Since starting this blog a month ago, I’ve found myself writing several posts about the importance of understanding anthropology, not just technology, when developing Internet products and services. In an effort to be clearer regarding what I mean by “anthropology,” I’ve decided to get more specific.
This is the first in a series of articles analyzing whether something we see and experience online is a Silicon Valley fad or a cultural trend you can expect to endure and permeate into non-geek cultures. If you’re building an Internet product or service that you want to survive and make mainstream, it is vital to know the difference.
Personal Branding: Fad or Trend?
Sarah Lacy, a Silicon Valley journalist, yesterday posted an article about how her concerted efforts to brand herself haven’t paid off in cash. Like so many others, Lacy is working longer and harder than ever for no visible return.
What is it?
Personal branding means to package yourself into a commercial property that can be applied to various products (think cartoonist Hugh MacLeod promoting tailored suits and wine) or across a variety of platforms (think Scobleizer on Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc.) Personal branding in the context of the Internet essentially comes down to Web celebrity in micro-niches, mostly geek related.
Why is it?
Many people are busting out Yertle-the-Turtle tactics to virtually climb the social ladder by collecting “friends” and followers as some people might collect trading cards. But much of this is nothing more than natural ego feeding and is not a conscious effort to establish a personal brand.
When it comes to deliberate personal branding efforts, I believe there are two main forces driving the aspiration. One is the on-the-job desire to highlight your own external visibility, to grow it separately from that of your company, so that you may carry its value with you as you move from job to job to job. Remember, nobody these days expects to work for the same company for very long, either by choice or by layoff.
The media world is especially dynamic, thanks to disruption caused by the Internet. If you have a job today, you can’t count on having it tomorrow, so it makes sense to leverage whatever visibility and credibility your employer offers and make it your own. As an example, Robert Scoble formed a large hive of followers thanks to his job at Microsoft. Since leaving the software giant, Scoble has maintained a herculean effort to breed this hive so that his value to other potential employers is much greater than it would be if he were a lone employee. Like a queen bee, wherever Scoble moves, his hive moves with him, and a higher compensation point is assured, so long as visibility is what the new employer wants to hire.
The second propellant for personal branding is the Internet’s “culture of free.” Most people with digitizable talents no longer have a secure and dependable means to profit directly from their work, since digitized copies can be swiped for nothing. For example, markets for photographs, cartoons and freelance writing have collapsed. But that’s a good thing, according to Silicon Valley’s free-culture evangelists. Free, they’ve claimed for years, will make you richer than ever. All you need to do is give your work away for nothing in order to build up followers and a personal brand, and then somehow (magically?), all that visibility will translate into dollars. Sell t-shirts. Sell book collections. Become a paid speaker. Just sit back as people throw money at you. Ride the high tide of all that free love. That’s the attractive theory.
Will it Last?
No. Personal branding is a Silicon Valley fad; it’s not a cultural trend.
Yes, personal branding has indeed worked for a relatively small number of people in the short term, but it’s not sustainable for the long run. Nor is it a practical strategy for the masses. Here are some reasons why:
1) Personal branding is an extremely consuming effort. Hugh MacLeod often writes in his blog about being exhausted by the demands of living an independent branded life without the security and relaxation of a steady income. Robert Scoble claims to spend seven hours or more every day on FriendFeed alone, which is nine hours a week more than a full time job. The vast majority of people are unwilling or unable to put in the time and dedication required to be a Web celebrity.
2) Each one of us has two talents. We have more or less ability to do a huge variety of tasks, but only two genuine talents. Very few people have more than two and virtually nobody has less. Unless one of those talents is salesmanship or you happen to fall into good luck (or a blend of both), you simply don’t have what it takes to turn the other talent (or mix of good-at’s) into popularity.
3) Celebrity itself is always ephemeral, no matter what you do. As Sarah Lacy points out in the above article, you must constantly look over your shoulder to watch out for the next guy who wants to steal your thunder. Count on that next person emerging to replace you, sooner or later. People’s attention is a zero sum game. If somebody new stays on the radar, then somebody else must disappear. The most ardent fans are often the first to become disloyal since seeking the “new” and “fresh” and “exciting” is part of the psychological makeup of being a fan.
4) Being viewed as a brand is fraught with risk in this post-collapse economy when CEO-hating consumers distrust things that smack of corporate-ness. Watch for people to increasingly disengage from folks who have a commercial agenda beyond the sharing of their own talents and genuine passions. (Scoble and MacLeod actually fair well here, since they both promote only what they’re honestly passionate about, or so it seems.) Be mindful that what passed as confident self-expression pre-collapse may well be viewed as shameless self-promotion now. More than ever, people want and need real value added to their own lives, not hype, and certainly not exploitation for somebody else’s profit.
