“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

No Consumed in today’s Times Mag, but here’s something if you’re bored:

On May 8, 2009, I gave a talk at a conference called “Blowing Up The Brand,” at NYU. Recently, pretty much all of the talks at that event were collected into a book — except mine. This made me curious to revisit my remarks. Were they really that bad? I went through the text and cleaned it up a bit, and added some “footnotes” to more recent observations by others that are related to the matters I spoke about, and decided to post it here. I guess it’s long for a site like this, but if you have time to read it, I welcome feedback — comments open.

It’s true that in some ways these remarks are somewhat dated — but in other ways I think they hold up pretty well. But whatever. The point is having looked at this again I’m thinking of revising and updating it in connection with something else I’m working on.

Here’s a summary if you want to skip ahead to anything that sounds interesting:

  • Section 1 deals with branding and individuality, and my basic contention that the “grammar of branding” is universally understood (in America).  This is something I’ve explored before, as many of you know, so you can skip that part if you’re tired of it.
  • Section 2 introduces my sense (as of May 2009, anyway) of the “transactional” nature of much social media. I think this core point of the talk is still very important, and under-discussed. So you might start there.
  • Section 3 names three related characteristics of much online expression: The “audience motive”; the escalation of easiness; and the privileging of measurability. Again, I think this holds up, and is more relevant than ever.
  • Section 4 attempts to tie together all of the above to offer a cautionary conclusion on the subject of creativity vs. “thinking of yourself as a brand” in the present social-media era. This section could have been better, but I believe the main message holds true and is worth consideration today.

I’ve been adding links and footnotes to the below, some of which post-date the actual talk but that I think are relevant to what I said in some way. I will continue to do so as things occur to me, or you suggest them.

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“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

[May 8, 2009, talk at NYU “Blowing Up The Brand” conference]

In 2008, during a Q&A session at the end of an event intended to promote a book I had recently published, somebody asked me for what amounted to career advice. Evidently my answer included a remark about thinking of oneself as a brand. I honestly don’t remember the details of what I said, but in the months that followed several people who had been at that event mentioned it to me. Clearly they had walked away that night with general idea that I had told them to think of themselves as brands. And more to the point:  They thought that was pretty good advice.

A year later here I am at “Blowing Up The Brand,” a two-day event that aims to explore critical perspectives on “promotional culture,” described as “the extension of promotional discourses, practices and performances into virtually all areas of public life.”

Thinking of yourself “as a brand” sure sounds of a piece with that critique. In other words, I may be part of the problem that I have been asked to come here to examine. This is a surprising thing for me to confront, particularly given that the book I was promoting when I was asked that question here in New York a year ago offered a not-very-upbeat critique of the blurring of marketing and day-to-day public life.

Frankly, I’m not proud of this turn of events. On the one hand I think that as a raw, practical piece of advice, I would stand by what I said to that audience in 2008. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a big asterisk I would put next to that observation now. My remarks here are that asterisk. I want, now, to put my throwaway comment into what I hope is a more considered context. Read more