FEATURE – The Problem with Personal Branding: Public Shaming and Identity in the Modern Internet Era

We’ve all heard the criticisms of our obsession with social media for years. We have our noses in our phones, we’re unaware of the world around us, we’ve become more social online while neglecting actually being social in the world. In a Mashable op-ed published a few days ago, one of the symptoms of this highly connected but personally disengaged modern world was examined quite well.

By now some may of heard of the Adria Richards situation at the Pycon tech conference, which had the internet buzzing last week. I won’t hash out the details, as thorough summaries and analyses of the incident(s) can be found here, on Adria’s own blog, as well as in the Mashable Op-Ed itself.Image

What I want to concentrate on are not the symptoms, but the causes of the incident itself and larger trends going on with a generation used to social networking; and the, I’d argue recent, divergence of social networking and identity.

A Definition of Terms

To borrow the idea of looking at the particular Adria Richards situation through the same lens as the Mashable piece, I think it’s safe to say we’re in an era of ubiquitous public shaming.

From my perspective there are two types of public shaming we see. The voluntary shaming, those that intentionally upload their own thoughts, words, and actions onto the internet, which is then picked up by others and goes viral. Lets call this type I shaming; I like the sound of that. And the second is the type that we see in the Pycon situation, unintentional shaming, where the party that committed a ‘shameful’ act was not privy to their act being made public. Lets call this type II shaming. There is not much of a case to be made for those that engage in the first act; as they are acting entirely on their own accord, making not only the decision to write or record their actions but then uploading it. Any public shaming consequences to their actions is their responsibility to bare. Afterall, publically posting content that you yourself created is tantamount to walking to your local town square, standing on a soapbox with a bullhorn and speaking.

But I do think there is a reasonable argument to be made that not all cases that fall under type II public shaming are made equal; as there is a big difference between being caught saying slavery wasn’t all that bad at CPAC, and making a juvenile joke about dongles. The public shaming of the CPAC participant was clearly warranted; but the public shaming of the Pycon guys was questionable at best. And it’s those questionable type II public shamings that I’m going to concentrate on.

The Problem

Over the past few years social networking has evolved and grown significantly. Users now engage with their networks in different ways that in the past, and there are some benefits and drawbacks to the new use of social media. When social networks and blogging first rolled out with the likes of LiveJournal, Friendster, Myspace, and eventually Facebook, the idea of networking was relegated to a small group of peers. The individual networks were relatively tiny, and internet anonymity ruled the day. Social networks have evolved tremendously since then, but with that evolutionary change has come a revolution in etiquette and privacy – or lacktherof.

Years ago Facebook began rolling out it’s sign-in feature, for use on any website that wanted it. I remember the backlash this idea initially garnered. It was seen as an invasion of privacy via anonymity on the internet. One could, of course, opt out of this; but overtime it’s ubiquity has essentially made it a must-have feature for any website worth its’ salt.

There is currently a clash between the pre ubiquity of the Facebook sign-in and the post-ubiquity of it. It’s a clash between the former anonymity of the internet and the era of post-anonymity we find ourselves in right now. Personally I have one foot still in web 1.0 anonymity and one foot in the modern web – I guess we’re up to 3.0 now?

The problem is that, and what few seem to be acknowledging, this transition from the anonymity of the internet to the current internet is as much a question of identity as it is Twitter handle. Where at one time I felt free to be entirely candid on the web, over the past few years that feeling of freedom has significantly diminished, partly by my own accord and partly because companies like Facebook and Google have been pushing hard the idea of seamlessly melding our internet selves and real-world selves into one identity. This has all been aided by the tremendous growth in both the capability, and use, of smartphones. What’s become apparent though is that instead of melding these two identities, we’re increasingly deciding to create duplicates of ourselves, faux identities to get by in the online world. The internet is becoming not a place of unabashed opinion and realness but a place of exclusively professional etiquette.

