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Personal branding is ruining the web

Back in 1997, Tom Peters wrote what is now considered a classic manifesto about how branding is no longer limited to companies. It's as depressing as it sounds.

"You’re branded, branded, branded, branded.

It’s time for me — and you — to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work.

Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You."

Skip forward to today, and personal branding has become the subtext of all social networking. Social media has led to the collapse of all of our roles into a single public-facing persona, while content consumption has crumbled into a single undifferentiated timeline.

It was inevitable that this would happen -- platforms rely heavily on advertising revenue, and collapsing user identities seems like the most efficient way for algorithms to categorize them. But it’s hardly surprising that this era of non-stop performing and sharing our highlight reels has made us so self-absorbed. Whoever shouts the most controversial opinion the loudest, wins. Just look at Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

Jia Tolentino says it best in her book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion:

“As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence. And, because the internet’s central platforms are built around personal profiles, it can seem—first at a mechanical level, and later on as an encoded instinct—like the main purpose of this communication is to make yourself look good."

But it wasn’t so long ago when flashing banners, anonymous chat rooms, and clunky games still dominated the web. Pseudonyms, or ‘usernames’, were common. Nobody knew who we were behind the screen -- and that made us feel safe. A username was akin to a digital mask that allowed us to explore a new identity and push the boundaries between our private and public selves -- and our personal and professional selves. It allowed us to take more risks, ask stupid questions, and share ideas that could be perceived as controversial. We could learn about who we were becoming by the people we connected with and the replies we received.

But the idea of having ‘separated identities’ started to slip away when an increasing number of people -- many of them set to gain from for-profit data-gathering -- began demanding that people used their real name on platforms. The excuse was that this would make the internet a more civil place, but it just ended up causing more discrimination and harassment, and dragged online harassment out into the real world.

It’s natural for us to feel less free to express ourselves when everything we say will be broadcasted to everyone we know -- especially if there's a risk that our livelihoods could be on the line. Last month, U.K. Labour Minister Rebecca Long-Bailey retweeted an article that featured an interview with actress Maxine Peak, in which Peak told the Independent: "The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd's neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services." Long-Bailey was subsequently fired by Labour Party leader, Kier Starmer, after being accused of sharing an “anti-semitic conspiracy theory”.

To reiterate, Long-Bailey didn't even write the article that led to her losing her job -- she shared it. And Twitter's announcement in June that it would start prompting users to actually read articles before sharing them suggests she's just one of many users who blindly shares things without actually reading them. In fact, it’s totally possible to develop an online persona by simply republishing content from others. You don't need to create a single piece of original content. We are rewarded for performative action, which encourages us to prioritize expressing the right thoughts over taking the right actions. After all, actually helping people is less visible than railing against Wrongthinkers.

And while we act differently around different people in real life, posting stuff that doesn’t fit in with the rest of our content online can make us worry that we are deviating from our social media ‘brands’. We are now encouraged to post everything under a single, one-dimensional online persona. Society does not reward polymaths -- and neither does social media.

But there are signs that we’re going full-circle. I wrote last week about the return of the slow web that has been brought on by people getting tired of algorithmically-curated news feeds. TikTok became the most fastest-growing app in the world largely because it encourages people to be creative, and connects users with people that they wouldn’t typically follow. Even those with the smallest followings can become online celebrities overnight. Imagine how much creativity would be stifled if people lost their anonymity and were forced to post under their real names.

The internet used to be a place where creativity bloomed. But over the past few years, it has been consistently designed to suit brands -- and humans aren’t supposed to act like brands.

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