In the age of personal branding it can be hard to tell where the brand ends and the person begins — because by now, we all know how to build a personal brand, whether we want to or not.

According to Zuckerberg, I should be the same me online as I am everywhere else, but I find the mere thought of that exhausting. I don’t want to bring all of me online. 

‘Me’ is a huge, complex concept that isn’t easily distilled into a few quippy posts on social media. I have enough trouble dealing with All of My Autistic Me in my own day-to-day, why would I want to impose that on everyone else as well? You’ve all got your own problems!

No, I’m online for a purpose. I’m online because I’m a writer. And maybe a little because I’m a lonely writer who wouldn’t mind a little company in her solitary craft.

So, I’m here for a purpose, but what is that purpose? I’m a writer, so I should talk about writing? But I don’t want to become a writing tips broadcaster. 

And it’s not because I don’t like talking about the craft — in fact, I will gladly talk about it until the cows come home — but I don’t think I’m the best source of ‘how to’ guides. There are bigger, better teachers out there whoc are more about teaching than I do. That hasn’t stopped me from having a few writing how-to’s of my own, but I basically wrote those as memos to self and wanted them in an easily accessible place.

I can talk about what it is like to write, the writer’s life. But even to talk about that I often struggle to put the words together. Sometimes, I think it’s because I don’t know who I am online

I don’t want to come online to drown, but not drowning can be hard when the online world is awash with personal branding.

Like most Millennials, I’ve been through the social media mill and I didn’t like what it did to me. I don’t want to be here to get hung up on vanity metrics. I like laughing and deep thinking and intelligent analysis. 

I don’t like the yelling and screaming and fighting that is so prevalent online (it’s one of the reasons I can’t stand a large part of BookTok). I also can’t be arsed to manage an account where I constantly have to clean out the rabble rousers getting righteous on their perceived moral high grounds in the comments. I’m all for discourse, but I believe it should add to the experience, not make you want to defenestrate yourself.

I’m not eloquent in person; I’m a quintessential autistic introvert who is quiet and observant, searching for the patterns that make people and the world tick. Written words are my friends because writing gives me time to I think. Even when I write fiction I find I’m thinking through the words. And I suppose that’s the thing I love most, the writing craft itself. I get to know ‘Me’ through my words, I uncover thoughts and feelings and parts of myself that otherwise remain obscured. 

And then I like analysing other written things and reflect on their impact on me. I realise I’m sounding incredibly selfish, but if I’m not going to be selfish about the way I spend the hours in my day, what should I be selfish about? I have this one life and I’d like to make the most of it.

A whistle-stop history tour of the personal brand.

Leonardo Da Vinci planted a seed of personal branding when he wrote a letter seeking to be employed in the Sforza court in the early 1480s.

The Dandies of the late 1800s had documented strategies of how to go from being just a Regular You to a Fancy, Witty, Frivolous Super You. 

The term “dandy” has been used throughout history to describe individuals who prioritise elegance and refinement in their attire and demeanour. Historically mostly men, they placed a strong emphasis on their personal appearance, fashion, and grooming.

Dandies often sought to stand out in terms of fashion and style, and they were associated with a certain level of sophistication or pretentiousness. The concept of dandyism has evolved over time and can have different cultural connotations depending on the era and location.

Historically, dandyism was particularly prominent in the 19th century, especially in European cities like London and Paris, where dandies were known for their extravagant clothing, wit, and social refinement. Famous dandies from this period include Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde.

In 1930 Dale Carnegie essentially spawned the self-help genre by publishing “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. 

For the first time, personal branding was something that anyone could (and should) apply in their personal life to get ahead. Like the Dandies, Carnegie wasn’t telling you to become a part of a subculture. Instead, he was advocating for you to be you, but a better, more polished, more corporately upward motivated version of you.

Throughout the 1900s the constantly growing and evolving media machine was making sure that the world knew of the Hollywood stars, musicians and athletes that were rising to celebrity status. 

In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were making a film called Cleopatra.

Burton as Marc Anthony and Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963. 20th Century Fox.

The film itself condenses two decades of Cleopatra’s life into a runtime of four hours that have been called an empty, bloated spectacle of excess. While the film went down in history as one of the most expensive movies ever made, it was also famous for igniting the start of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton love affair as well as their popular on-screen partnership.

