the man who sold the world

We passed upon the stair, we spoke in was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend

David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, 1970

(Of course Bowie makes me think about identity.)

I need a word.

A year or so ago, long before I started this theoryblog lean-to on the side of ye olde cribchronicles, I started groping my way towards exploring something, trying to capture something I’d never heard named. I assumed it had been named, somewhere, probably a few times over, but was both amorphous enough and fast-moving enough to have refused reification, mass currency under a single title.

I called it brand, half tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always found brand a vulgar word, flagrant and blatant in its commercial intent. The online universe – especially in the education and narrative blog circles I run in – is not always so open about its own embeddedness in the capital exchange process. I chose the word to provoke, to try to force that conversation.

But mostly I chose it to keep me honest.

It forced me to look at my commercially lilywhite self and own that I am as embroiled and invested in online circulations of capital and power as the trashiest review pimp out there. Because you cannot use social media and not be embroiled. As you connect and share and have your work recognized by others, your social capital is amplified. As your social capital is amplified, your capacity to leverage it increases, often exponentially. You don’t have to: the monetization of the sphere is not obligatory. But ignoring it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

I wrote three posts in quick succession on the subject. In the last one, I said it like this:

be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out
there and it works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged,
sometimes into capital, sometimes into opportunity, sometimes
simply  into connection. we all have our eyes on a prize; we are
none of us pure, without want.

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what
you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version
of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without
a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a
wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth.

it is about image and perceived capacity.
(own it,, June 8th, 2010)

I think of all of us out here using social media in our myriad of ways as branded selves, branded cyborgs whose online and offline lives blur. Within the walls of the academy, where the branded cyborg is my dissertation topic, I tend to use the words digital identity or digital subjectivity to describe the idea, depending on which discipline I’m addressing. I see them all tied together in Butler’s idea of the performative: that subjectivities are created by the constant and ongoing citation of the (gendered) societal norms that circulate in discourse. What makes me different from you is how I perform myself – online or off – in relation to those norms.

And what makes me a branded cyborg is that the circulations in which I reference and identify myself include the spheres of social media and concommittant capital. And some version of me – my brand, or my digital identity – continues on performing me in circulation even when I’m not there. Ahem. That’s all. But that’s not an easy thing to explain.

It’s hard to name a social aggregate, an “it” in circulation. As Bruno LaTour puts it in Reassembling the Social, “…Social aggregates are not the object of an ostensive definition – like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger – but only of a performative definition. They are made by the various ways and manners in which they are said to exist” (p. 34).  The performative definition of a group draws attention to the means necessary to keep it up, and also to the contributions made by the fact of it being studied or analyzed.

Goody. I need a word to cover the performative definition of performativity in the world of social media.

Amber Case (here at TEDWomen) is a cyborg anthroplogist, which basically means she studies human life as a product of humans and technologies, or objects. She calls the ephemeral us-ness that others interact with online our “second self.”

I’m wary of this term. The idea of a second self ignores the fact that the identity distinctions between online and offline life are increasingly minimal and blurred and often meaningless: tomorrow, for instance, I’ll travel to another province to hang out with a bunch of bloggers, word made flesh. The transition from screen narratives and flurries of Twitter conversation to clinking glasses will not be particularly jarring: in fact, because the group of us interact far more regularly than most of us do with friends we know only in the flesh, the awkward stage of polite catching up will be largely bypassed. We are intimate, because we are regularly online together. Are you listening, Sherry Turkle?

Nathan Jurgenson of cyborgology – who adeptly critiques the binary implicated in the second self idea here – calls it a Profile, an aggregate sum of all the data out there about you. I think we’re on the same page conceptually. There’s something fluid about the word: its connotations are less laden than that of brand, or identity. Yet to me it suggests something flat, surface-like, easily tied up. Does it allow for complex performances of digital identity? Does it represent who we are when we’re not there?

I need to talk this out. Last time I asked – when I asked who you think you are online – I got an extraordinary collection of responses and discussion. This is part two, the simpler question, really: what would you call this you I know out here, your online doppelganger, your disembodied you? Profile, brand, second self, digital identity…what works?

30 Comments the man who sold the world

  1. Daleus

    I have always favoured persona or avatar, although I know neither will fully express what you’re looking for.