Having sanitized versions of ourselves all over the internet can lead us to be holier-than-thou many times. We blast our good deeds and pronounce our outrage over offensive things; but we do this while suppressing our actual feelings, emotions, thoughts, and challenges. Do we really go through life that outraged at the dozens of offensive things we see, or experience, in our everday lives? I submit that we do not. Those questionable type II public shaming incidents I discussed before are what I’m talking about. I’ve certainly heard my fair share of things that made me uncomfortable in my life, especially as a black male. But when I was growing up hearing these things I didn’t have access to the tools of web 3.0 that are so damaging. If I had a problem with something I previously had three options: Confront the person who offended me, ignore the situation, or go to a third party with my gripes. Nowadays there is a fourth option, which is to publicly shame the person that offended us without so much as saying a word to the person ahead of time. I think that’s kind of dangerous.

Branding Ourselves

We, collectively, those of us who use our real identities on the internet, have essentially become the on-camera media. We are mimicking the decorum and professionalism of media personalities on our personal social media profiles, abandoning the idea that the internet is a place to be candid and open. Now I know some may say this is a good thing; but I disagree, I think we’re branding ourselves instead of being ourselves. And there is a fundamental difference between branding and reality. A brand is always perfect, always on, always receptive, always engaged, always positive, always thinking ahead. We, humans, are none of these things. Despite what Citizens United may of said, brands are not human beings. And I am not perfect; and most likely you, dear reader, are not either.

The fact that we are branding ourselves, instead of actually being ourselves is problematic. It leads us to take actions online that we may not take in real life, or in other-ways gloss over the realities of life to fit overarching themes our personal brand represents. Our mundane and imperfect humanness clashes with our exciting and near-perfect brand in this modern age. Our networks are larger, our reach wider, our words a bit more prominent; but we are not paid and professionalized media personalities, we are just people.

I think we’re all guilty of saying the wrong thing a few times in our lives. Barring something egregious most of our mistakes are taken in stride. In the past someone may call us on our offensiveness and we apologize, learn, grow, and adjust. I’ve been called out by someone who didn’t approve of my words before, but they approached me privately. I happily changed my actions and attitude permanently because of that. In the web 3.0 era too often our first reactions are to tweet our outrage, instead of live our outrage. That can’t be healthy.

Don’t be a Bully

A particular tumblr phenomenon that took off a few months ago called Nice Guys of OkCupid, was the catalyst for my interest in this idea of web 3.0 public shaming. The tumblr page and the reactions to it were a case study in the merits and potential dangerousness of public shaming. While some of the things that some of the “nice guys” said on their profiles were truly disturbing, misogynistic, and worthy of contempt; I was equally as disturbed by the public shaming that was going on of these men who clearly had issues and needed some sort of private intervention. – Admittedly, this falls more under the type I public shaming I mentioned before so I won’t spend too much time on it.

The entire internet can gang up on a certain individual or group at any moment. Your face and words can go viral in an instant and you can be harassed, threatened, talked about, and written about by thousands of people. Is this not a form of bullying to some degree? The heavy handed condemnation of this collected group of “nice guys,” across the web was like a combination between rubbernecking after a crash and schoolyard bullying. Is this the degree to which we will publicly shame other human beings? I think this piece in the Atlantic highlighted the problem perhaps more eloquently than I ever could.

….From Here

Given that right now we’re in a transitory state in how we’re interacting with the world, the question is what does the future hold, where do we go from here? I don’t consider myself someone who is prone to overstatements; this is not the end of civilization or civility, and it isn’t a brave new world. This doesn’t mean there is an empathy crisis among young people, or any such nonsense. It’s simply just an evolution in how we look at, and interact with, the world around us. However, I do mourn the loss of candidness and conversation on the internet, for about a dozen years we had something really special.

Finally, I think we’re all used to hearing that every individual isn’t perfect and that we all have our flaws and make mistakes. But while we hear this often, with social media we’re permanently highlighting other peoples’ flaws, while preserving our own “perfection” for our personal brand. While there is not a crisis of empathy, I do wish more people would be more empathetic before publicly shaming others.

What are your thoughts on public shaming and personal branding? Is there an inherent problem with branding ourselves instead of being ourselves? Do you believe that you are your brand and visa versa? Do you think internet shaming is a type of bullying? TYPE your thoughts and SHARE this post.