When people began to whisper that perhaps Ms. Taylor and Mr. Burton were conducting an affair, the couple denied the accusations. But so uncontrollable was their love and lust, that when the director of Cleopatra shouted “Cut!” at the end of love scenes, Taylor and Burton would continue to kiss.

They carried on in the film lot, on the movie set, in their private villas, and took their love to town. But they weren’t safely in America, where there was a time-honoured tradition not to pry into the private lives of public people, and where the studio would have squelched any unflattering press. 

They were in Italy— the land of the paparazzi.

The Italian “paparazzi” were a new style of journalist. The term originates from the 1960 Italian film La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. In the film, one of the characters is named Paparazzo, and he is a freelance photographer who relentlessly pursues celebrities to capture candid and often invasive photographs of them.

Federico Fellini and his co-writer, Ennio Flaiano, coined the term “Paparazzo” for this character by taking inspiration from the word “Papataceo,” which means “large mosquito” in Italian dialects.

After the release of La Dolce Vita in 1960, the term “paparazzi” gained widespread recognition and came to be associated with photographers who pursued celebrities in a relentless and intrusive manner. These young, Vespa-riding photographers with cameras with zoom lenses slung around their necks, were hungry for a money-making photo that would reveal the affair to the waiting world. 

Burton leaning in for a kiss on the Cinecitta sound stage, 1962.

In March 1962, Paparazzo Elio Sorci hid under a car across from the Cinecitta lot all day to snap this photo which came to be known as the “kissing picture” which first appeared in the Italian papers before making its way to New York.

Burton and Taylor caught by paparazzo on a yacht off the coast of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, June 1962.

Initially, the pair were condemned by the press for their public adultery until publishers woke up and realized how much the “Liz and Dick” machine increased sales of tabloids, newspapers, magazines, and books. 

The affair and its subsequent capture on film, represents an inflection point in what it even means to be a celebrity. 

In his book Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption sociologist Ellis Cashmore paints Taylor as the seminal representation of “celebrity” as he traces our modern, hyperactive celebrity culture back to the publicising of Taylor’s affair with Burton.

A figure of enormous charisma and cultural sway, she intrigued a global audience with her marriages and extra-marital improprieties, as well as her extravagant jewelry, her never-ending illnesses, her dependency on alcohol, and her perplexing friendship with Michael Jackson. Despite her continued world-renown, however, most people would be hard-pressed to name even three of her films, though she made over seventy.

 — From the blurb of “Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption”

Capturing the private moments of the affair announced the arrival of a new generation of predatory photojournalists and, along with them, a strange conflation between the public and private lives of celebrities. The private lives of the stars were now as (if not more) entertaining as the talent they got famous for in the first place.

After the affair became public, the Vatican denounced the scandalous relationship. Liz Taylor received threats to her life. When filming moved to Rome, the thousands of Roman Catholic extras became a major concern. Soldiers with guns lined streets with barriers to prevent an assassination.

Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome. 20th Century Fox.

As Taylor came through the arch, the crowd broke through the barriers. As Taylor and the film crew feared for her life, Taylor realised the crowd was shouting, “Bacio Liz! Bacio Liz!” (“Kiss Liz”) and declaring their love for her. Taylor broke from the character of Cleopatra and began to cry, blowing the crowd kisses. That scene had to be re-shot, and was just another thing in a long laundry list of things that pushed the cost of the film higher and higher.

The film’s many production setbacks almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. 

Cleopatra was originally supposed to be two films with a runtime of three ours each, Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Anthony and Cleopatra. (There’s something here to be said about how the men were cut from the titles and the woman’s name left in alone, but that’s for another time.)

But since the studio didn’t want to wait an additional six months, they decided to release it as one colossal film instead and cash in on the buzz generated by Taylor and Burton. This meant slicing out a lot of substance from the script, which undoubtedly added to it feeling a bit hollow. 

In the end, Cleopatra became the highest-grossing movie of 1963. When it opened, the film was sold out for four months. The studio showed the original four-hour version at first, but soon cut out nearly an hour of material to make it a “mere” three hours. In 1966, ABC paid 20th Century Fox a record $5 million for two showings of the movie, a deal that put the movie in the black. But it wasn’t until 1973 when Fox claimed this movie finally broke even.

