I'm a lot of things: writer and editor, friend and daughter, fiancé and partner, aunt, sister, mummy to a doggie. I am a Brooklynite and a former Buffalonian (and even a Bucknellian, by virtue of where I studied). I am a chef, runner, yogi, reader and lover of cookbooks and travel guides. I am a city person with a deep appreciation for the country. I am an Aquarius. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. One thing I'm not? A brand. Unlike Apple or Jeep or Lagunitas, I am not a product hoping to get bought. Shocking, but I'm not for sale!
I've never been someone to care about what strangers think (we Aquarians pride ourselves on our nonconformist propensities), and yet announcing that I have zero interest in developing my personal brand, as so many experts tell us to do, has always felt a little dangerous. Damaging to my career even. If I don't self-define, self-package, self-promote, am I hurting my chances of success?
Last year, I attended a leadership conference and heard Janet Kestin of the Swim Leadership Program touch on this. I was practically giddy when she said, very matter-of-factly, that she doesn't buy into the much-touted idea that people are brands. I nodded vehemently as I rolled the words around in my head. People are not brands. We're just not.
Eschewing popular thought can be hard to back up. And yet, I look at some of the people I'm connected to, people who've clearly poured blood, sweat and tears into building their brand which, according to an article on Inc. "requires you to find a signature image, a unique voice, and a recognisable standard that your readers, fans and customers can grow to recognise", and I grow increasingly confused. How weird is this desire to have fans just for being a polished-up version of yourself? And to curate them based on the pictures you post and the 160-character bio you conceived?
The more people talk about this, the more I have to ask myself if I'd really rather be known as a consistent entity than as a person, a human being with thoughts, feelings, emotions, witty comebacks and mood-appropriate responses to life's ups and downs. Targeting a specific audience and creating a persona is highly limiting, not to mention, inevitably, boring.
Look, I care about my online presence. Of course I do. I work in digital media, and I'd be a fool not to be invested in what shows up when you (or a hiring manager) searches for me. I have more social media accounts than existed 15 years ago, and I enjoy using them. Like you, I'm pretty much constantly connected. I post links to my writing on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I appreciate it when people like my stuff or take the time to comment.
But none of that makes me into a brand. I have one Instagram account, and it consists mostly of pictures of my dog in awkward positions, scenic shots of places I run to or from and cute selfies of me and my fiancé at baseball games. It's not a thought-out persona crafted to attract and entice a focused audience; it's just me.
And there's security and safety in that. When I tweet something I later regret or use the wrong Instagram hashtag, I don't panic over it — because when you let go of the idea that you are a packagable, marketable product, you also let go of the idea that every step you take online is contributing (or taking away) from your "brand".
Again, I'll emphasise that yes, your online presence matters because it's 2016, and chances are your next hiring manager is going to use the internet to help learn about who you are. And so you can and should pay attention to your Google results, your social media life. But I don't want to be one-note. I don't want to spend my energy collecting 5000 Twitter followers. I don't want to, as Dawn Dugan writes in a piece for Salary.com, have everything I do "ultimately contribute" to my "personal brand".
What I'm posing is re-thinking what it means to have an online presence. You don't need to shut down your accounts or vow to stay off Snapchat or Periscope. But remember that you're better than a perfectly lit, professional LinkedIn photo, you're smarter than your Instagram reveals and you're more accomplished than that bio on your personal site could ever possibly state. Your "search results" are a sliver of who you are and not the summation of your entire life or career. Forget about the neat little package and take back what's yours — your story. And if a future hiring manager doesn't like what he or she sees, oh well.
Yes, that might seem strange, especially for a career site. But here's a fact: I believe in everything you just read above, and I got hired as a senior editor/writer at The Muse — a publication that often recommends taking the very steps I knock above. Why? Because above all else, the people who hired me are human, and they know that what they saw online was only the tip of the iceberg.
I'll continue to have a presence online this year, and I'll probably get excited when someone retweets something I wrote. Maybe, in being regularly connected and engaging, I'll even end up developing a bit of a signature voice. (Certainly, as a writer, I want my work to sound like me.) But, I will remain adamant about one thing. Nothing I say, do or post online will be in an effort to turn myself into a product. Not for any site, hiring manager or potential fan base. I may promote my articles and post pictures of my ridiculously handsome dog, and you can argue that all that contributes to branding, but I refuse to buy it.