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10 thoughts on “FEATURE – The Problem with Personal Branding: Public Shaming and Identity in the Modern Internet Era

  1. […] appropriate. That’s not even something we worry about anymore; by now Millennials have this self-branding thing […]

  2. Interesting post! I’ll have to go back and read the articles you sited. One thought I have on branding is that even without the Internet, we are brands of ourselves. Being your absolute truest self is rare; it’s much more common to alter yourself, or your brand, depending on who you’re with. I agree that social media amplifies this and causes people to go even further with projecting their idealized selves, but I’ve almost come to expect that. It’s gone to a point where you expect people to only post their highest accomplishments and grandest adventures. You know that isn’t how their lives are on a day to day basis.

    • Thanks for commenting! That’s a good point, I suppose the lesson of adolescence is that we get a wake up call that in life we can’t always be ourselves. This is definitely true in our everyday lives as well as the internet. It’s sort of part of the social contract to put on a a bit of a face.

      But as you said, the mask is amplified on the internet, and on top of that I think the accountability structures are different in-person vs. on the internet.

      I do think this is a whole area of study for sociologists to look at, I suspect there could be a lot of interesting results.

  3. Yaitza Canterbury says:

    Reblogged this on SocialADAMANTIUM and commented:
    A very well stated argument concerning public shaming and personal branding.

    I agree that we did have something great for a while. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by pretending to be someone we’re not for the sake of our “personal brand.” I think that word, “brand “, is a huge part of the problem. People aren’t brands, they’re people. We aren’t products to be marketed or sold. We think. We feel. We are living, breathing, conscious entities. We have personalities. This thought of “personal branding” dehumanizes us. We should be able to be ourselves at all times … with respect, common sense, and decorum of course. The Corporate Machine has caused us to become surrogates of ourselves.

    Do you agree with the post? Have we lost our real selves in having to keep a squeaky-clean image online?

    Sound off below!

  4. Yaitza Canterbury says:

    Very well said. We did have something great for a while. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by pretending to be someone we’re not for the sake of our “personal brand.” I think that word, “brand “, is a huge part of the problem. People aren’t brands, they’re people. We aren’t products to be marketed or sold. We think. We feel. We are living, breathing, conscious entities. We have personalities. This thought of “personal branding” dehumanizes us. We should be able to be ourselves at all times … with respect, common sense, and decorum of course. The Corporate Machine has caused us to become surrogates of ourselves.

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree that I don’t like some of the implications of having a “personal brand.” But as Chelsea Krost pointed out to me on Twitter, there is something to be said about controlling our likeness. There is an element of power involved in “branding” ourselves. I guess the only problem is when some choose to make their brand different than who they really are.

      It’s sort of like the difference between a celebrity who’s really sweet in public but a diva behind the scenes vs. a celebrity that’s open and honest all the time.

      • Yaitza Canterbury says:

        Of course. Where I see the problem is when the personality you have and the brand you need to project are two different people. Which one do you choose to present to the world? I think the happiest people are those who can be who they are all the time, no compromising. I just don’t see enough compassion and acceptance for doing that.

  5. Rachennial says:

    Interesting thoughts! “but the public shaming of the Pycon guys was questionable at best. . .” Sorry I don’t know the whole background story, but this stood out to me. One deserves public shame, one does not..? Who decides that? If the individual does, than all public shaming should be accepted bar none. Which brings up your point about etiquette. *When* are we free to ‘be honest’ and *when* will that be portrayed as bullying or much needed call-out of bad behavior? How do we write those rules, and preserve candid personal opinion, and guard social tranquility? I do agree though– *civil* *discourse* is supposed to be a trait of Americans, and I’m not sure that it has expanded into cyberspace. Candid + empathetic. That’s the ideal at least.

    • Rachennial says:

      lol i thought the asterisks would bold those words… ignore please. Honest mistake.. get it? candid… k.

    • The question of who decides what constituents “earned” public shaming and what doesn’t is a good question. Afterall, non of us are the arbiter of truth.

      But I think the issue is there are such huge implications for public shaming nowadays that didn’t exist in the past just because of technology. So I think I’m just calling on people to really think about the consequences of their actions perhaps more than they used to.

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