5) Remember the lesson of The Incredibles: if everybody is “super,” then nobody is. The idea that anybody and everybody can be a celebrity doesn’t logically work. The frustration and dysfunction of trying to out-popular the next guy will ultimately collapse the desire – to the point that the culture turns against follower greed. Soon, value and authority must be found in ways beyond how your stats look.
6) Brands must be positioned. That’s the problem bloggers have. Michael Arrington is the arrogant-ass tech blogger who specializes in arrogant-ass startup news. But is that really what he wants to be doing forever? Surely not. Who wants to be doing anything forever? But because of personal branding, Arrington is TechCrunch and TechCrunch is Arrington. Consequently, it’s very difficult (some say impossible) for Arrington to sell TechCrunch. And even if he could sell it, is he now too “typecast” to remake himself into a different brand? Normal people live multiple dimensions and many different lives within one lifespan. When you turn yourself into a brand, you’re short-changing other aspects of yourself in the present and threatening your future evolution.
7) Branding yourself is potentially dangerous. The goal of branding is to become as exposed as possible. Do you really want to expose your whole self and consequently your loved ones, even your children, to the all the crazies in this world. Do you really? Most people don’t.
8 ) As the volume and quality of news, information and entertainment increase online to a more television-like level, and as average individuals become increasingly empowered to gather and share both, the concentrations of people who currently surround any one individual will disperse. Average Joes and Janes will engage one-on-one with friends they mutually perceive as equally valuable. While they will happily discuss pertinent content an A-list blogger may write, gathering at the feet of said blogger to be talked at, about all kinds of irrelevant matters, is going to go the way of the dodo tweet. In other words, when more professionalism comes online and focus shifts to being about your work, not about you, personal branding becomes moot. I predict this shift is going to happen before the end of next year.
9) Brand recognition doesn’t even equate to perceived value, much less real value. In other words, having high recognition isn’t necessarily the same thing as having a good reputation and a valuable property. It can be quite the contrary, in fact. The most effective tool for building brand recognition online is controversy. All web celebrities I can think of use it purposefully, some more than others. “Shocking” language. Cynicism and misanthropy. Attacks on other Web celebrities. The periodic drama between A-list friends. It’s all about attracting and keeping attention. Loren Feldman, who I happen to think is funny and talented though his subject matter doesn’t usually appeal to me, is the poster boy for growing his brand via controversy. While it’s been effective for increasing viewership, it’s come back to bite him financially at least once. Verizon dropped a distribution deal with Feldman because of his “TechNigga” videos from years ago. If you put yourself out there as a brand, you’re going to attract enemies as well as friends, and you’re going to collect baggage, some of which could actually harm your career rather than help it.
Implications for Internet Products and Services
1) Blogging will not survive. Blogs are a tool for personal branding, and we know how that will come out. Create something to replace blogs.
2) As social networking matures, pointing to how many followers you have will seem immature at best, gauche at worst. If you’re creating a new social network, don’t make the members’ number of followers public. Leveling the playing field (as Ning does) will be much more effective than creating kings (as FriendFeed does).
3) Create a revenue model. Design in it at the notebook stage. Make it a part of your DNA, not something you clumsily strap on later. Some of the Web’s best companies, like SmugMug, have refused to skip to Pied Piper economics and are doing well precisely because they didn’t believe the sham of Free and felt confident enough in their offering to charge for it.
4) If you rely on advertising and are dependent on user-generated content, make your revenue model distributive. Allow your members to own and control their social graph and compensate them for its use. Pay your contributors for content that makes you money. The days of making other people billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg and the YouTube guys, without getting tangible compensation in return, are over. Perhaps ironically, the next Google-like success story, the next IPO offering that leads to massive wealth for investors, is the company that understands that nobody wins the social networking space until we all do.
5) Understand the underlying trends that have led to the personal branding fad, and design products and services to solve those problems directly. For example, create a way for photographers to get paid for their photos. Or create a way for bloggers and journalists to carry their monetization models with them no matter what platform they’re on.
6) To expand #5 more generally: serve. Serve your users – be they your readers, your social network members, or paying customers – as emotionally and as materially as you can. This recession already feels like a depression to many people, and has for some time. Find ways to save them money, create methods to make them money, allow them the means to find and commiserate with people in their same boat. Create a way for fit-to-be-tied consumers to hold greedy corporations accountable! The economy will get worse before it gets better. Remember that we live in a post-collapse world and we’re never going back. Even as the economy soars again, the culture won’t go back. Our tolerance for commercialism, our debt tolerance, our trust capacity have all been forever altered. All these things have implications when it comes to the successful design and development of Internet products and services.
I hope this article has provided at least some insight into the value of anthropology, and helps explain my assertion that the best technology will fail in the marketplace if it’s matched to poor anthropology. Better yet, if you understand anthropology, you will find opportunity, and all of us need more of that.
I will write other installments for this “Fad or Trend?” series in the coming weeks. If you have any questions, topic suggestions, or wish to challenge me on anything, please leave a comment below. Thanks.