    For many, the dividing line between online and offline is a wavery, watery thing, as you have noted. For myself, I have always approached my online presence as a carefully constructed sort of thing.

    I suppose this is influenced by my deep involvement in technology, and a previous career in broadcasting.

    I’ve had a unique perspective from which to observe both dangerous and absurd behaviour on the internet, and to draw lessons from those observations that are regularly applied to any utterance I spew.

    Similarly, the Golden Rule of radio – “Never say anything in front of a microphone (live or not), you don’t want *everyone* to hear” – have helped curb my online proselitizing.

    So for me, persona and avatar, which both suggest a certain amount of fakeness and purposeful construction, suit just fine. I take pains to ensure what I say portrays me appropriately.

    That’s not to say I don’t project anger, scorn, sarcasm – things for which I am well known. My objective is to think and therefore make others think. Best done without too much ranting, raving, cursing, swearing, ridicule and humiliation.

    It’s very much like learning to write a post within Twitter’s 140 character limit. At first I scoffed, but now realize I am a better writer for it. There is no space to arse around, I must get straight to the point as effeciently as possible.

    When I need to say something more, I come to your blog where there is a little more elbow room!

    1. bon

      i like persona. i know it has baggage, but i think it might be useful for carrying the “we all have different faces we turn to different situations” kinda meaning that i think is important in challenging the second self binary and making explicit that i’m talking aspects of identity in different environments, rather than different identities, per se.

      words. such fussy things.

  2. Neil

    “it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged, sometimes into capital,
    sometimes into opportunity, sometimes simply into connection. we all have our
    eyes on a prize; we are none of us pure, without want.”

    This was a very telling sentence for me, because I think it says a lot about our differing views. You see this branding in a linear way — as coming from an individual with a goal, whether it be networking, friendship, reputation, etc. The individual wants to be taken from point A to point B. If that is the case, then maybe branding is a good term, because of its simplicity. The company behind Crest Toothpaste has one goal — to increase their market share. So they always take steps in that direction. If your online life has a clear goal, then you brand yourself to reach that goal.

    Human beings, if they act real, are not so self-directed. We do things that intentionally hurt our own brand. We don’t act like successful businesses. Some times I am friendly to everyone on Twitter; others days I hate everyone. I try to make friends. And then I ignore them. I want to be noticed. And sometimes I say stupid things to test who is going to unfollow me. If I was the CEO of Crest Toothpaste I should be fired immediately, or dumped like Mubarak. Your vision of social media starts with the premise that everyone is acting rational and has their “eye on the prize,” when it is just not the case. If I had my eyes on the prize, and I was smart about it, I would takes steps in social media that would advance me in my goals. I would be writing a comment RIGHT NOW on the blog of some famous screenwriter rather than arguing with some woman in Canada who I have never met in person. I am acting completely irrational, perhaps even making myself look WORSE than I did before.

    Now of course, a commercial brand can make a mistake, like Groupon with their Tibet commercial. They took an action that hurt their brand. But this is more difficult to identify when it comes to people because our goals are so complex. Everything I do online is a mixture of looking for attention, friendship, knowledge, as well as self-sabotage, self-pity, and other unhealthy stuff. And that is just being human. But crappy branding — especially if my eye is on some sort of prize.

    You are forgetting that there are a whole lot of confused people out there on the internet who either don’t want the prize, don’t know there is a prize, or are just too afraid to even go for it.

    How do we explain them? Unsuccessful brands? Do we really want to go in that direction, considering people as budget toothpastes?

    1. bon

      Neil, you make a great argument…except it’s kind of a straw man, b/c that’s not how i see brand at all.

      i can see how you read “eyes on the prize” that way…i’m glad you pointed it out. but if you read the rest of that old post and THIS one, you’ll note i’m talking about something much messier, and more akin to what you’re saying.

      what i was saying back in June was that none of us gets to be pure in intention, even if we don’t have a specific or a commercial goal in mind. even if we’re just out here to make friends, or see what it’s about. and that’s a reactive position on my part against the pretense that so long as one doesn’t monetize one doesn’t have some vague vision of success that one is stumbling towards. some people actively don’t want success in terms of numbers or money, in social media – but they still enjoy making others laugh, getting the sense that their connections appreciate what they’re putting out there. they want THAT. they are still circulating within the reputational economy. there’s no outside, as i see it.

      it doesn’t mean 99% of us have any idea what we’re doing, or act coherently towards what we think we’re doing. that’s what makes it interesting. :)

      i know you don’t like the word brand. i’m not sure we’ll ever come to a shared understanding of what it is.

      but what would YOU call it?

