IT'S TIME WE START PERSONAL "DE-BRANDING"
Feature photo by CALVIN LEE
Selfhood may be a process but there’s also some truth in it being a product, and mine has always been for sale.
During my Introduction to Psychology class a couple semesters ago, we had to keep a journal and, for our final, comb its entries for behavioral patterns. It wasn’t exactly an exercise in psychoanalysis—we were only a year into a behavioral sciences degree, after all—but in self-awareness, in emotional intelligence. For me, it was yet another platform for self-presentation; I was self-aware alright, but more in terms of how I was perceived by others rather than actually knowing myself. “I’m reading what I’m writing here and I hate how I sound when I know other people will be reading this,” I wrote in the first entry, which I did in bullet points, almost like a Twitter thread. “Like, I do that thing where I subtly brag and I hate it I don’t know how anyone can read whatever I write without rolling their eyes.” But this journal was not meant to be read by anyone but me—my professor had been adamant on keeping it private, responding to emails again and again that we need not submit our actual entries—I had just assumed someone, anyone, would waltz in on my dorm room while the Google Docs was wide open for everyone to see. So in case of that emergency, my journal entries had to be ready: embellished, reading like a portfolio more than one’s honest self-vomit, and dashed with funny yet humbling self-deprecation. Just the way I want to be seen.
Personal branding was first coined by management expert Tom Peters in his 1997 essay “The Brand Called You.” While increased website traffic and email clicks were his main selling points back then, the increasing ubiquity of social media by the turn of the century proved his insights were ahead of its time. It has now spawned an entire industry, with its own coaches, classes, and copious amounts of literature, all about you, you, you.
But the self-presentation at the center of personal branding has existed long before Peters. Sociology defines the self as a process, not a product; something that cannot exist without other people. We discover who we are the more we participate in society. As early as 1956, social interaction had been compared to theater plays—Erving Goffman, in his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, asserted that we perform different selves using words, clothing, and actions depending on our audience; whether it’s a roomful of inebriated college students one Friday night or just your mom across from you at the dinner table. I, for sure, would not be drunkenly “Woo!”-ing at my poor mother as she serves me steamed rice and chicken adobo, nor would I tell a hammered classmate across the bar about my day at school. Ultimately, the malleability of identity is not a new idea.
The process of selfhood is wildly distorted by the internet, which, contrary to the “social” nature of social media, is not an interpersonal space; but a collective screaming into the ether.
Of course it would be naive to assume that the personal branding of today is not a completely different beast than the self-cultivation we do in everyday life. The process of selfhood is wildly distorted by the internet, which, contrary to the “social” nature of social media, is not an interpersonal space; but a collective screaming into the ether. Whenever I post on social media, I am talking to everyone and no one. A tweet that said, “Why is posting on Instagram so embarrassing” raked in more than half a million likes because it’s true: it’s incredibly difficult to present just one self to different audiences at the same time. I’d imagine it would be humiliating if my mom saw the drunk self I present to the rest of the student body on weekends. On the internet, I have to be chill enough for my friends but proper enough for my family but cool enough for my co-workers but true to myself enough for strangers—the resulting person is like the lead character in a movie rewritten by ten different screenwriters, and I already failed the auditions.
As a child of the internet, I don’t remember a time before this meddling and peddling of the selves. I spent the greater part of my adolescence attempting small acts of self-preservation: secret stan accounts, finstas, blogspots no one in my offline life knew about. “I’m not comfortable with anyone but myself,” reads a passage in my journal/homework. “It’s really holding me back, how I lose my sense of self the moment another person walks in the room.” The permanence and accessibility of our online profiles were not made for containing our whole selves, so I learned to compartmentalize all the different parts of me. Now I’m starting to have trouble tying all them back together.
In another book also called The Brand Called You, author Peter Montoya warns that whether we like it or not, we have a personal brand, and everything we do either adds to or subtracts from that brand. I've often been advised, especially by people who hear I’m a writer, to brand myself better online; and I’m tempted to heed this because I’m fully aware it’s something that can take me closer to my goals. In the individualistic culture of the internet, personal identities and unique experiences are the weightiest currencies, and many writers believe the best we can offer is the worst that has happened to us. I learn from my blunders and heal from my trauma through essays I submit to dot-coms, because I know that makes for stronger pieces, and a stronger brand. A Venn diagram of my personal life and my online presence is too often a circle.
In an earlier draft of this essay, I proposed a “de-branding” because I wanted my life back, writing, “I want ownership of my feelings, my thoughts; I want them to stay with me and not in a tweet or an email to my editor.” I write a lot of first-person essays, so I find that there’s so much riding on Me, on my capital-S Self—selfhood may be a process but there’s also some truth in it being a product, and mine has always been for sale. I realize I can always draw the line between what I can and cannot write about, but I don’t do it because I know it would not feel as rewarding. Praise for my personal writing (and my personal brand) is praise for my personhood. That is the root of what I want to defy: this capitalist sentiment of equating my worth to the amount of work I do; of wanting to distill individuals to these narrow, easily categorizable “brands” that wrongfully encompasses both my work and who I am—two things that are quickly becoming inseparable, if not the same thing.
In saying “I want my life back,” perhaps I meant I want the life before everything I did or didn’t do inevitably became tied to my “brand.” A time when I didn’t feel pressure to only do things that would build into who I wanted to be, when I didn’t have to incentivize all my little hobbies and experiences, because otherwise they would have been a waste of time. I want boredom, I want mistakes sans the need to defend myself against thousands of strangers. I want time, I want solitude, I want deliverance. I want existence outside of what I would like to be perceived as.
Going against the grain is never an easy task, but I believe power can be found even in the smallest acts of defiance. I’m slowly becoming more mindful of the noise I contribute to already saturated social media platforms. Instead of churning out hot takes as the 24-hour news cycle ticks away, I read and listen, valuing input over output. This is something I’ve learned from other writers and activists; writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe even donated $2 for each tweet he sent, before leaving Twitter altogether.
I want the gray areas—I believe that’s where humanity can be found.
I’m beginning to see myself as merely a small part of a bigger system, and my voice need not be the loudest to matter. This means I’m also more aware of the gravity of what I post, not because it comprises my personal brand but because of what it can possibly fuel: a black-and-white world with a quick attention span and the emotional quotient of a short circuit. I want the gray areas—I believe that’s where humanity can be found.
I’m also realizing that my role as a writer is not to sell my brand or center myself—especially in narratives that don’t involve me—but to shed more light and open up more conversations. As Rebecca Solnit writes in one of her essays from Men Explain Things to Me, “The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that never need end.” If we grant ourselves the freedom to pursue our personal multitudes, then perhaps we won’t be plagued by the world’s resistance to have definitive answers. Maybe I’ll start a new diary, exclusively for me, this time around.