Social Media's Destruction of Identity and Passion

Ed Zitron 6 min read

The response to my piece on personal branding suggests that I struck a chord with everyone around the ways in which many people are constructing their identities to fit into the workplace. One common response was that it extends far beyond work, too - and that personal branding creeps outside of the workplace, invading and poisoning the personal lives of young people.

The manifestation of personal branding in most people that truly marry themselves to it is that it is effectively becoming a brand. You put the bits and pieces together that you think resembles the perfect working person, with enough of the elements of a person to seem “real" enough, and hope that this will manipulate those around you into thinking you’re an authority, and that you are “the real one.” In a working sense, this means that your entire online presence becomes something that resembles but is not actually a real person. To quote myself, it is a direct way of monetizing personality - creating your own influence capsule that people can take to feel a certain way and give you a certain amount of money.

Young people are taught about personal branding fairly early on - an alarming amount of kids’ shows I’ve seen with my son mention the word “branding” at some point - and learn quickly that what you put on social media is another way of seeming cool of popular. People have always been pressured into liking stuff so that other people will like them, but a unique part of today’s society, fueled by social media, is that we are given the opportunity (and the pressure) of permanent, 24/7 exposure.

Perhaps it’s as simple as saying that we have two tiers of personal branding - the personal and the professional - and both seek to either poison or eradicate the actual person inside.

Where we used to be pressured to create our personalities around our peers based on our time around them at school or work, we now have an ever-present feed of the things that our friends and family like, and thus the pressure exists to create a personal brand that appeals to them. Our personal existences are no longer reserved for the small amounts of time we’re around other people - if we exist online, we are pressured to create something that appeals to those that we see in real life, and we are identified and quantified in a way that is omnipresent.

To me, it’s this pressure that creates so many people that just don’t like anything. I went on about how personal branding corrupts young people as they enter the workforce, but the more I think about it the more I realize that the pressure of presence on social media forces kids to start branding themselves earlier and earlier. The pressure of social clout - liking the right things and consuming things entirely based on what other people are consuming - is something that social media compounds by having a non-stop feed of what’s popular (and what’s not popular) that you have to be up with, and leaves people in a state where they’re consuming things just so that they can say they have, creating an empty culture that is almost entirely driven by signifiers that you are “current.”

The time that it became apparent to me was when Game of Thrones was at the peak of its hype. People were watching it and constantly talking about it on Twitter, they were writing blogs and doing podcasts about it, and it didn’t seem like the actual show was important so much as the experience of saying that they’d watched the show. The same comes from a lot of fandoms - Harry Potter, Star Wars and so on - that have people reading vast swaths of theories into them because they’ve made their identities a primordial soup of other people’s ideas rather than an experience that they themselves had.

People adore and violently protect influencers for similar reasons - they want to be like them, they want the money, the fame, the adoration for being, well, just a person that’s kind of funny. The imagined narrative of someone “normal” that they sort of resemble or that their friends resemble is alluring because it seems even more tangible - that because they’re so similar, perhaps one day they’d be friends? And thus watching and talking about and imagining being in the lives of these people - after all, you’ve spent hours “together” on stream becomes a form of personal brand. You’re just looking up to someone who’s basically a peer. Liking the same things as them, playing the same games as them, wearing similar clothes - all of these are apparently unique, personally-selected choices that resemble ones that a person would make on their own. And thus a personal brand is created.

The Funko Problem

It is a problem that’s created when you have to create an identity entirely made up of snapshots of things that you think you’re meant to like. Funko Pops are probably the most obvious example - an entire company made up of buying signifiers of things you like that all kind of look the same, neatly fitting next to each other to show people that you like stuff in general with little else to them. People do this with alcohol, too - they become THE IPA GUY, because the identity of a guy who likes IPAs is one of ruggedness, or something like that, and that shows everyone who they are and what they stand for, even if they themselves don’t know it.

I had set out when I wrote the personal branding piece to write a damning treatise on the idea that we create the ideal capital-driven personality, and I feel like outside of that we create another personal brand to appeal to those around us. There are perhaps tiers of personal branding - the ones for work, and the ones we create for the rest of the world (this is alarmingly close to a Joker Meme), and the personal brand we create for friends and family is significantly more depressing.

The overwhelming power of this personal branding truly does destroy any passion that can exist in a person. There are many people who are super “into” things, but only in the sense that they have memorized a lot of facts and can repeat them back to you versus, say, truly enjoying and loving them. Perhaps the easiest test of it is the “what do you do when nobody’s watching?” test - how much do you really enjoy the thing that you really talk about when you don’t tell anyone?

What level of excitement do you have for something when you do it but don’t post about it? Specifically, if you didn’t have anyone to talk about it to, and if nobody cared you enjoyed it, would you still enjoy it?

As I’ve repeatedly said, this isn’t necessarily a new phenomena (see: religion), but it’s one that’s compounded with the force of a black hole by our constant public (or semi-private) exposure. Everything we say or do is easily shared, and we are able to garner attention from our peers from doing so, and thus our reward system begins to be about how we get more attention. We create personal brands for our personal lives, and begin liking things for the sake of fitting into the type of person we think we should be, or those around us seem to like.

The Judgment Loop

The internet at large also makes it easy to get into something you don’t really care about - there’re synopses, wikis, entire fan Youtube summaries that will give you the in-depth education that makes it appear that you actually care about something. Passion has been replaced by recall, kind of like the football quiz from the movie diner - you “love” something only through the ability to talk about it at length versus any fundamental enjoyment of the moments that you’re recalling. This is why there are so many fandom subcultures that are so violently protective of each other - they are built entirely on liking or feeling the right thing, and any attack on the thing in question is an attack on the core personality of the people within that culture. It’s not about enjoying something or loving it - it’s about protecting one’s identity.

Perhaps this is all a cultural issue - people have found so much more judgment and pressure through constant evaluation of what is and is not popular that they have simply replaced finding stuff they like with stuff everyone else likes, and finding out what everybody else likes is so much easier. It’s much more damning to step outside of the norm, and you are so much more exposed to the critiques and dogma of others, and so much more capable of finding people to look up to and, indeed, people to be looked down on by.

And the idea of the personal brand flows through that. It is all about creating the “right” persona to fit in, in work or otherwise, the right combination of things that might make someone like you. The internet gives us the ability to custom-build our own outward personalities, and the pressure to fit in and continue to maintain that persona ends up overriding our personal, private time to continue fitting in. And as young people grow up in this society they’re going to find out that it’s so easy to fit in somewhere by building up shells of different things that approximate a person they like.

This is why we’re going to continue seeing people who grow up liking lots of things and loving nothing. When we encourage people to brand themselves and create a value system entirely based on what it can return in a transaction with other people, we erode much of the meaning and impetus to keep on living.

Anyway, have a good weekend!

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