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Comments Posted 05.08.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Rob Walker

If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back


On May 8, 2009, I gave a talk at a conference called “Blowing Up The Brand,” at NYU. Recently, pretty much all of the talks at that event were collected into a book — except mine. This made me curious to revisit my remarks. Were they really that bad? I went through the text and cleaned it up a bit, and added some “footnotes” to more recent observations by others that are related to the matters I spoke about, and decided to post it here. I guess it’s long for a site like this, but if you have time to read it, I welcome feedback — comments open.

It’s true that in some ways these remarks are somewhat dated — but in other ways I think they hold up pretty well. But whatever. The point is having looked at this again I’m thinking of revising and updating it in connection with something else I’m working on.

Here’s a summary if you want to skip ahead to anything that sounds interesting:

  • Section 1 deals with branding and individuality, and my basic contention that the “grammar of branding” is universally understood (in America).  This is something I’ve explored before, as many of you know, so you can skip that part if you’re tired of it.
  • Section 2 introduces my sense (as of May 2009, anyway) of the “transactional” nature of much social media. I think this core point of the talk is still very important, and under-discussed. So you might start there.
  • Section 3 names three related characteristics of much online expression: The “audience motive”; the escalation of easiness; and the privileging of measurability. Again, I think this holds up, and is more relevant than ever.
  • Section 4 attempts to tie together all of the above to offer a cautionary conclusion on the subject of creativity vs. “thinking of yourself as a brand” in the present social-media era. This section could have been better, but I believe the main message holds true and is worth consideration today.

I’ve been adding links and footnotes to the below, some of which post-date the actual talk but that I think are relevant to what I said in some way. I will continue to do so as things occur to me, or you suggest them.

————————

“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

[May 8, 2009, talk at NYU “Blowing Up The Brand” conference]

In 2008, during a Q&A session at the end of an event intended to promote a book I had recently published, somebody asked me for what amounted to career advice. Evidently my answer included a remark about thinking of oneself as a brand. I honestly don’t remember the details of what I said, but in the months that followed several people who had been at that event mentioned it to me. Clearly they had walked away that night with general idea that I had told them to think of themselves as brands. And more to the point:  They thought that was pretty good advice.

A year later here I am at “Blowing Up The Brand,” a two-day event that aims to explore critical perspectives on “promotional culture,” described as “the extension of promotional discourses, practices and performances into virtually all areas of public life.”

Thinking of yourself “as a brand” sure sounds of a piece with that critique. In other words, I may be part of the problem that I have been asked to come here to examine. This is a surprising thing for me to confront, particularly given that the book I was promoting when I was asked that question here in New York a year ago offered a not-very-upbeat critique of the blurring of marketing and day-to-day public life.

Frankly, I’m not proud of this turn of events. On the one hand I think that as a raw, practical piece of advice, I would stand by what I said to that audience in 2008. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a big asterisk I would put next to that observation now. My remarks here are that asterisk. I want, now, to put my throwaway comment into what I hope is a more considered context. 

1.

Branding, as I define it, is the process of attaching an idea to a thing. Part of what I’m interested in is the fact that the ideas that get attached to things through by way of branding have become, are becoming, more and more ambitious, in the context of the commercial marketplace. There has been a gradual shift from workaday ideas like quality or low price, to, for instance, the Dove brand’s articulation of a vision of the nature of beauty. That’s a pretty ambitious idea to attach to facial soap.

What has also changed, of course, is the way those ideas get around. Sometimes when I assert that branding is more prevalent and pervasive in our lives, people disagree. They say: “Well marketing is dying in this new world, because 30-second television ads (for example) are a lot less effective than used to be.” That may or may not be true. But the much larger point is that it doesn’t really matter anymore whether the 30-second television ad is effective or not, because what has really changed in the realm of commercial persuasion in the 21st century is that it’s gotten a lot more sophisticated. It happens across many more platforms than what people think of as traditional advertising; it’s much deeper in our daily lives; and, most of all, its presence there has been accepted and on some level embraced. As far as I can tell we are as a society relatively comfortably with the new dynamic: When the Dove brand introduces its vision of the nature of beauty, people have conversations about it, or talk about it on television, or text in their votes.