      1. Sandy

        I’d call it a complex, self-organizing system (or not) in which loosely related nodes gravitate towards coherence (or not). One form of that coherence is what you’d call “brand”.

  3. Michael Easter

    I’m definitely out of my element here. That said, I like ‘profile’ but prefer ‘persona’. I have many online personae, and though I can pretend they form a cubist reflection of the “real me”, of course they do not.

    Just word play, but does the online realm give rise to new constructs? e.g. Are ‘personative utterances’ by one persona considered ‘e-locutionary acts’ ?


    ps. One may want to acknowledge ‘avatar’ as a possibility and then quickly move on.

    1. bon

      Michael, it’s interesting…back in 1999 and 2000 i was working on my M.A. thesis on how technologies of a given time shape what it means to know in that time, and everything i was reading talked about avatars. digital identity was still pretty theoretical then, with work on MUDs and MOOs and no mobility or real capacity to amplify reputation across platforms. when that happened, it’s like the word avatar got frozen, accidentally, as meaning a picture of you, that went out in your stead. yet it used to mean more, and i had forgotten that. huh.

  4. Annie @ PhD in Parenting

    I see it as a slice.

    Online people get a slice of me, in each of the personas that I manage online.

    But I don’t see that as unauthentic or fake because I think that is true IRL too. My clients don’t know everything about my personal life. My friends don’t know everything about my work. My kids don’t know everything I did in college. My husband couldn’t care less about some of my interests (and vice versa) and our marriage is saved by us not talking about those things.

    So I don’t think I just have a “second life” online. I think I have many, many lives and those evolve over time.

  5. Sam Ladner

    Hey Neil,

    Cool post. I know EXACTLY what you mean. We’ve hit a digital performativity that constructs “the self” in a way that, say, Mead never expected.

    Surely we could build on Mead? The “I” is the ego-based self. The “me” is the self that is constructed out of social interaction. Perhaps the “Digital Me” is the self that exists in digital ephemera.

    Interesting thoughts.

  6. JoVE

    I like your thoughts on brand and generally agree. I think this is not only true of online but also IRL. We live in a capitalist society. You can’t opt out of that though you can choose how you operate within it (including working to change it).

    I’m also with you on the problems with second self but would go further to say that I don’t think online identity is necessarily distinct from other ways of thinking about identity. So much of the debate (not necessarily you) seems to start from the premise that we are inventing different selves online or that we have complete freedom to be someone completely different. That there is a clear distinction between who we are online and off.

    And yet, like you, I can’t distinguish online and offline friends so easily. Some of the people I interact with regularly online I met offline (before there was an online, really, because I’m old enough for that) and social media gives me a fabulous way to keep in touch with people who live 1000s of kms away. Others I met online, through e-mail groups, blogs, and now Twitter, but have also met in person, invited to my home, etc.

    I think there is probably lots of mileage in Butler’s notion of performativity, or even in some of the sociological material on identity coming out of the symbolic interactionist tradition. But for me the question of “online identity” in particular seems like a false question.

    Online is just another place. Even without it, most people have identities that they manage in different contexts — work, home, bar, church, playground…

    I guess my response is to ask why “online” deserves special treatment.

    1. bon

      good question. i think it deserves special focus – maybe not special treatment – in that the operations of power and interaction are not actually the same online as they are IRL, no matter whether we try to conduct ourselves the same or no.

      the speed of connections, the flattening (to an extent) of hierarchical relations, the ways in which power circulates differently and allows for different performances and different recognition of performances seems important to me. the disembodiedness of online spaces allows for some stretching beyond the boxes that gender and class and fitness discourses tend to put us in in embodied life. and there’s more. i think. next post. :)

  7. christine

    i’ve really come around to “brand” since you last blogged about this. but really, profile, brand, digital identity….just various ways of saying pretty much the same thing. profile makes me think of FB and not necessarily of all social media identities.