Now, I know this is a bit of a tangent, but I think we can see this point in history as one of the progenitors of the way the publishing and movie-making industries work today. Because they are the ones financing the whole project, whether it be a book, movie or show, they’re going to want to stack the deck in their favour as much as possible.

This means that today, a largely unknown actor with some kind of social following is more likely to land a role than a largely unknown actor without any kind of social following. This is not an absolute truth and different production companies do things differently, but as a general rule, if you’ve already built a personal brand (or a business case as was with The Martian by Andy Weir), you will have an easier time in convincing large media companies to back you.

And all this fuss about building a personal brand goes back to 1972 and the defragmentation of media.

The deregulation of cable TV in the US in 1972 meant you suddenly had 50 channels to watch instead of 5.

Media fragmentation refers to the phenomenon where traditional mass media, such as television, radio, and newspapers, have become increasingly divided or “fragmented” into numerous niche outlets and platforms. 

This fragmentation is driven by changes in technology, consumer behaviour, and the media landscape, and it has significant implications for how information and content are produced, distributed, and consumed.

Common challenges of media fragmentation:

  • Difficulty in reaching a broad audience for important information or news.
  • Potential for echo chambers and filter bubbles, where people are only exposed to content that reinforces their existing beliefs.
  • Challenges for advertisers and marketers in targeting fragmented audiences effectively.
  • The risk of misinformation or disinformation spreading unchecked through niche channels.

When US cable TV was deregulated, it meant that a whole slew of new channels popped up, eventually evolving into the gargantuan landscape we have today. This is where we see the beginnings of a world where attention is currency. As the world of media became more saturated with more to see than ever before, clear branding became the obvious answer for how to stand out.

As the US leads the charge through the consumer-heavy 80s, we come into the 90s and find that celebrities — whether movie stars, musicians or athletes — are no longer content to be just celebrities. They’re merch empires.

As Millennials moved into the workforce, they were faced with part-time work, 0–40 hour contracts, slow salary development, and a generally unstable economic environment leading to high unemployment rates. 

Surf’s up, see you on the net!

MySpace was a big training ground for how to put your personality online (as were games like the SIMS). For a generation living in economic instability, the opportunities to fame presented by the conjunction of reality TV and internet fame looked mighty attractive and this is where our modern day side hustle economy was born.

In the history of personal branding, Tila Tequila is the culmination of when internet fame meets reality TV. She had the most friends on MySpace and she parlayed her internet fame into a personal brand empire of her own with a reality TV show, music, products and even a proto-OnlyFans type of thing. And she didn’t start off with fame and money, like some of the big hitters on reality TV (Paris Hilton, The Osbournes etc.) making the case for anyone being able to repeat her success. All you needed was a computer and an internet connection!

Tila Tequila pioneered the online personal brand model: make content, get attention, monetise content. Risen and repeat. The 00s saw the blog boom spawn all kinds of blogs-cum-books and the rise of a new social media celebrity who was able to rise to fame with the power of fans alone, without large media backing. 

This knee-jerk reaction to brand yourself in a neat package, was strengthened by things like BuzzFeed quizzes and looking professional on LinkedIn. Even if you didn’t want to build an empire based on your personal brand, you had the opportunity to participate in the platforms just to look cool. 

Capturing those “instagrammable” moments in life quickly turned into people at restaurants taking pictures of their food rather than eating it or pulling out their phones to grab a quick selfie for fear that a moment would be “lost” if it wasn’t recorded on a platform. (I’m currently reading Nir Eyal’s Hooked and it’s a seminal book on addictive platforms. Highly recommend.)

In our glee to participate in these platforms, we didn’t see context collapse coming and so we weren’t as conscious back in the day about how we presented ourselves online as we are today. Then cancel culture rolled around. And I’m not talking about celebrities getting cancelled. I’m talking about the de-platforming of regular people doing fairly unremarkable (if sometimes stupid) things. 