All of which is more or less what Buying In, my aforementioned book, was about. I won’t rehash that any further, but I thought it might be interesting to share two paragraphs that I actually cut from the book.

“I have a chance to become a brand,” the golfer Annika Sorenstam said, regarding her prospects for the 2007 LPGA tour, “which is a big focus for me. So is golf.” A Rolling Stone editor observed that the lesson of the modern rock industry is, “you build a brand over time, and you can sell the brand even if you can’t sell the albums.” Television journalist Maria Bartiromo has “become a brand unto herself in financial news reporting,” the trade publication Multichannel News observed. Not long after Milton Friedman’s death, The New York Times explained that the economist who defended the idea of the rational consumer had “became a brand name for a certain kind of partisan politics.”  The Times also reported on efforts to “establish Broadway as a brand.”  When a partner in a prominent design firm commented to the paper,  “it’s a big brand: 2,000-plus years of what marketers call brand equity in the making,” he was talking about Christmas.

It used to be vaguely scandalous to associate the packaging of politicians and their ideas like so much soap, but that, too, has become acceptable. Answering a question about the reputation of Democrats on matters of national defense in 2005, Senator John Kerry replied, “We have to brand more effectively. It’s marketing.” Not long after September 11, 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell talked of efforts to “rebrand American foreign policy” in the Middle East, and in the years since, the broader idea of “rebranding America” has been addressed in such earnest venues as The Atlantic and The NewsHour with  Jim Lehrer. At the World Economic Forum on Africa in the summer of 2006, it was suggested that “Africans must aim for proper branding” — but apparently by year-end, not much had happened along those lines, since The New York Times Magazine contended that “the word ‘Africa’ has become a brand, synonymous with misery and moral obligation”

That was written in 2007 or maybe early 2008, so some of the examples may seem a bit dated. But in the political sphere alone, think of how much we’ve heard about Obama as brand, Or, since the election, about the problems with the Republican brand. Clearly “the brand” is a concept that everyone, intuitively, gets. In fact this notion of “the brand” has become practically inescapable – it is the metaphor of the era. Despite all the nasty things we say to pollsters about how much we hate commercial persuasion, we have all grown comfortable with using the shorthand of “branding” in relation to things that are not part of the what we generally consider commercial-marketplace products. Human beings, for example. Including ourselves.

The broader idea, or practice, of the individual having what is in effect personal promotional strategy deployed in the public sphere, is quite likely a much older thing. There’s a lot to say about individual identity, or the kind of performance of the self, and what’s different and what isn’t, today. Jeff Pooley, of Muhlenberg College, has some excellent context to offer on this, in his talk at this conference, “Facebook and the Self: A Status Update.”

My focus is narrower. The raw articulation of the “Brand Called You” dates back to the 1990s, a completely different era in terms of the socio-economic mood from our era today. I wrote about this in 2000, and back then, I used to think of it this brand-called-you idea as a kind of spinoff of the cultural obsession with the hot startup companies of the time – everyone, it seemed to me, wanted to be a hot startup human.

That sort of thinking is all in the past now. But the underlying logic lingers on, and wide swaths of people have mastered and internalized the grammar and syntax of commercial persuasion. It’s a language that is widely spoken, and communicates across barriers within, and among, otherwise distinct cultures. This is why “the brand” is a metaphor everybody understands, and seems applicable not just to Dove facial creams, but to any prominent person, place, or concept. Theresa Senft, a media studies professor who has written about what she calls micro-celebrity 1, once put it this way: “People are using the same techniques employed on Madison Avenue to manage their personal lives. Corporations are getting humanized, and humans are getting corporatized.”

