Social Media, “Personal Branding,” & Millennials

3 Jan

I got a Facebook account in 2007, when I was 16. I never had a MySpace, so this was my first foray in social media, and it was still mostly made up of high school and college students.

Sure, people shared primarily the highlights of their life, not the rough stuff, but it was kind of … raw. Then, the power of this thing, its ability to keep you connected to everyone you’ve ever known, caught on and everyone joined. With that kind of buy-in, the whole idea of an online social “hangout space” was destined to change.

Fairly quickly, there were pages for celebrities. You could “like” them, and then as you scrolled through the updates from your real friends, you would see updates from Beyoncé or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Companies dropped in, so you’d see updates from Target or Amazon or that quirky coffee shop around the corner.

There was also the rise of the “like.” A little thumbs up from one of your friends to say they liked what you were up to – that they liked you. I know I’ve been pretty stoked to post something that gets a lot of attention (even though I know that half the reason it does is because once a few people like it Facebook’s algorithms decide it’s something people are interested in and push it to the top of their screens where they’re more likely to like it too).

We thrive off the attention. We want more attention, because we want to be validated, we want to matter. I blog because I want people to care about what I have to say. There’s a careful line to walk, though, between posting something because you think it’s interesting and will interest/entertain/help others and just because you want everyone to a) know that you did something awesome and b) validate that it is indeed awesome, and by extension, so are you. I’m guilty of it all the time.

Those pages for celebrities were and are curated. Beyoncé (or her social media person) isn’t going to post about a gnarly car crash her limo just drove past on the freeway. That wouldn’t fit the brand, and we would be confused.

A thousand steps down from Beyoncé, though, are aspiring YouTube stars, and authors, and college grads who just want a decent job. They’re encouraged, in every instructional article, to “consider your personal brand.”

A personal brand?? Is just being a person not enough, now we have to be a brand too?

The idea is that there ought to be something that people mentally link us to immediately. When you think Joe Schmo, you think Hilarious Standup Bits About Plumbing. That is all Joe Schmo is known for, because it’s too confusing to have a brand be too many things (just like Beyoncé can’t be both an international superstar and a Beverly Hills traffic report). But of course, we all have more than that to us. You may be an engineer, a parent, a closet One Direction fan, a home-brewer and a motorcycle fanatic. The personal-branding folks would tell you to pare that down, and make sure your social media reflected only one of those aspects of you.

Most of the time, for people seeking employment in Corporate America, this means your social media presence should be very professional, consisting of you sharing articles relevant to your field with thoughtful comments and maybe a few photos of your family.

That is not my social media.

There are pictures that were taken at teenage sleepovers (with pajamas and terrible hair and definitely not looking professional) and “interesting things about me” notes (what? millennials? narcissistic? noooooo) written in high school.

More interesting, though, are the profiles of the people I’ve known since back then who are pretty successful now. For the most part, they have that same awkward past memorialized on the internet as I do. If someone meets them in their new impressive-real-adult status, they can still scroll into the past and see the confused teenager that used to exist, maybe see their metamorphosis through different hobbies and interests. See them as a person, I suppose.

Today’s small children will have their entire lives recorded online. If Facebook ceases to exist, some new entity will take its place. When they apply for college, for their first job, or run for President, it probably won’t be too hard to scroll back in time to their preschool graduation, or terrible tween fashion choices, or the obsession they had with birdwatching for two years. I hope we can reach a point, as a society, where these things won’t doom them to be considered unprofessional or irresponsible. These pictures and words that used to be hidden in photo albums and diaries in our parents’ basement are now out in the world. That’s awkward and weird, but not necessarily bad.

Your personal brand is you and all the weirdness that entails. Let’s not turn into robots just yet.

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