Personal branding and social media: Stop this unhealthy obsession and just be yourself

I read this piece on personal branding in the New Yorker by Tony Tulathimutte the other day. It starts off pretty well making some canny observations like “personal branding is the subtext to all social networking” which I believe, whether it’s intentional or not, is to some extent true but only insofar as anything you say or do represents who you are, and if you want to call that a“brand” then whatever. The piece then strays into the importance of one’s social media presence on one’s professional life. This is a story played out again and again and I don’t believe it’s healthy.

We frequently hear about how bearing your personal life for the world to see can seriously damage your employment prospects. I think we all need to just stop and remember what we are – people. We have lives outside work (at least I hope we all do) and, believe it or not, we occasionally say or do things which may not impress or resonate with everyone, or are just plain stupid.

Now before I get too far into my argument I do want to make it clear where I stand on this. I’m not advocating that employers do not do their research on a candidate, only that they really think about what is and isn’t acceptable. If a graduate has photos of them engaging in illegal activities such as taking drugs, or openly spouts hate through Twitter, then yes, give them a miss, they’re probably a moron who won’t be worth the time or effort. If however, someone has some passionate (and maybe even sweary tweets) about their sports team or politics, so what? If a few drunken photos have slipped through the Facebook privacy filter, so what? Was it not you, HR recruitment consultant, who stumbled home at 4am last Saturday only to fall asleep on your stairs? People are people and most are entirely capable of separating their professional and personal lives.

People shout and swear at football matches, they drink five too many pints, and they make it into work early on a Monday morning and do their jobs professionally and efficiently, with skill, creativity and passion. Please let’s not let social media get in the way of this reality.

I’d never say that these activities make someone interesting, but at least you’re sure they are a real person and not a workaholic robot. They’re going to add character and humanity to your organisation; these are assets which are intangible, and which I strongly believe will make you more successful in the long run.

You are who you are

While to some extent I agree with the assertion that “personal branding is the subtext to all social networking”, I do not believe it is for the same reason as Tony Tulathimutte. I believe this is the case in any situation where a person expresses themselves; from letter writing to how they engage with taxi drivers. On the whole, people will just be themselves (thank goodness for that!). By all means use social media to showcase your skills and knowledge, hell that’s pretty much what I do when I write about social media or tweet about SEO, I’m conscious of that fact. But to use it as a personal branding exercise, especially if that isn’t a natural thing for you to do, that’s just weird and unhealthy.

Tulathimutte does highlight a wider world of personal branding when he draws on Tom Peters’ writing on the topic. Peters, however, takes this subject way too far when he says that what you drive, how your home looks and what charities you give to are all an important part of conscientious personal branding. Why would anyone construct their life with the purpose of branding themselves? Even weirder, who are you showing your charity donations too? And how cynical and sick it is to choose charities based not on what’s close to your heart, or how deserving they are, but on how it looks to other people.

The crux of the New Yorker piece is encapsulated when the author says “your entire personal life now factors into your employability”. This is wrong and must be stopped. Let people be themselves, employ them based on character and merit, not on a constructed non-reality. Employ people, not machines.

Social media users

Related to this is an article I read on LinkedIn by Adam Grant about the different types of social media user and how they set their own boundaries accordingly.

The types of user were as follows:

  • Integrators – professional and personal lives are intertwined
  • Segmentors – professional and personal lives are detached. Audiences are segmented across social networks.
  • Expressers – being yourself, giving an accurate representation, warts and all.
  • Impressers – building a positive reputation, constructing an identity. Akin to personal branding.

I believe I sit across these. I have always been a segmentor (passionately so) and an expresser – I’m happy to say what I think but, for the most part, I try to remain polite as that’s who I am. However, recently I have started to integrate slightly more. As my passion for social media has grown I have spent more time thinking and blogging/tweeting about it. As a result I have started to think about how this is seen. I wouldn’t say I am exercising self-branding but merely considering what I say (whether it is true and accurate and whether I believe in it) when I write about things related to my professional life.

One way I segment is to keep my audiences distinct to some extent. I touched on this in a previous blog on my use of social media. However, I am now integrating my blog, LinkedIn and Twitter slightly more. Fortunately, this doesn’t take too much management as I am not too bothered if professional contacts see my Twitter and don’t agree with my views on politics or football. Conversely, and it is something that we shouldn’t forget, these often provide talking points that can kick start professional relationships.

Adam Grant summarises it brilliantly with his final paragraph:

Since many people are segmentors, being liked and respected probably requires some selectivity about what we share and with whom we share it. And there’s a way to be selective without spending inordinate amount of time and energy managing different networks and lists: it’s called conversation. So I’d like to propose a rule: when in doubt, share it offline.”

It doesn’t take much effort to keep things distinct, and by extension I would say that personal branding is not at all necessary. It’s about being yourself and communicating.

Be yourself

Tulathimutte’s piece actually made me quite angry, what kind of boring people want to “dial down the irony”? When he says “for God’s sake, don’t make rude hand gestures”, I laughed and thought of a number of photos of me drunk/hungover sending a clear message to my photo-happy friends. If people are going to get offended by this stuff, if they don’t like humour or irony, if they don’t want me to broadcast my political leanings, then I don’t think I’d want to work for them anyway. And nine times out of ten, I’ll be none the wiser.

Everyone just needs to use a bit of common sense, be yourself, try to be polite and respectful if you can (it’s just better that way), and employers, employ people not brands.

We should leave personal branding to celebrities and politicians. These values should not be imposed on regular, working people. The best people I have worked with have all been that; regular, working people. Fantastic, smart (and sometimes dumb), funny, passionate, witty, creative, regular, working people.

Tim Hodge
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Tim Hodge

Tim Hodge lives and works in Sydney. He specialises in web content including SEO and social media. He also writes about craft beer, art, culture and football.

Feel free to contact him on Twitter @timothyhodge, Google+ and LinkedIn.
Tim Hodge
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About Tim Hodge

I'm Tim, a human being living in Sydney, Australia. I spend a lot of time despairing over Leeds United and the rest of it writing, making/looking at art, reading, watching films and dabbling in SEO, social media and content marketing.
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