In the 2010s it felt like every week someone new I’d never heard of was getting cancelled. And this is something that I don’t think has improved with time. If anything, it’s just gotten worse with the increased polarisation of everyone being in their own little echo chamber. But my point is, that being aware of cancel culture and seeing it happen to regular people all around you, affects how you filter your brand online.

You start to guard what you say, water down arguments that might offend someone, often to the point of becoming so vanilla it’s downright uninteresting. And uninteresting doesn’t get views, being controversial and antagonistic does. But that just drains the humanity out of you, because how you gain an audience is how you have to keep them. And no one sane is going to want to keep up with that kind of negativity if there’s a better way forward.

So, what do you do when you don’t want to live in an environment where an obsession with status or vanity metrics reduces you to a shallow, neurotic creature? The irony here is that this was born out of economic instability, which caused alienation, and that the answer was to commodify yourself, which causes further alienation.

Tara Isabella Burton, author of Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, suggests that the best antidote is to form genuine relationships with people who can see through our bullshit because they make it a lot harder to maintain facades. She also points out that it would be a lot easier for us to do that, if more of us had a degree of economic security that could at least ameliorate the desperation to get ahead in the gig economy.

Gen Z are now being accused of killing hustle culture, the phrase prescribed to millennials who burned themselves out climbing the corporate ladder, or trying to launch their own business, in a post-recession era. 

But the truth is that 83% of graduating seniors say rising inflation and living costs are making them adjust their post-graduation plans, according to a recent ZipRecruiter survey of more than 2,000 recent college grads. A day job with a steady salary isn’t enough, they say. And while 70% plan to have a full-time job in the coming year, more than 9 in 10 expect to take on some form of “side hustle,” whether prompted to do so by inflation or for other reasons.

A straightforward, upward trajectory isn’t an ideal framing of success any more. Entering the job market during Covid has made young professionals very cautious around work and money, but it has also made them open to new ideas on how to make a living. When having a single 9-to-5 isn’t enough or not a reliable way to make enough, climbing the corporate ladder is even less important than it was for millennials.

Instead, Gen Z sees passion projects as a way to get what the 9-to-5 can’t. And having that side hustle, passion project, or personal brand (sometimes all rolled into one), they’re relying more on patching together a portfolio of jobs that ultimately allows them more flexibility and ultimately more purpose. If you’re stuck grinding in an uncertain economy, you might as well try to enjoy it, right?

So, this only means that the personal brand isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay. But the more stuff there is online, the harder it is to break through. The mom-and-pop shops may be dying out, but the solopreneurs and influencers are just getting started.

When we go from being a person to being a brand, everything becomes a business opportunity.

Making friends that want to have those deep conversations about life, the universe and everything else (the answer to which is always 42) that crack you open from the inside have been hard to find as a millennial. 

I’ve mentored other writers and seen them soar in their own craft. I’ve also had wonderful mentors, but I’ve yet to meet a true peer who could also become a friend. Not an acquaintance that demands I show up with small talk at the ready, but a friend who likes to talk and share and just think about the world together. Over snacks and bevvies, or during a long, meandering walk.

It’s wonderful how being online has given me opportunities to meet people I’d never meet otherwise, but it also means people aren’t grounded to me in the same way as if we met in person. It feels like when I cease to be a good business opportunity, the relationship wanes.

I’m only three ghosty dots on a screen and, as such, easily forgettable.

But the harder we dig into our respective echo chambers, the more disconnected from authentic, long-term connections we become. 

I just want to belong somewhere, have a community. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I’m looking at other people and relationships from the outside in. My autism gives me super-strength pattern recognition, which makes socialising challenging when it fails to evolve into anything more meaningful than posturing and starting conversations for social clout.

And I’d love to connect to people who don’t disappear when the novelty wears off, brave souls who are out here searching for more meaningful connection. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Because as the job market fragments, so does attention. 

And rather than pulling together as a community to deal with the big challenges, we’re digging into our individual, aggressively tailored digital fox holes that only bring us closer to a Matrix-like condition than ever before, finding connection only through the filter of the brand content other people create, rather than raw, unadulterated in-person reactions.

I don’t have an answer for this, other than to find joy where you can. Touch grass and be grateful for the little things in life. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to seeing the glass as half-full. Or, do what I do, escape into fantasy.

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