Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity

Twitter   tom_peters   Brand you  is a big  duh   ...When I read this, I laughed. It rings true. I retweeted it because I wanted to put my stamp of approval on the idea. One thing that I love about about Twitter (and other forms of social media) is that you can affirm your own values and intuitions by affirming someone else’s. This is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. It enables us to speak in other voices and say things that we agree with but might not have the courage, art, or nous to say for ourselves. It also enables us to speak without thinking too much, which is the bad thing. It is easy to get caught up in the process of RTing and sharing and wind up ‘passing the word along’ and not saying very much.

Tom’s tweet got me thinking about personal authenticity online. It is not easy being authentic on social media. If the philosophers are right, it not easy being authentic anywhere.

The tweet resonated with me for a bunch of reasons. I am currently working into a book some of the material that I’ve posted recently on this blog, namely the posts on Foucault and the ones on social media as gift culture. In the course of this work, I’ve come to see that the perspective on online identity-formation (or ‘creative self-affirmation‘) that I developed in these posts is too cursory and glib. It needs specification, at least. Creative self-affirmation is not spin. It is not the kind of shallow self-branding that Peters (who knows more about branding than most) is aiming to contest. What I call creative self-affirmation is a matter of affirming your unique, personal value. Peters is right: the key to self-branding online is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world – to become something and brand that. All the online self-affirmation in the world – through tweeting, posting, pinning, +1ing, following, liking, favoriting, and sharing – won’t make you worthy of branding unless you are someone of worth. So be the best version of who you are. We all have our superpowers – what are yours?

I plan to blog on social media and personal authenticity in the coming weeks, drawing on something that I think I’m good at – philosophy. Authenticity is a core feature of Existentialist thought, particularly the work on one of my favorite philosophers, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s views on authenticity in Being and Time (1927) were a touchstone for a generation of Existentialist philosophers. Heidegger argues that social life is a creation of discourse, and discourse is a matter of ‘passing the word along’. To achieve personal authenticity, we must access our personal Dasein (literally: ‘there-/here-being’), and express the truth of Dasein in a tangible way.

Heidegger’s views translate directly to life online. This is interesting given the critical perspective that Heidegger takes on cybernetic technology and its diminishment of language in his later work. But I’ll leave these considerations for my post.

Another body of work that’s relevant here is Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s work on the multitude. I read Hardt and Negri’s bestseller Empire in 2002 and it excited me. I liked their take on Spinoza’s multitude because it seemed to capture something vital about how the internet was creating new social movements, extensive democracy and a commons mentality. It annoyed me that Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009), the books that followed Empire, didn’t talk about social media. Multitude, perhaps, can be excused. But I almost fell off my chair, in 2010, when I opened Commonwealth and discovered that ‘social media’ didn’t warrant a place in the index.

Bummer, I thought. This realm of theory had a lot of potential. Maybe Hardt and Negri missed the boat. Maybe they’re just too old.

Happily, my judgement was premature (sorry guys!). Hardt and Negri’s latest work together, the forceful Declaration on Occupy and the Arab Spring (2010), does talk about social media. Indeed, Hardt and Negri offer a critical view that is worth thinking about. While acknowledging the important role of social media in 2011’s season of social unrest, Hardt and Negri argue that we must resist becoming ‘mediatized’ by our smartphones and tablets, and drawn into the process of blithely sharing and RTing such that we come brainless prosumers, passing the word along.

Sound familiar? Hardt and Negri offer a Heideggerian take on personal authenticity online. To flesh this point out, I will write about Hardt and Negri after Heidegger. Once we’ve explored Heidegger’s view of authenticity, we’ll see how we can discern a similar view in Hardt and Negri.

What might a German philosopher, a radical Italian leftist, and an US management guru have in common? Heidegger, Hardt and Negri, and Peters have a similar take on social authenticity.


Stay tuned for posts two and three in this series:

Be human: Heidegger and online authenticity

The singularity: Hardt and Negri on swarms and social media


  1. Very interesting. I am still bothered by the ideas of “brand” and “branding”. It’s cheap talk. Nevertheless, it does captors an essence that immediately gets to the point.

  2. chaselisabeth says:

    Great post! I think that it is important and often difficult for people to remain authentic and promote their “super power”. You don’t simply want to brand yourself in the market as someone, but rather be that one person that is obviously capable of offering value.

    • Good point. To simply sing one’s praises is egoism. Instead, we need to express our unique capacity to contribute. What I find objectionable about a lot of branding on social media (this probably pertains more to brands marketing themselves than to self-branding per se, but the point is relevant nonetheless) is that it come across as an interjection rather than a contribution, as if posting or tweeting were simply an opportunity to add one’s voice (‘it’s my turn to speak!’), rather than an opportunity to begin conversations, listen and respond. It comes down to attitude, in the end. Instead of trying to promote ourselves, we should try to engage the crowd with our contributions. Our superpowers are personal gifts that we offer in the hope of contributing somehow: ‘here I am, this is what I offer, I trust that you find value in it’.

  3. Just wanted to say I’m really enjoying these media related posts. I’m really looking forward to reading the Hardt and Negri piece that you linked to!

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