Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Is personal "branding" the salvation of the Web as we know it?


This may sound like a strange post for my trademark blog, but not really. We’re rapidly learning that “self-branding” is as important as corporate branding, particularly when it comes to online reputation. Cameron Johnson promoted the idea of “self brand” in his book “You Call the Shots” and so does Donald Trump.

As I look back over the history of the open Internet, since it was turned loose in 1992, it seems as though we’ve allow people ("amateurs", even “the kids”) the capability to promote themselves and become “famous” without having the capital (or accountability to others) to cover their share of the systemic risk risk (especially to those who have elected more “responsibility” – often than means parents). We’re seeing this show up now in all kinds of areas, including the online reputation problem, viruses, scams, cyberbullying, as well as the more superficial issue of “protecting minors” from pornography (my COPA blog). Even individuals who use the Net “responsibly” benefit from a system that probably allows unequal application of risk. If we were starting over, I wonder whether "we" would go to such lengths to shield providers and self-publishers from indirect liability – but then we would have nothing like the Internet that we know today. I still think we will see political calls to roll back some of these protections (like Section 230) and demand that web users become insurable.

But the web is here, and especially since the advent of social networking sites (following the inexpensive self-publishing by almost a decade) it has become a major vehicle by which people interact and “compete”. It has made people into “company-lettes”. And more and more we hear that people need to build integrated, sensible, expressive and professional (all of these) presence on the Web. That’s what Trump says a “brand” or a “good name” means.

If you had looked at my resume in the early or mid 1990s, you would have branded me as a “mainframe programmer” and “insurance person” or something like that. My personal life was still relatively private. The logical followup after “retirement” could have been sales – branding as an insurance agent or financial planner. Another outcome could have transformed me into a math teacher (maybe calculus). But, for reasons of temperament and personal history well documented in my blogs and books, some aspects of these careers would have compelled me to do some things counter to my beliefs, as I had already made myself “famous” with self-publishing and “knowledge management.”

My entry into the area had started with my involvement in the “politics” of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and the way it related in a curious way to events earlier in my life. But the policy and debate paid forward, too, subsuming practically every issue that can affect “individual sovereignty.” So my websites and blogs started covering “almost everything.” One observation that seems crucial is that what makes the military gay ban (and other gay issues like gay marriage and adoption) so critical is the idea that we all have to share the dirty work, sacrifices and uncertainties (and some unwelcome intimacies, sometimes) inherent in freedom; total individualism is never possible.

So my “brand” – my name – became associated with developing the knowledge base about these issues, to be sure, but also developing the technology and delivery systems to help others understand it and participate. Actually, when I was substitute teaching, I overheard students in an honors class say that I was the “gays in the military guy” – back in 2005 my online reputation was that well known, I guess --- but it really is much more than that. It invokes the processes by which we look into the nature and limits of our own individuality and face the possibility of new social contracts. Personal responsibility is more than just accounting for direct choices. I am the documentarian of how our culture goes through the process of redefining personal autonomy and personal responsibility, against a backdrop of history, of our "American Experience". It sounds pretentious. But that’s how I set myself up.

But the idea of personal “branding”, borrowed from the trademark law concept, might turn out to be the salvation of the “democratic Web” as we have come to count on it today. The number of “brands” on the planet increases by a few orders of magnitude, but that has to be made all right.

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