Where Does Personal Brand End and Authenticity Begin?

Are our posts online an authentic reflection of who we are, or a carefully curated performance? Is my conflict over this topic authentic or a calculated move to brand myself as thoughtful and contrarian? When you bring your career into the picture, the performance of social media gets even more nuanced since not only your popularity, but your job prospects and your company’s reputation are also on the line.

I have felt the expectation to develop my own personal brand grow like a slowly encroaching variant of lichen. I believe that by writing this, I have begun to fulfill the expectation and play the game. In this piece, I will explore the extension of professional responsibility into social media, the homogenization of online profiles, and the concept of personal brand as a performance.

The Extension of Professional Life to Social Media

We’ve all heard horror stories about people who have lost their jobs over people’s reactions to their social media posts regardless of their intent. And in a world of public call-outs exposing people’s comments from years gone by, even doing a complete about-face may not make a difference if someone digs up your ugly past.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the expectations for social media to be used as a corporate promotional tool. In some industries and some cultures, people are expected to act as a brand ambassador in their everyday lives, and it is generally accepted that people adhere to certain standards of behavior.

I interned in South Korea one summer and at our orientation, my intern class was given a strict dress code — a uniform of sorts — and it was impressed upon us that our clothes would reflect the reputation and culture of the organization, whether we were in the office or out on our lunch breaks. When I told someone what company I was working for, they commented, “Ah, they’re known for dressing quite well.”

If our manner of speech and clothing can be assigned guidelines to represent our employers, it follows that social media is simply another public sphere in which brands and companies could expect their employees to represent them.

The Homogenization of Online Profiles

Ironically, as we try to differentiate ourselves online, the careful crafting of profiles, descriptions, and content intended to make us stand out ends up making us all look and sound quite similar. At some point, it became the expectation that every CEO, co-founder, and entrepreneur had to be a thought leader, but now, so does every employee. The internet has democratized access to information, but it has also created a content hegemony where one type of content or one type of profile becomes the accepted norm or picture of success and everything starts looking like it.

Just as Instagram perpetuated the “Instagram face” makeup look, LinkedIn perpetuated the sameness of profiles and content, as people tailor their past job descriptions to make them more discoverable by recruiters, and thinkpieces on interview tips proliferate. Once differentiators, these posts are now expected. We’re all supers now (anyone else cautiously THRILLED about The Incredibles 2?).

A company might tell its salespeople to use a sentence in their job description in their title — for example: “Helping companies navigate digital transformation” — as to not sound like a salesperson. This recommendation prompted a former manager to comment, “To me that says, ‘I work in sales.’” As with everything else, innovative practices eventually become mainstream, then common, then trite. And we’re left to paint the wheel a different color or recycle some already-used material or metaphor to build it all over again.

So, where does personal brand end and authenticity begin? It’s a paradox. Personal brand is a performance which is only effective if it is authentic. From a more cynical standpoint, it is a daily form of method acting. From a more optimistic one, it is a way to invent and reinvent yourself online. After all, social media personas can come to inform our real life personalities — though not always in the most healthy or positive way.

People are more aware than ever of the contrived nature of influencer marketing (you can now go to college to become a social media influencer in China), so how do you make sure you don’t come across as inauthentic or appear to be virtue signaling?

The challenge is to be sincere in spite of the myriad ways statements can be read and interpreted. Think of how self-care posts and the way people read and react to them have evolved. In some contexts, earnest and passionate comments can be interpreted as facetious or shallow.

It can be challenging to be sincere when you’ve spent your formative years doing your best to stay anonymous on the internet. It has only been in recent years that I freely shared my instagram account. Sometimes I still feel like the mere act of having a social media presence makes me a social media/social capital sellout — and information about me is being sold to advertisers so I am taking part in this wild new ecosystem — but maybe it’s okay to have the option of joining in conversations or sharing articles and ideas with people. I’ll keep thinking about it that way.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Part of me feels like participating in social media means I am playing some stupid game. But maybe it doesn’t have to be a game if I don’t approach it as one. Since I’m not trying to make a career out of my social media presence, there is no bottom line to uphold or readership I need to optimize.
  • So is it only as long as money and fame are not involved that I can be sincere?
  • I feel that this is an internal struggle most of my peers have settled long ago. People have come to conclusions that social media is a useful tool, and it doesn’t have to own you. I still don’t understand how I’m supposed to act on social media. This is why I have a Twitter account I’ve been posting to for months and only four real followers.
  • Depending on what corner of the internet you inhabit, the majority of the content may consist of nonsensical shitposts about capitalism and memes about wanting to die. How do you go from this to the perfect LinkedIn post without losing a bit of your soul in between?
  • Thank you, Michelle, Shana, and Steph, for reading this and being candid in your comments.