Manifesto: I Am Not a Brand

BlogHer Original Post
side profile of a woman lying on a couch and looking up

It appears, that I have . . . entirely by accident . . . developed a manifesto. Let me tell you how this happened.

So, because I am an author and am generally presentable and have shoes and things . . . and because I spend a lot of time online . . . I sometimes get asked to speak at conferences and panels. I laughed until I fell over the first time I was asked, but it’s a fairly regularly occurrence now, and I look forward to those weird, squat water bottles they often give you when you are up at a podium. I can spend a good five minutes of my speech just thinking about those little water bottles. That’s why I smile so much up there.

Anyway, more and more, I get asked to do talks and panels on social media. Lots of times, I don’t even know what people really want these panels or talks to be about. “Social media” is new and big and weird, and there are very few true experts. So they just scoop up whoever is around (like, for example, me) and stick us in front of a room and call us experts.

I did one panel very recently, and it broke me. On that day, the MANIFESTO came to me. And now, I want to share it with you.

I took my place up on the dais and immediately looked for my little water bottle. I was seated next to a woman I’d never met. We shared a microphone. I noticed that she had already grabbed it and was CLINGING to it like it might try to escape. I put this down to nerves until the panel started, at which point it became clear that if I ever wanted that microphone, I was probably going to have to engage in some form of physical combat.

My neighbor had a lot to say. She had a MESSAGE. She talked longer than anyone, and over everyone and through everyone. Her message, as far as I could determine, was that the internet is all about getting out there and SELLING yourself.

“I’m a brand,” she said, every minute or so. “I’m always thinking of ways to promote my brand.” It was all brand, brand, brand, brand, brand.

The other thing she said that made my head swivel around uncomfortably was, “Get your message and repeat it OVER AND OVER. Just keep saying your message OVER AND OVER in the same way. Just tweet it and put it out on Facebook OVER AND OVER.”

She was certainly not the first person I’d heard this from. I hear this almost everywhere I go where there are people talking about social media, and I feel that it is time that I rise up against it. In fact, I did, right there and then. I grabbed the microphone from her grasp and said, “I am not a brand.”

She grabbed the microphone back and started clarifying that she really, really, really is a brand and brands are awesome . . . and the more she went on, the more I thought: I am not a brand. I wanted to whisper it, but that would have been creepy.

Just to be clear on this thing I am not, maybe I should define my understanding of personal branding. A personal brand is a little package you make of yourself so you can put yourself on the shelf in the marketplace and people will know what to expect or look for when they come to buy you. For example, Coke is a brand. When you see Coke, you expect a dark brown effervescent sweet drink that is always going to taste like . . . Coke. McDonalds is going to sell you inexpensive, fast food. The Ritz or the Four Seasons is going to sell you a luxury experience. BP will now be known as the brand that destroys the costal ecosystem of the southeastern United States.

And yes, authors sometimes have these “brands.” Nicholas Sparks is going to sell you a Roman . . . love story, excuse me . . . where someone dies of cancer/similar disease at the end. V.C. Andrews will sell you something awesomely insane and creepy. Dan Brown will sell you a series of puzzles, facts, and clues leading to the unveiling of a huge secret. Tom Clancy will sell you something with a submarine or some kind of large weapon in it. You get the idea. I don’t know if any of the above actively works on his or her “brand” . . . (well, V.C. Andrews won’t, since she died in 1986 having written only eight books -— her official ghostwriter has written over sixty more in her name since that time, which is pretty impressive work).

I am not saying that it is a bad or dishonest thing to try to sell your work. It is not. What I am saying is that I am tired of the rush to commodify everything, to turn everything into products, including people. I don’t want a brand, because a brand limits me. A brand says I will churn out the same thing over and over. Which I won’t, because I am weird.

So there we were, grappling for the microphone, polar opposites in every way. And then I noticed that when people on the other side of the table were talking, the woman pulled out her phone and started reading messages. She didn’t listen to what the others were saying.

I was having a difficult time listening to all of this.

Some people don’t get it. They don’t get that the Internet is a conversation. They think the message only goes one way -— out. Things must be shouted. Things must be thrust in your face. Things must be sold.

This certainly applies to what I do. The more the Internet expands, the more people -— okay, authors, who are a KIND of people -— are being encouraged* to go online and PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE! To aid in this endeavor, these poor writers are being shipped off to conferences where they roll out people like me under the guise of being experts on something. And in general, the quality of advice is pretty craptastic. “Get a Facebook page!” “Get lots of people to LIKE you!” “SHOUT THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK AT PEOPLE UNTIL THEY START CRYING AND BUY IT.” Or, more annoyingly, we experts use the genuine language of community (“Make authentic friends!” “Network!”) to do the same thing, just with a softer sell. But it's still all about selling.

On rare occasions, you get to hear someone amazing, like Cory Doctorow or John Green . . . people who have really good, sound ideas about how to make the internet MORE AWESOME. Personally, unless I’m with them or people like them, I don’t think I really want to do any more of these panels. I’m definitely repeating and boring myself at this point. My message is always:

1. You should probably not be taking advice from me.

2. Don’t write boring stuff.

3. Have more fun online.

4. The people online are real people and they matter.

5. Please bring me a snack.

There is usually a lot of emphasis on numbers one and five.

I think the divide is pretty basic. I think there are people out there who see the Internet as a way of employing the same old techniques of SHILL, SHILL, SHILL. A hundred years ago, they would have rolled up to you in a wagon, shouting about their tonic. Fifty years ago, they would have rolled their vacuum cleaners up to your door.

The other side, the side I am on, is the one that sees an organic Internet full of people. Sure, when I have a book come out, I will often say, “Please, could you buy a copy? I need to buy food and Post-it notes and hamsters.” But in reality, I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think you would like it. I have a lot of fun writing my books, and hey, if you can buy one, great! I think it’s just as great if you take it out of the library. I write because I actually like doing it, and through some miracle of science, I get paid, so wayhay!

Anyway, we had a fun afternoon, she and I, wrestling for the microphone. Every time I got it for a moment, she instantly dragged it back to talk more about HER BRAND. We were polar opposites, battling it out to the death. The difference was, when I stepped down off the stage, I was greeted by a row of readers who had brought me snacks and just wanted to hang out. I was happy to see them. And I’m not saying the other woman IMMEDIATELY went off and clubbed a baby seal, but I have no evidence to the contrary, so let’s say no more about it.

MY POINT IS . . . it’s early days yet on the Internet, and lines are being drawn. We can, if we group together, fight off the weenuses and hosebags who want to turn the Internet into a giant commercial. Hence, the manifesto. It goes something like this:

The Internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people -— talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the Internet that matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand -— tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people.

And remember the previous points one and five.

We still have a shot at this. Let’s do it.

* IT WILL GO ON THE INTERNET OR IT WILL GET THE HOSE.

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