Audiences have a parasocial relationships with content creators. This means that they feel like they know the person whose work they enjoy. Now, some of my readers do in fact know me but still, there’s ‘atypical perspectives’ – the blogger who makes commentary and autism theory, and then there’s the person who writes. I try and be an open book on here, but factors like the confidence with which I write, the attitude and humour I inject into my blog posts, and even my style of writing, paint an image of myself that may or may not be consistent with who I am in real life.
I bring this up because on the back of this realization that the way people see you online can be different from who you actually are, has arisen a new cultural phenomenon: ‘selling your personal brand’. This dosent refer specifically to owning the rights to a brand name and selling that to people (hey, the word ‘atypical’ is obviously meant to hook people in). No, the term refers to you personally being a brand, or at least treating yourself like one. At university I was told exactly this: use your social media presence and networking skills to project an image of yourself!
I talked to a few different people from a few different perspectives in forming this blog post and determined that how you use the term ‘brand’ is of immense importance in forming your opinion on this. Looking at my social media and this blog, you could gauge that my experience with autism is my ‘brand’ and the way I project my autism to people in order to help people make sense of thier own feelings towards themselves, determines how I’m seen within a wider ecosystem of information about autism. For some people thier brand might be dealing with grief, or sexuality, or mental health. If you put information out into the world about anything, your work will resonate with some people more than others, you’ll be entering into a parasocial relationship of trust with your readers, and rightly or wrongly, risk being judged against the standards of those making similar content.
As much as having a ‘brand’ can be good, its the idea of thinking of yourself in that way which irks me. Heinz are a brand! Sony are a brand! The idea that people can package themselves like a can of baked beans is worth calling into question. One aspect of brands is that they are easy to understand, while humans are not. In my last blog I talked about ‘masking’ – the process by which people hide behind a façade of normalcy, and as an autisitc person I find that kind of ‘brand management’ really draining. I’m very lucky that I work and socialize in environments that appreciate my social awkwardness. True, some social settings may want you to retain an air of expertise and casual arrogance but that’s never been my approach. Mine has always been to say ‘I’m not an expert, so what can I learn?’.
I don’t like the term ‘brand’ as applied to people. The term dosent acknowledge that we each have a voice which can be contradictory, complex, often wrong. Encouraging someone to brand themselves removes the nuances and weaknesses which make us human. But hey, anti-branding is also marketable!
Part of the reason this subject is contentious is the changing meaning of the word ‘brand’. The word is derived from the word firebrand – a burning piece of wood, which in itself comes from the old German word brinnan. Torches and later branding irons have been historically used to mark items like pottery, and to permanently burn identifying marks into the skin of slaves. Those marks then came to be closely associated with certain craftsmen. Since then the word has become associated with aspects like the personality, and what attributes companies or individuals want people to think about when they see thier brand. Still, its interesting to think on the original meaning of the term.
The same applies to the word ‘atypical’. If someone’s been reading my blog and then they hear something strange or out of the ordinary being described as ‘atypical’ does that mean that I’ve trademarked the word in thier mind? (that might be wishful thinking, considering people who read my blog sometimes think of the sitcom of a similar name).
Still, competitions over how others see you have spawned an entire industry. In 1997, ‘fast company’ published an article titled ‘The Brand Called YOU’ where they argued that everybody should treat themselves like celebrities or politicians. This of course relies on the very individualistic idea that everybody should strive to achieve success and that this can only be done as an individual. Indeed, its arguable that the idea of personal branding rears its often ugly head in societies where jobs within established sectors are limited, and where theres a ‘gig economy’ whereby individuals compete for work using thier digital profiles.
In uni we were frequently given the task of describing ourselves using three words which our lecturers would then asses for accuracy and effectiveness. Terms that got passed back and forth in these sessions were ‘headstrong’, ‘determined’ and ‘confident’. We were encouraged to ruthlessly promote our media skills and social networks. In fact, while I realised that these are much needed abilities for any media professional, I never understood why understanding our vulnerabilities and a trial and error approach to failing wasn’t given equal attention.
The problem with restlessly promoting a personal, tailor made image of yourself is that you get put under immense pressure to live up to that image. I was quite conscious through higher education that I was not good enough at socializing. I would spend my free time worrying that I wasn’t at the right networking events, or using twitter enough. I can’t speak for my fellow students but as an autistic person, this stuff really worried me.
“When people are trying to create a personal brand they must be always on. This introduces a new way of constantly policing yourself. It forces you to be far more instrumental about your personal life, seeing yourself as perpetually performing for a business-driven gaze”Ilana Gershon, author of Down and Out in the New Economy
This might mean updating feeds several times a day with carefully curated content, palatable to the people you want to socialize or work with. Competition is also biased by the fact that some people can get professional help from ‘image tailoring’ companies, or buy artificial Facebook likes, Instagram followers and other metrics of ‘success’.
