Why Brand a Commodified Self?

For the undergraduate business communication course I taught last spring, I required my students to do “THE job correspondence project,” which, from what I have seen, is a standard: find a job posting (I strongly encouraged them to apply for jobs or internships that they really needed); revise the cover letter and resume and tailor them to the job; write a short rhetorical analysis of their documents in light of their audience.

I threw a couple of wrenches into the works, though: We read and discussed scholarly articles on resume rhetoric (I found these two, by Randall L. Popken, of particular interest), and I required a trip to Career Services for conferences. Each student wrote a short report on the visit, in which s/he observed and analyzed the discourse used to talk about the resume and cover letter. In their reports, of course, the students noted the going metaphor from these conversations, which identified them as commodities: “sell yourself,” “marketable skills,” etc. By extension, many of the folks my students met with advised that they control their online identities or “brands.”

Many (most) of my students did not find this language problematic. While I agree that it might not be in one’s best interest to allow one’s online identity to run free and willy-nilly, especially while “on the market” (there’s another one), I do find the commodity/brand trope itself uncomfortable, even offensive.

I recently read an old class blog post by a professor at St. Edward’s University who agrees with me (or, at least she did then). Here’s an excerpt:

I argue that being too concerned with branding restricts the self. Just take a look at U.S. leaders who conflate themselves to the ideology of the party even when it’s clear their own beliefs are far more diverse and subtle. This has lead us to distrust elected officials as we see them as merely parroting talking points. Now compare that to a person like Steve Jobs. Jobs refused to be branded. He was not Apple. He was not Next, or Pixar. He was a unique self, full of contradictions and that’s what humanized him. That’s why we saw the outpouring of support when news of his death spread across the Internet. (Corrinne Weisgerber, from “Negotiating Multiple Identities on the Social Web”, Nov. 16, 2011)

I appreciate, and agree with, Weisgerber’s assessment of the concept of self-branding. I like that she uses Steve Jobs as an example. I particularly like that, shortly after the paragraph I quote above, she uses the Heisenberg principle and the idea of multiverses to explain her thoughts, too. (I’ve snagged her links. Really, if you’re reading this post, and you’re not someone who already read hers, you should go read it.)

In her own, broader context, Weisgerber is focused on the multiple identities that we perform both away from the screen and online. What should be clear from the passage I have quoted is that these identities are different aspects of the same complex person (that’s where particles and verses come in). The concept of branding reduces us to one “sellable” identity. As I’ve noted, the commodification aspect presents a problem to me that is layered onto the problem of dimension discussed by Weisgerber.

Interestingly, one concern my students raised was with how Naomi Klein describes (corporate) branding. They were surprised at the research that goes into branding for specific “types” of people, and even found it creepy that their behaviors were aggregated to identify them as likely to consume specific beverages, wear specific brands, etc. . . .

I am starting to wonder if developing a personal online brand simply makes one easier to identify as a consistent “type” receptive to other(s’) branding practices by aggregators of the data from all of our online identities and their practices. If that’s the case, I feel even more convinced to remain a human and avoid being a branded commodity.