blog social media hobbiest. I do this for fun, not for a living. But as more people come on line, both friends and work-related colleagues, and as more people shift to online as their main source of information, I’m finding myself worried a lot more about my “brand” and how I appear online. It’s enough to give me writer’s block. Here’s why:
Every one of us who uses online social networking can point to interesting and fulfilling experiences that wouldn't have happened otherwise, and we become evangelists for the cause. I think it's because any interesting person lives a complex, multi-dimensional life with at least the following faces:
- Locational [people who happen to be physically near you] neighbors, the mailman, your barista.
- Professional [how you make your living]: work colleagues, your boss; customers, others in your industry
- Situational [associated with a particular time or event in your life]: your college years, grad school, that summer you spent in a timeshare in the Hamptons
- Associational [organizations you belong to]: church or synagogue, service organizations like Rotary Club, the PTA.
- Beliefs [people who share opinions or beliefs about something]: religion, politics, superstitions
- Familial [immediate family and relatives] : brothers & sisters, uncles, ex-wife.
In the real world, these faces collide only occasionally, and when they do it can be an experience that ranges anywhere from wonderful to embarrassing.
In some cultures, these dimensions are marked with strict rules about clothing, use of eye contact, and even language. In Japanese for example, you literally change your vocabulary to suit the dimension you are in at a given moment, and it can be awkward -- even offensive -- to use certain styles of speech in an inappropriate situation. Even in English, we switch "speech registers" all the time: think about the words you use around your poker buddies versus the way you talk in a job interview.
Which of these is the real you?
Although we generally socialize with a given person based on only one of these dimensions, sometimes seeing little snippets of another dimension can make that person seem more alive and interesting. But go too far, expose too much of another dimension, and you've violated some rule that is awkward for you and your listeners.
Politics and religion are the easiest examples: what happens if your professional relationships find that you have a different (perhaps unpopular) opinion than they do? You are hopefully proud of your political or religious opinions, but express it too loudly among people who disagree (or who don’t understand) and it can be an unnecessary distraction. Instead of being “that really smart guy who works hard and knows a lot about X”, you’ll be “That <member of minority group> who somehow knows about X”. Even outside the obvious politics/religion examples, this can be true on lots of topics like health or even favorite movies and books. Will it really help your “brand” if people know you like <such-and-such sappy musical group>?
A few weeks ago I heard a talk by Dalton Conley, sociologist at NYU and author of Elsewhere, U.S.A. who thinks the future might require us to meld these worlds into one. You will become a "hall of mirrors", with so many of your dimensions exposed that people simply won't be able to tell which of you is "real" except in context -- and we'll all just take it for granted that people are multi-dimensional.
Many of the “leaders” I know in marketing or management think they’ve solved this problem by ignoring their personal brand identity. “I’m too important to be online” or “I make my team be online, so I don’t have to”. But I think that’s dinosaur thinking. You can’t understand the digital world if you don’t live in it yourself. There are many faces of me, but I’m not going to figure this out unless I jump in.