was it you or your avatar?

having a drink with a friend yesterday we discussed the phenomenon of the ‘personal brand‘.  she’d recently done some research with 20-somethings, discussing the nature of brands, and how they saw themselves in relationship to them.  she told me something that both repulsed me and that i felt a strange kinship for: the struggle these 20-somethings have with managing their own personal brands, with the simple decision of whether to become a brand themselves, how to go about it, and what kind of brand to become.

some were abandoning their careers because they were so repulsed at the prospect of becoming a brand. others were making distinctions between their brands and themselves – they were adopting avatars for their careers, and trying to maintain their personhood in their private moments.  the question is, in some respects, about discipline and will – can you be Lady Gaga, who is always Gaga? or would you prefer to sometimes be Beyonce and sometimes be (the now deceased) Sasha Fierce?

this all made me think again about what i saw and experienced at ROFLcon. there were people there who collect memes, who comment on memes, who observe memes, who monetize memes, who make memes.  and there were people there who try to be memes.  i wondered about how hard or easy that must be, how weird it has to be – to see yourself as a unified product/story/brand rather than as this incredibly messy person that most of us really are.

the mode of communication we choose, i notice, often encourages us to express ourselves in different ways.  a public speaking engagement calls for a different approach than a quick text message. a conversation with your best friend is different than a blog post.  or at least, maybe it should be.

but when we think people are brands, we expect there to be some consistency across all these channels – that who you seem to be on Twitter is the same as who you are over a beer at Tom & Jerry’s (sorry, I’m sitting here writing a blog post right now and that seems, well, fitting.)  there’s some growing evidence that confirms that who you are online is not necessarily who you are in, ahem, IRL.

for me, there’s some cognitive dissonance – i am blogging and tweeting my blog posts; i have guestblogged; i’ve been attending conferences and commenting on friend’s posts.  i’m engaged in that thing that clay shirky said women are supposed to do – self-promotion.  but when you put yourself out there, people forget that who you are in public and who you are in private are not the same, and sometimes they take advantage of that. sometimes they think, hey you’re out there, you’re sharing your ideas and your location and your favorites and your pictures and your friends and your meals… you won’t mind if we share some stuff on your behalf, right?

by turning ourselves into transmissions of images and data, maybe we’re risking a violation of our personal copyright – of a mashup of ideas, stories, traits, experiences that others find amusing or edifying, but to us feels like an appropriation of our own personal histories. you can actually buy a book that may or may not have anything accurate to say about a chunk of my life in college that is so fraught i’d like to just blow it up and start over.

as in that instance, in the rest of our online lives, there is nothing to stop some ‘editor’ from choosing the stories he likes, that he think tells the story, combine that with snippets from your digital presence and that late night tweet, or a slightly drunken & pissed off rant over googletalk, and next thing you know, you look like a real asshole.  it’s kinda your fault for publishing your thoughts and feelings; but i wonder if we’re not all entering an era of assuming the risk – you’re online, i’m online, but that’s only one very small part of the story. for the real truth, you’ll have to peel back some layers, make an investment, get behind or underneath the avatar.

but for that you need trust. and while transparency is in surplus, these days it’s trust that is in short supply.

Posted by Farrah Bostic via email from reminds me of robots

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