‘It’s a brand new world’, announced Tom Peters from the pages of Fast Company in 1997. ‘Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in...We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You. It's that simple—and that hard. And that inescapable.’
Twenty years ago, this was radical, and teeming with opportunity for a self-made generation. Peters gave voice to the zeitgeist, and the personal brand was born.
Today, Me Inc. is the wisdom we wean our kids on as they apply filters to their first steps and learn code in pre-school. That we are all brands now, with or without our consent, seems to have become the status quo with all the inevitability and limp-wristed fatalism that characterises today’s on-going privacy debate (you know. We want it. But we kind of don’t care enough to do anything about it. Plus, we like the apps).
And lately, I’ve been wondering some things, idly—as a/ a former full-time brand colluder and b/ a relic of the last generation who can remember a time before the internet—about brand You, and whether we really should be treating it as such a done deal.
Recently, there has been a flurry of articles breathlessly dissecting the psyche of today's youth en-route to predicting great things from this can-do generation of digital natives. The Evening Standard Magazine recently devoted its entire edition to Young London—seeding, if mild despair, a renewed commitment to daily sunscreen—and there’s no denying it made for impressive reading. My recent time away with two terrifyingly adept 24 year olds confirms a tenacious, multitasking, reactive, connected, fearlessly self-promoting bunch are indeed afoot—and they know how to make money by doing stupid shit on the internet.
But tucked away in all of these profiles is, invariably, a quiet comment on the flip side of the Brand Me generation. This, from the Young London Evening Standard Magazine, is a typical observation:
‘Of course, this focus on personal fulfilment and instant gratification has its downside, not least when it comes to communication. “If people aren’t texting you back, you feel very anxious and take it personally,” says Charlotte. On social media, people feel they have to put forward perfect versions of themselves, even though they get intimidated when others do so… it’s not enough to be funny or beautiful, you have to prove it—constantly. The result, according to experts, is a weird combination of self-obsession and fragility. Levels of narcissism have soared among young people…so have stress and anxiety… other research shows that these digital natives tend to have wider but shallower friendships.’
Or this, from a recent This American Life episode, in which Ira Glass spends some time with a group of high-school girls to try and figure out the role of social media in their lives. He watches them upload a pre-Whatsapp-approved selfie; waits anxiously to see how many comments they get, and from who, and how fast. By the end, he is exhausted.
Ira: I have to say, like, oh my god, this is such a job.
Julia: It's like I'm-- I'm a brand, and I am like—
Ella: You're trying to promote yourself.
Julia: The brand. I'm the director of the—
Ira Glass: And you're the product.
Jane: You're definitely trying to promote yourself.
Julia: To stay relevant, you have to—
Jane: You have to work hard.
Because that’s the thing about brand management: it’s a full time job.
And then the other thing: people— even professional brand people— aren’t actually brands. We’re messy, and inconsistent, and not at all aligned with our more desirable selves a great deal of the time.
When corporate brands stop aligning with their projected brand—when they fall below par, or act out of character, or make any change, really, at all—they go into crisis. Professionals have to be called in. And then Alignment happens, which is about as painful as it sounds.
Now, culturally, this phenomenon has been transferred to the individual. And not just famous individuals, who are naturally already part of the branded machine, but normal ones. Young ones. A generation of young people, naturalised to the idea of reproducing their own image as their main currency of relevance and social expression and all the nuances of hierarchy and influence and power play.
In this way, the image becomes more important than the reality. That is, in fact, the ultimate aim of branding.
But when the reality fails to live up to the image—we invite crisis. And it makes sense that the fallout, for today’s adolescent generation of mini-brand managers—whose sole product, from the minute they are old enough to work an iPad, is themselves—is a spike in depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, as the pesky self refuses to toe the line and perform ever more dazzling feats of perfection.
This week Dame Joan Bakewell was publicly blasted for describing Anorexia as a disease of Narcissists. It wasn’t delicately put—queue hasty apology—and it lacked empathy for the realities of what is a deadly and devastating mental illness. But she was pointing clumsily, I think, not to the individual—choosing, vacuously, to become anorexic of a summer—but to a far more problematic, cultural Narcissism that grows—thick, and insidious, and deeply rooted—from the primacy we give, in these times, to the production of our own image.
And that’s the thing we should remember about Narcissus: the image doesn’t do much for him, in the end.
And I guess, what I’m wondering, Young People, is… aren’t you tired?
Do you want to be doing this?
What would happen if you just… stopped?
A huge body of anecdotal wisdom and research testifies that solitude, and quiet, and space — mental as well as physical — is pretty essential to good creative work; and personally, the older I get, the more certain I am that there is a degree of peace that can only come from disconnection. Many of my friends seem to feel the same, distancing themselves from a life lived online and never quite rid of suspicion of those that do. Perhaps, never natural swimmers in this digital pool, it’s no surprise that some of us are waving our white flag before we get in too deep.
But I wonder if we’re the last generation who’ll have the option to make the choice.