  8. Erica

    It’s hard to say. My blog is where I go to let out the parts of me that I don’t, for the most part, talk about with family and the people I work with. They know me on facebook, and some know me on twitter, and on those spaces I’m probably just my disembodied me, only a disembodied me who is at least a bit careful of what she writes in case colleagues, employers (or future employers) look me up. But I have two twitter accounts, too (one linked to my blog, one not), and sometimes this makes me feel disjointed.

    The me of my blog is still me, but it’s the part of me who is still actively grieving. The blog is expanding now, becoming more about the rest of me and my life, but I still think of it as a space where I can go to howl if I need to. I wonder if/when that will change.

  9. Kate McKenna

    A book I read recently called it the ‘shared self’ and that struck me as a nice name for online communication.

    With that siad, the book, The Mesh by Lisa Gansky, is entirely about commercial gain from a ‘sharing’ business model (think: bike rentals in big cities) so her mandate is fairly far removed from yours.

  10. Neil

    That’s your job, not mine. You’re the one making the big bucks researching a paper on digital identity. You need to come up with the word that explains it all. My job is to poke holes in it because whatever word you come up with with never fully capture the real people using social media for all sorts of crazy reasons.

  11. Pingback: That’s My Brand | Citizen of the Month

  12. nathan jurgenson

    This is a great read, and thanks for including my point in this post! I’ll copy this comment there, too.

    I think we conceptually agree very much on the augmented self idea; selves blur across atoms and bits. “Long live the new flesh”, for you Cronenberg fans. Now comes the semantic work of finding terms that resonate.

    I like the idea of a brand because it acknowledges that what people are doing is entering into a market. Even if they are not going for capital in the monetary sense, they are entering a market of sociality (social capital in the Bourdieusian sense as you already stated). However, I think, and you seem to agree, that all of this is equally true of the physical, material everyday world we exist in offline, as well. The brand describes the augmented self, but does not, to me, speak specifically to that set of digital documents that are floating around digitally.

    I do agree that the term Profile is, as you say, “flat” and “easy tied up” – but are not those key features of the digital documentation of a phenomenological experience that is always ephemeral? The Profile/brand/second self is comprised of atomized snapshots that make reality consumable in the digital form. Now, you may counter that the aggregate of this atomization of the ephemeral is still too rich and complex to be given a term as flat as Profile. And I am not sure that I would disagree. haha

    1. bon

      Nathan, this made me think about the ways in which we enter the social and financial market in our embodied lives…i do definitely agree that we do, but i’d say we do so in different ways. or perhaps more direct ways, online. it’s part of the reason i’m interested in LaTour – i want to try to trace the ways in which the online circulation that includes technologies as actants operates, and whether/how it differs from the operations of reputation and access in so-called real life.

  13. Mike

    Interesting question, Bonnie. One might think that it is just a word, but words carry many preconceived notions. I have heard ‘brand’ quite a bit as of late. It brings to my mind a kind of crass commercialization, selling oneself. Yet, in some sense that is what we are doing. I teach teacher candidates, and when we talk about creating a positive digital footprint and construct an ePortfolio, the object is to sell oneselve to a possible employer, so in that sense it is a kind of brand. All that said, I would prefer another. I do not have any ideas for anything new,as some others have said, profile is overused and gives the sense of a thumbnail sketch, no detail. I think I like the simple ‘identity’, or even add the ‘digital’ in front, many people project the same identity on and offline, but some might not. I heard Shelly Turkle on a recent ‘Daily Show'(I have not read her book as of yet, so I can’t judge) and she pointed out that people ‘perform’ when online. There might be some truth to that for some people, so I am ok with digital identity, just to help make a little clearer what is being talked about. Of course – I am open to new suggestions :)

    1. bon

      i was terribly disappointed by Sherry Turkle on the Colbert Report a couple of weeks ago: her work on digital identity was huge in shaping my M.A thesis twelve years ago. but now, it’s as if social media has passed her by, and she’s allowing/making a distinction between “authentic” (ie. embodied) connection and digital connection. certainly, she couldn’t articulate anything beyond that on Colbert…i may give the book a chance just out of respect for her former work, but wow. i was disappointed.