I want to take a step back for a second and look at this idea of selling your positive attributes, which we’ve all done either through job applications or socializing apps etc. In this case, someone could argue that its not about fakery or projecting an image, its about asking ‘what brand am I already?’. This can be useful advice in some circumstances. For instance if people are going to make assumptions about you based on what you say and do, why not work on being warm and friendly, and projecting your best qualities. Hell, I’m quite keen on avoiding using language which is offensive and outdated, and dosent that have a strong ‘branding effect’ where people see you in a certain way because of the language you use?
All that is all well and good, and there is a case to be made for a sort of self-affirming personal branding whereby your kind to yourself by acknowledging your positive side and acting on that. But what about cases where the version of ‘you’ that people see out in the open is different from who you really are, for reasons outside of your control? If you have ever experienced any form of ‘imposter syndrome’ – the process by which someone feels like they are putting on a façade to a judgmental world – then you’ll know what I mean.
I want to make absolutely clear before we go any further that for some – whether as a tool for dealing with mental health struggles, or otherwise – running a blog or a channel and treating your that as your ‘brand’, can be a great outlet for expression. I know that talking about my autism through this blog has been a blessing, allowing me to articulate my thoughts in ways I couldn’t over casual conversation. Indeed, while I personally prefer to avoid using the consumerist language of ‘brands’ and ‘labels’ to describe what I do, others might have a different set of sensibilities.
That said, many spend thier lives having to project images of themselves, which act like masks on who they really are. I’ve already done a blog about autistic camouflage but I can assure you that trying to tailor a brand for yourself is a different experience if your already pretending to be ‘normal’ most of the time. What about if your on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and afraid to come out for fear of ridicule from your peers? is that not playing a role in order to be accepted? If your someone who comes from another country you might find yourself constricted by cultural barriers that you struggle to professionally navigate. This is why I tend to skew towards seeing ‘personal brands’ as manufactured personas. While some may be able to be themselves and treat that as thier brand, how easily could you do that if you constantly felt the need to hide your authentic self ? The biggest problem with the idea of ‘selling yourself’ is that it assumes that everybody starts from the same place of privelege and ease, even while some have thier humanity called into question. If we’re talking about retaining an image, what about those who go about thier routines, establish relationships and careers despite the constant possibility of being discriminated against or harassed on the basis of sex, skin colour or disability?
All this presents some very serious concerns about how we approach personal brands, as a concept. For clarity, I’m not saying that we should trash the idea completely, especially if its one that helps some. That said, I do think we need to consider what we’re asking when we tell people to brand themselves, and listen to those who experience thier personhood differently. One reason I don’t like the terminology is that describing people as brands seems to treat them as resources or capital. The question we should be asking when we encourage people to reshape or market themselves is ‘are we encouraging expression or exploitation?’
An Atypical Perspective…
Our media and means of expression should value peoples identities: With complete honesty, this is something popular media has always been historically bad at. In a sense, performance culture – that is to say one which encourages people to live up to artificial standards of ‘what you need to do to succeed’ – can be traced back to the way advertisers portray bodies, relationships careers etc. However, not only does this set ridiculous standards, but it devalues the experiences of people in marginalized groups who spend thier lives attempting to meet an expectation, or ‘masking’ part of thier identity. I’m not certain that ‘selling your brand’ encourages individuality, and think more thought can be given to how we stop the trend from being exploitative.
Self esteem and mental health are vital: While having an outlet to express oneself can be good for ones mental health, by asking people to develop a ‘personal brand’ we risk burdening them with a lack of self esteem where they worry constantly about how they are perceived by some abstract image of ‘professionals’ or ‘popular groups’. I feel this risks creating a culture where we believe that its for people in positions of authority to judge you rather than the other way around. Whatsmore, no institution or way of ‘selling yourself’ should work to the detriment of your mental health.
Self expression is generally positive: Insofar as a ‘personal brand’ provides opportunities for self expression and openness it can be seen as a useful tool. Issue being, do we choose to view these means of expression as a consumer product? We’ve seen through some films and music how introducing market logic into creativity can result in generic output or at least put the pursuit of creativity and honesty second to reaching an artificial standard of clicks and sales. One of the most important questions to ask with treating creative work or people as brands is ‘does this unleash or stifle freedom of expression?’. I fear that if I tried to answer that question on my own, I’d be employing my own ideology too much, so I’ll leave the answer to the perspectives of my readers.