Selling Ourselves

by | May 31, 2020 | Writing

If you’d told me in January that this year would see most of the world trapped behind closed doors, hiding from a global pandemic…

Lockdown has given us all plenty of time to think. Our everyday comforts have rapidly been stripped away. You can’t pop down to Starbucks or drive through McDonalds for a quick fix of endorphins. We’ve all had to prioritise the things that matter.

Lockdown has also given us plenty of time to read, and I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s first book, No Logo. I’ve been familiar with Klein’s work for a while, having read both No is Not Enough and This Changes Everything previously. While I do often differ from Klein, the book nonetheless remains as relevant now as it did during the late 1990s. Perhaps more so.

Klein argues that branding can dilute both our culture and our sense of self. We lose our own identities and replace them with symbols intended to project chosen “values” that we want to be associated with.

This insidious relationship spreads to our cultural spheres. In Scotland, BT Murrayfield can be seen on every train ride in and out of Edinburgh. T in the Park may be no more, but its dominance as the leading Scottish music festival was unquestionable. Everyone knows what the T stood for.

It’s a timely subject in a world where we’ve all learned to market ourselves as brands.

On the modern internet, we all brand ourselves like never before. We’ve learned the tricks of big business and co-opted them for personal use. We select our best profile pictures and share material on our accounts that boosts our “value” amongst peers. Our friends list are effectively our consumers.

This has been on my mind for some time. One quick scroll “just to check” turns into a wasted hour scrolling disposable, easily-digestible content. We tap every notification to see who liked or commented on our own. We love the feeling of our latest photo doing well; the compliments that pour in from our peers. We’re addicted to validation.

Damn. Your latest post only got a handful of likes. Perhaps none at all. You look at your friends’ posts and despair. Why can’t you be as popular as them?

Instagram is the most obvious example: an endless supply of highly filtered images only published in pursuit of “likes”. How many of those photos were preceded by hours spent in front of mirrors; perfecting make-up and practicing smiles?

That’s only visual marketing. On a deeper level, social media influences our behaviours, our thoughts and our beliefs.

To what extent are we regulating ourselves? Are we concealing our opinions to conform? If everyone on your feed believes something that you don’t, why not adjust your views to match? It’s always easier to go along with what’s popular. Who needs multiple viewpoints when you can adopt what’s been pre-approved?

On Twitter, our views are increasingly moulded by what gains the most retweets. We start to filter out and block the ideas that challenge us. We discard reason, ignore nuance and treat our opponents as morally deficient. We copy the popular templates: add clapping emojis and full caps to today’s popular statement and expect guaranteed validation from the herd.

Douglas Murray has much to say about this in The Madness of Crowds. Social media, he argues, is dementing us. Not least through the spread of misrepresentations and enforced conformity, but because it can feel so good to be part of the mob. Somebody we didn’t know did something bad? Let’s shame them.

We dehumanise those who disagree with us and turn into tribal factions. Why reach out to the other side? All the “good” people are on ours.

Caroline Flack may have inspired people to “be kind”, but it’s interesting to note the personal and political boundaries that permit us to reach for the pitchforks again.

Tinder and its ilk may be the worst offenders when it comes to the commodification of people. On dating apps, singles are discarded with a swipe: a whole human life discarded as easily as removing an item from your Amazon basket.

Relationships take commitment, time, and acceptance of both our own and our partner’s faults. Yet Tinder encourages us to reduce potential partners to a disposable product. Collect more matches for more validation. Ghost whoever you lose interest in.

It could be argued that the public sphere has always operated in such a way. Our workplaces expect us to act with a degree of professionalism: to wear the right clothes and represent our industry to a high standard. On every first date, we comb our hair, button up our shirts and hope we don’t say anything too embarrassing.

Yet there was always a space to switch off: amongst our family and friends.

In the Covid-world, we’ve little alternative but to submit to our voluntary Big Brothers. Our phones are always with us. There is no escape. Only compulsion to get back online.

And through all of this: immense mental health pressure.

In this perpetual popularity contest, we constantly compare ourselves to the apparently constant success of our friends. “Congratulations on your first-born!” “You look so happy together!” “Well done on the new job!” “That trip looks amazing!”

Behind all the kind words, many of us are wondering: why am I not as successful as them? Or as pretty as them? Or as happy as them? Or have as many likes as them?

No wonder so many of us feel inadequate when subjected to an endless highlights reel. Unaware, of course, that those posts are just as heavily curated as ours. That our peers are just as insecure as we are.

Bear in mind that the organisations who run social media are private businesses. They are unaccountable, loosely regulated, and thrive on both addiction and on outrage.

And across all of these apps, there’s a terrible secret.

You are not the consumer. You are the product.

Our data is a new currency to be bought and sold. Sure, Cambridge Analytica was unsettling, but in 2020 the erosion of privacy feels like an acceptable trade-off. Alexa might record what we say, but isn’t it nice being able to dim the lights without leaving your chair?

I may not own an Alexa, but I’m as guilty as everyone else – if not more so.

Not an hour goes by when I don’t pick up the phone for a quick scroll. It’s an unhealthy addiction, and despite repeated assurances to myself that I can quit whenever I want, there aren’t any nicotine patches that suffice.

We desperately need to reassess our relationship with social media. The long term social consequences were always going to be devastating. Given our increased dependence on social media in the “new normal”, this is going to get much worse before it gets better.

For now, the best I can do is leave my phone in another room while I attempt to read a book in peace. There are far more worthy words in both Klein and Murray than there are in the stream of retweets over today’s latest outrage.

It might seem curious to ask these questions in the first blog post of a website which is quite explicitly intended for self-promotion. It could seem an odd choice of topic, but I believe that it is appropriate.

This website is part of my personal “brand”; one which promotes a specific, highly-filtered image of myself. Does it accurate portray who I am, or merely present how I want to be thought of as? Or at least, the elements of myself that I’m comfortable to share?

That’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. Even my own words in this blog have been selected to project a “branded” image of myself.

I can only hope that, within the filtered words and images, there is a degree of truth. Within that context, I intend for this blog to be a space for my own free expression and to be written with integrity.

I’m certainly not planning to lead a revolution to reject our personal brands, but I do believe an addiction to seeking validation is unfulfilling.

At the core of our desire to reach out over social networks – and to our family and friends while trapped indoors – is the need for human connection. We humans are a social species, and it’s those connections that truly make life worth living.

Those who love us don’t care how many likes we’ve had on our seflies or how many retweets we’ve accrued. They merely accept us: warts and all. They see our flaws and our true selves better than any manipulated image we could possibly attempt to project.

This website may well present the “Gavin Hugh” that I’ve chosen to project. But those who are truly close to us don’t define us by our brands. They never needed a website to tell them who I am. They already knew.

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