2.

Well so what? Why not think of yourself as a brand? Didn’t I myself tell people to do that not so long ago?

Recently — right around the time I was trying to figure out what I was going to say here at this event — a couple of things happened. Both involved Twitter.

Before I continue: Since I’m making these remarks from a stage in front of 100 or more people, it’s a good bet that somebody is tweeting about these words of mine even as I speak them, right now. I’ve noticed that Twitter enthusiasts can be a bit … sensitive … about anything that they perceive as negativity about Twitter. So let me just note that I’m going to say some things that might, at first, sound critical of Twitter, or people who use it. Listen: I don’t have any problem with Twitter, or with the use of Twitter, or with any Twitter user. But understand that I have been asked to come here to tonight and come up with something that will go on for a good deal more than 140 characters. So you might want to hold off, and let me get to the end before you pass judgment. Is that a fair request? Well, you decide. I guess I didn’t need to say that last part: You’re already deciding.

Anyway, as Twitter has gotten more media attention, I’ve been hearing from more and more people I have never before encountered, and about whom I know nothing, who tell me that they read my work and so on, and who want to know: “Are you on Twitter?  Here is my Twitter handle, what’s yours? If you follow me I will follow you back.”

That’s the precise phrase one person used, “if you follow me I will follow you back.”  I was struck that this did not sound like making a connection (one of the great attractions of Web 2.0). It instead sounded like making a transaction.2

Recently I happened to read an interesting column, by a guy who had just begun to use Twitter. Like many new Twitter-users, he quickly got caught up in trying to gather the maximum number of “followers.”  He explained: “I’m not a marketer, but I’m someone who is trying to build a personal brand (aren’t we all?).”

I suppose I should mention his name here, but maybe that would come off like product placement, wouldn’t it?

In any case, he starts researching how to get more followers and here’s what he learns:

The dirty little secret of Twitter is that many people get high follower counts by making it known that they will automatically follow you if you follow them. So when I had trouble getting over the 400 barrier, I Googled “twitterers who automatically follow you” and found a list of 237 people who do just that.

Many of these people, it should be noted, have well in excess of 10,000 followers already, which means that not only will they not be receptive to my messages but, because they are following so many people, they will be unlikely to see my messages.

This raises a question. What is more important: a theoretical audience, or the degree of engagement with members of an actual audience? Having 10,000 followers is a powerful “signal” that whatever one is saying is important  — even if the reality is that most of those 10,000 aren’t actually listening. Having an audience of 10 that is engaged and useful and paying attention might have more use-value. But because your audience looks small, the signal to others is that nobody cares what you have to say.

I have a web site where I sometimes muse openly for a decidedly small audience about stuff that’s on my mind, subjects that I might be writing about, and so on, because sometimes in this group of people who I think are familiar with my work there are smart individuals who know things I don’t know. So I posted something about this to see what my little audience thought.

I got a few responses, and what surprised me is that everybody who answered considered the matter purely in terms of marketing and branding implications. They lectured me about how social media represented a break from broadcast media, and the importance of customer engagement, and how your approach to Twitter should depend on whether you already had a “hard core fan base of evangelists” or not, and blah blah blah.

To me, that sort of response is a problem. I wasn’t asking about how a business like Starbucks or Comcast should use Twitter, I was talking about, you know, humanity. About how an individual might think about the appearance of an abstract audience, as opposed to a small set of meaningful connections.

I’ve said that I don’t have a problem with Twitter, or the Web. So this little set of events forced me to think through: Okay, so what is the problem here?

3.

To answer that, I must note three properties of the Web that happen to intersect with this general idea of branding as a pervasive metaphor.

The first property of the Web that I want to focus on here is what I think of as “the audience motive.” This is a cousin of the more familiar profit motive. Here’s an example.

