Overheard on Facebook: “Madras Madness?! If you know me, you know I’m currently in heaven — at Vineyard Vines.”
“So thankful for this amazing woman who threw me the best surprise birthday party ever. No other way I’d rather spend an evening. Life doesn’t get much better than this.”
“Fireside chat with my good friend Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA — at Harvard Kennedy School.”
It is no longer enough just to live in the world. Now we must also package our lives for others’ consumption. “Sharing” is a deceptively innocent term for these performances. It suggests an authentic glimpse, the candid, uncensored disclosure of some truth about ourselves or our lives in the name of civic, community-building principles. Marketing—or, to use a popular term, “self-branding”—is closer to the function that digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter really serve: they are fundamentally promotional tools.
In this regard, their use by professionals and corporate brands makes sense. It’s not even a particularly novel phenomenon, but an extension of the reputation-building in which companies and institutions have long been engaged: public relations for the digital age. What’s new is that social media has allowed branding to seep from our professional into our personal lives. In the case of pre-professional teenagers and students, the personal is in fact where branding starts. Declarations like the ones featured above have become completely commonplace occurrences. Everyone is in the business of making a name for themselves as entrepreneurs of their own digital identities. This merging of individualism and self-starter business savvy seems, on the one hand, like the apotheosis of the American dream. But there’s also something rather surreal about a culture in which ordinary individuals promote themselves in the manner of corporate entities.