2015 has been the year of people (Me.) exploring the line between personal identity and brand identity. So many people I know and see online are very much involved with a “personal brand,” an aesthetic or look that separates them from others online. It’s impressive to see someone turn herself or himself into something bigger than one thing. As Jay-Z says, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
And what is wrong with that? Nothing, really…until you realize that are treating yourself like a corporation and not a person—and that’s a little gross. All these thoughts got kicked up thanks to an article written by one of my gay demigods, Bret Easton Ellis. The story popped up on Times this week and is all about the cult of Likability. He reflects on a brand like Facebook training us to show off things that we Like, to curate, and to fall in line to be nice, simple people who can only say yes.
Before he gets to this main thesis of ratings and being rated, he gets at this idea of personal brand as it relates to being mini-corporations—and it’s a little unsettling.
The idea that everybody thinks they’re specialists with voices that deserve to be heard has actually made everyone’s voice less meaningful. All we’re doing is setting ourselves up to be sold to — to be branded, targeted and data-mined. But this is the logical endgame of the democratization of culture and the dreaded cult of inclusivity, which insists that all of us must exist under the same umbrella of corporate regulation — a mandate that dictates how we should express ourselves and behave.
Yeesh. That’s a bummer to think about. He doesn’t stop there either: he dives into how specifically Facebook and our use of it makes us all safe and complicit in brand whoring, the danger being that we’re all corralled into a sheep herd of voiceless voices with targets on our backs.
Facebook encouraged users to “like” things, and because it was a platform where many people branded themselves on the social Web for the first time, the impulse was to follow the Facebook dictum and present an idealized portrait of their lives — a nicer, friendlier, duller self. And it was this burgeoning of the likability cult and the dreaded notion of “relatability” that ultimately reduced everyone to a kind of neutered clockwork orange, enslaved to the corporate status quo.
This all gets at the performance of self. I remember years ago, when social media was yielding the personal identity, I had deep discussions spun off from my degree in Performance Studies on how people perform themselves online. What does it mean when you post a selfie? Who are you performing? Is it yourself or someone else? What is the motivation behind the act? Are they genuine or are they not? Are you assuming a character? Is this character a personal brand?
It’s obviously a tricky situation. Corporate brands are sadly the only way that we can express ourselves and, when it comes to living online, few of us can escape. Think about it this way: don’t fall into the trappings of online constructions. Go against that grain, give your opinion, and don’t feel like you have to Like everything. You can nod your head in person instead of following the pack into the Likes, into the same glazed smile everyone else has when looking at their screen.
“There are limits to showcasing our most flattering assets,” Ellis closed the piece with. “Because no matter how genuine and authentic we think we are, we’re still just manufacturing a construct, no matter how accurate it may be.” It’s all a performance, whether we like it or not. Because we live in a world of entertainment, performances are something to be sold—and you don’t always end up on the winning side of that transaction.