Not long ago I wrote a column about scrapbooks. People often say that the Web “allows” people to express themselves, but I disagree. Long before the Web, if you wanted to write to express yourself, or take pictures, or paint, or make pottery, or whatever, you always could. Scrapbookers a hundred years ago, for example, were expressing themselves. The difference between then and now is that a hundred years ago, if someone was making a scrapbook, the imagined audience was maybe just the maker, or family members, descendants, possibly close friends. But the potential audience online is immense. 3

Surely I don’t need to belabor that point. But just to finish the thought: As you may know, there is today a sprawling subculture-slash-industry of scrapbookers who post their layouts online. Occasionally a real star emerges out of that world and gets hired by some scrapbook supply-maker in a kind of sponsorship deal and really does, you know, become an actual brand. One example I wrote about was a woman who among other things sells a font that’s based on her handwriting.

You might say: “Ah ha! Well that’s what motivates all these people uploading their layouts – it’s the profit motive.” But while I’m sure they’d all love to make a living from their hobby, I don’t think that works in all, or even most cases, to explain what’s going on. I think often these scrapbookers just want recognition, or approval. They want an audience. It so happens that it feels much easier to get an audience now. And it’s certainly a lot easier to try.

Along with the audience motive, in fact, a second major property of the Web, or Web tools, is that in various ways it’s made it extraordinarily easy for people to express themselves. There’s a kind of Moore’s Law of easiness online – every 18 months it’s half as hard to express yourself twice as much.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, really.4 You have this audience motive, and you have easiness. And then the third thing I would point to, in exploring how Web tools intersect with branding, is that very often expression on the Web seems much more measurable than it does in other contexts.5

How many views is your scrapbook layout getting? How many positive votes? How many readers does your blog have? How many friends do you have on Facebook or whatever?  Do people like your Amazon review?  How many YouTube views? How many hits? How many Diggs? How many followers? How many page views on your Etsy shop? How many sales?

The resulting dynamic is one that privileges anything that has a number next to it – and marginalizes anything that doesn’t. It rewards popularity, and it particularly rewards forms of popularity that are easy to measure, and thus easy to grasp.

That’s a funny turn of events, given how often the Web is positioned as an antidote to mass culture. But that’s another story.

4.

The point is that those numbers have become a very powerful form of social capital. So powerful that it’s hard not to ask: Don’t you want to improve your numbers? Aren’t they a proxy for something?

For what?

I think one answer comes in the form of Googling for Twitter uses who will join your official audience, whether they are listening to you or not, and I think it comes in the form of saying “If you follow me, I will follow you back,” converting the idea of connection into a transaction that’s either a barter, or a kind of Ponzi scheme.

It’s not that there’s something Twitter-specific or Web-specific that causes people to behave this way. There are plenty of examples of such behavior online and off, and there are plenty of examples of people behaving very differently, very humanly, online and off.

People have to work this stuff out for themselves. But I understand perfectly how someone who doesn’t have any intention to think in a promotional-paradigm way ends up doing just that — like the guy who wrote that column I quoted above, fretting about his audience numbers — his ratings, basically. Even though my Facebook status updates are available only to people I actually consider friends on some level,  I still know which ones get the most “Likes” and which don’t get any “Likes.”6

And I think it’s important to point out that there’s been some pretty heated controversy among some members of the Twitterati  themselves about who gets to be on the list of 100 Twitterers that you see when you sign up. In other words, even those people are keenly tuned into the belief that the follower number has some kind of intrinsic value.

Whatever the intent, it’s that measurability factor, in combination with the other two Web properties I mentioned, that tends to engender a very overt marketplace dynamic online.

Even that wouldn’t bother me too much, except that any such system will tend to marginalize things that are harder to quantify. You can express something online (or offline, obviously) that causes someone to have an important conversation with a friend, or that just causes someone to think a little differently. You could make something, online or off, a painting, a song, whatever, that really moves another human being emotionally. But those achievements can’t necessarily be captured in a number, and certainly they can’t be captured by Googling “people who will be genuinely moved by my ideas.”  Those achievements can’t be created by emailing someone: “If you are changed by my self-expression, I’ll be changed by your self-expression back.”

