wealthy. If you can’t be white, well, you’ve got to conform to whiteness. If you can’t be male, well, you’ve got to be beautiful or fabulous. If you can’t be wealthy, well, you’ve got to perform as if you are.

Have I just described your Instagram feed?

Beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.

— Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick

So what is an Elder Millennial to do? What is any of us to do?

We could opt out, sure. Some people do.

But I do legitimately love the internet—even when it’s just not very good for me.

I wouldn’t be [gestures wildly] here without it. And I don’t just mean that I wouldn’t have a platform or a business. I mean that there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have been exposed to the kinds of ideas that inspire me to write a post like this in the first place.

There’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here at all.

So, no. I’m not okay with giving this up.

I think the best I can do for now is to change my relationship with my identity online.

I can stop trying to play myself in the web series version of my life.

I can stop fixing my hair or looking for spinach in my teeth in the internet mirror.

I can stop using the internet to signal Who I Am (and Why You Should Care).

And I can stop using the internet echo chamber as a primary input for my brain.

What does that all mean for my “personal brand?”

For me, it’s a separation of identity and ideas. I am no longer interested in performing the labor of my identity for the sake of capitalism.

I’m not interested in noticing the moments in my day that I can document and share to signal Who I Am and Why I’m Someone To Follow.

But I continue to love the work of sharing my ideas and inviting others into a conversation so we can all learn.

For me, the last 5 years have been a slow unraveling of my identity online—a process of finding a more sustainable and satisfying way to engage with the media I love so much.

In the last 5 months or so, I feel like that process has really come to fruition. That’s not to say that I’m not still learning and adapting. But, for the first time in a very long time, I feel at peace with how I’m showing up online and laboring in my own way.

I’m finding a ton of satisfaction and pleasure in taking the time to write and explore ideas through different lenses in spaces like this one.

I’m no longer trying to game the personal brand online system. Because I know that, even if I succeed, I’m still playing by its rules.

Lest I leave you thinking that I believe that cultivating a personal brand is “bad,” I do not. But I do think that the process and performance of personal branding need to be examined and re-examined for that work to do the least harm to ourselves and others as possible.

It’s not a matter of only questioning how much time we spend on social media or who we’re comparing ourselves to. It’s a matter of examining how the way we show up online impacts our fundamental understanding of who we are and why we’re worthy.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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