      as for performativity – my work is grounded in Butler so i’m okay with the idea of EVERYTHING being performance. :)

  14. Jane Gassner

    It’s been some–ahem!–years since Butler and Foucault et al were a regular part of my life, so forgive me if she (he’s dead, isn’t he?) has written more than I’ve read. It seems to me that a lot of the commenters understanding of brand and performance in this post and the earlier one are attaching a pop psych meaning to the words. Thus, the emphasis on “authentic self”, which exists only, as far as I can tell, on the Oprah show. I understand brand and my self as having less to do with my intention and more to do with how the Other[s] sees me. And that has everything to do with their own personal time, place, and–wait for the big word–stuff. Reflect and refract are how I am created and how I create and it varies for each reading (or performance). There is no external stability as such, IMHO.

    Btw, that more you know, the less you grasp feeling that you’re getting as you’re closing in on your diss–that is the whirlpool that will suck you down into perennial ABD-land. At a certain point, you’ve got to treat it like a job to be done. Take it from one who is still (and forever!) ABD.

  15. elise

    The assumption brand is only used to sell things and is a capitalist tool. sigh – it’s not. Brand describes the mark made in our consciousness by something, anything, and at times yes it’s a person but rarely. I’m in “branding” and will say there’s a difference between being recognized, recognizable, famous, a celebrity, and a brand. The 60’s – a brand now with all of it’s cultural and social legacy and stereotypes but once just a set of days, the Renaissance, Wallmart, U2, Watergate, Apple…. but not each individual carving out a place in the digital or paper or audio world. I think the word has become just another piece of jargon, losing it’s meaning as we glomm it onto ourselves, when it’s enough to have a clear (or nascent, or emerging, or fuzzy but hopeful) identity. I agree that brand and branding implies a deliberate setting out to control or shape perceptions, and the lessons of brand development can help guide individuals in articulating themselves clearly. And brand can be used for evil, as well as good, but that doesn’t make people brands when they work to shape and communicate an identity.

    1. bon

      elise, thank you. you made me realize what i’ve left out in trying to explain all this.

      what i’m calling brand – whether i continue to call it brand or not, b/c i’m pretty ambivalent about the term & it’s connotations/limitations – is not something people can “be.” in other words, your final sentence, that people aren’t brands when they work to shape and communicate an identity: i agree, even if i add the caveat that i’m speaking about online identity work.

      however, i DO think that the multi-faceted digital representation of ourselves CAN be exactly a brand. it depends, however, on what we DO online…this is the distinction i hadn’t fully thought through. i think those of us who live “in the open,” to an extent, who engage in the create/consume sharing cycle of the produsage economy and who put our own work out there to our networks and actively try to grow audience for those networks under a particular name (or names) that represent us? WE’RE branding. if you have a Facebook account and the rest of your online activity is consumption/reading, you’re not branding. so i think of it as a level of engagement, i guess. in an economy, even if one doesn’t engage in monetization.

  16. pkittle

    I’ve been thinking about this idea for about a year, and the term I coined to capture it is “distributed identities.” It sort of conjures up that cubist whole (as Michael Easter describes it above), the concatenation of the various personae we put out in our diverse social networks. I had originally thought about it from a very “branded” perspective–how can people and/or organizations strategically use their distributed identities to leverage professional capital?–but am now trying to reconcile that with a more reflective approach using curation as a lens.

    My friend Andrea Zellner & I will be presenting on this at the DML conference in Long Beach in a couple weeks, and then we hope to turn that into an article in the near future. Your thinking here is really helping us to work through our ideas–so thank you!

  17. Jill

    Confession: This blog is over my head, Bon. I had to Google Foucault. That said, I’d like to share some proof of your “brand” idea. I started my blog to do two things: to work through some powerful feelings, and to find a job. Wildly unconnected, even ridiculous-sounding, but I had a hunch the blog would serve a bigger purpose than simply letting me resolve some personal issues. My to-be boss Googled me, found my blog, liked my “brand,” and hired me with zero industry experience as her communications manager. The blog? A breast cancer blog, of all things….

  18. Cj

    Digital self. I refer to it as the ‘digital extension of the self’. But we will need new words soon because ‘digital’ is almost everything now!


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