And so, instead, the focus too often shifts to things that can be measured, and that’s what turns self-expression into a numbers game, connection into transaction.

The thing to remember about these Web tools, is that that’s what they are – tools. Forms of media. A means toward expressing something – an idea, or friendship, whatever. Again, I am not anti-Web, or anti-Twitter, or anti-technology.

My view is that tools don’t make you creative, any more than they make you narcissistic.

People use tools in various ways – sometimes creative, and sometimes narcissistic. Sometimes both, sometimes neither.

What causes trouble, and what I at least see as a problem, is the sense that pervasive sense that, above all, these tools must be used. It’s become an imperative: Got to figure out something to say with this new tool, got to get good at using it. Got to get good numbers. That causes trouble for actual brands who end up making fools of themselves, but that’s not our concern here. I think it can cause even more trouble for individuals.

At a certain point you can find yourself in a situation where the tool isn’t working for you, you are working for the tool. You’ve entered this marketplace dynamic, a dynamic that rewards promotional strategies. And thus … you’re not merely thinking of yourself as a brand, you’re actually behaving like a brand. All the time.

I’m a pragmatic person. The workplace, defined broadly, really is a marketplace these days. We don’t have the kind of romantic vision of the hot company and endless possibility that a lot of people bought into in the 1990s. We do have a sense that we’re on our own. It’s been a long time since people counted on companies taking care of their health benefits and pensions and whatnot, as my parents’ generation could. Today it feels treacherous out there, and so it feels best to be self-sufficient. That means competing, which in turn means you’re trying to win in a marketplace and you better behave accordingly. That, actually, is all I was trying to get across when I told people at that event in 2008, rather glibly, to think of themselves as brands. I was trying to say something practical.

I don’t think it’s exciting to think of yourself as a brand. In fact I think it can quite easily become frustrating, depressing, alienating. So I guess what I wish I had said is a little bit different. I’ve even reduced it to less than 140 characters. Here goes:

It might be useful to think of yourself as a brand sometimes; but it is crucial, always, to remember that you aren’t.

  1. Senft, the author of Camgirls: Celebrity & Community in the Age of Social Networks, uses the term in this 2004 dissertation synopsis. Also of possible interest is this 2007 Wired piece by Clive Thompson, which I think may be the first use of the term in a mainstream publication. Momus seems to have coined the phrase “famous for fifteen people” in this 1991 essay.
  2. The (to me) striking phrase “follow you back” is used in this recent item in The Awl about site that “tells you which people that you follow on Twitter don’t follow you back.”
  3. The most relevant (to the idea of the audience motive) passage in that column: “Somewhere between the friendly Web buzzwords ‘self-expression’ and ‘community’ is a cousin to the profit motive: the audience motive. To be creative, sure, but also to be recognized as creative.”
  4. Well, there might be. In this essay on the production of boredom, Rob Horning cites the 1979 argument of Ralph Larkin that “prepackaged experience” basically undermines real creativity and expression, leading to the conclusion that “problem solving is essentially a process of selection the correct combination of alternatives.” Larkin makes this case with an example involving model airplanes; maybe I’m reaching, but a lot of Web tools have a model airplane quality now: You don’t have to learn code, or design, or even how to spell. You just pick the right kit.
  5. This comes up a bit in this earlier post on Tweeting as play.
  6. Here’s an interesting short essay by someone making the case that Facebook status updates are inflated with positivity, showing “discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private.” He argues that this is a result of the fact that Facebook encourages weak-tie “friend”ships: “From these people you get a constant stream of life, edited to show the good parts,” and it’s hard not to do the same.

This essay was originally published in The Journal of Murketing, September 19, 2010.
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Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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