“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” – Winston Churchill

“Personal branding? That’s what ranchers do to cattle, right?”

That was my first comment when I was asked what I though of personal branding. Personal branding is simply marketing oneself and career in a way that promotes you as being distinct in a specific way. Personal branding is something I personally loathe. It’s not that I think the concept is bad in and of itself. I think everyone promotes a specific desired image of themselves in some way through fashion choices, media preferences, beliefs, people they associate with and so on. But personal branding, well, there’s something that feels very facetious about it all.

Dan Mullin wrote his thoughts on personal branding and it made me think of the conversations we’ve had about it and why we, each in our own way, see it as a necessary evil. A friend advised Dan to control his “brand”, and to stay away from controversial topics such as politics and religion, “all the fun topics” as Dan put. Like Dan, I tend to be contrarian and when told “you shouldn’t do this” I often answer with “why not”, which can be both a good and bad answer.

While Dan forms his opinions based on academia as his peer group, my group is different: members of the media. While media, like academia, does have it’s intelligentsia, those attracted to deep thoughts and big questions, media is much more “image obsessed” than academia. In some ways image is everything in media. At the risk of sounding cynical, when I look through what’s popular in pop culture, it seems to be that if you have a good enough beat, enough big explosions and some zombies thrown in for good measure, substance isn’t really needed.

I’ve worked in TV and film for many years and have had the opportunity to conduct workshops and be part of media advisory council. Especially in working with the media advisory council I’ve pushed myself to know how a news story is covered, the difference between “soft” and “hard” news, to know what’s going on in my hometown of Hamilton, and to know my media theory as well as anyone else in the room.

Personal branding presents me with a problem: how do I present myself to fellow media members? The key in the TV and film worlds is networking. It’s often not so much what you know and how well you can do it, but who you know. I will readily admit that networking isn’t my strong point. I can be charming and friendly when I need to be but I would never be described as a social butterfly.

So how do I present myself? I’m a man of walking contradictions. While on the one hand, I’m always reading about philosophy, theology, physics, social justice and many other topics, I still take far too much childish glee in whenever I come across the section in Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” where he gives advice on how to deal with someone with stinky armpits. While I’ve given intelligent public discourses on everything from the problem of evil to aboriginal rights to media theory, I still giggle like a three year old whenever someone farts. When it comes to personal branding do I put my best, most polished self out there or do I present an honest picture of who I am, warts and all, and say “this is me, take it or leave it”?

Along with figuring what “me” I want to brand, there is another issue at play here: my ethnicity. I’m Native. Or Aboriginal, if you’re more into the politically correct phraseology. Being a Native in Canada at this point in time is both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side, Natives are standing up for their rights and heritage in a way never seen before, but it’s also bringing to light the abuse, neglect and despair they’ve faced for generations. Where I live, in Hamilton, Ontario, there is still bitterness and resentment towards Natives because of a Native occupation several years ago in nearby Caledonia. That resentment has led to me being the target of several racial remarks, despite neither me nor any of my relatives being involved in the Caledonia incident.

Racial slurs aside, there is another reason being open about being Native can be a problem for me, branding wise: roughly 50% of Natives in Canada have a high school diploma, compared to roughly 80% of Canada’s non-Native population. The number drops to roughly 14% for university/college diplomas, compared to 35% for the rest of Canada. As I’ve written about before, I fall into that 86% of Natives without a university diploma. Along with education issues, another roadblock Natives face is that they are over-represented in Canada’s jail population, to the point where Supreme Court justices in both British Columbia and Manitoba have stated publicly that “something needs to be done” to address why so many Natives end up behind bars.

You might be asking “what does this have to do with personal branding?” and the answer is this: As much as we might believe we are a progressive society, especially here in North America, we still have a long way to full acceptance of those different from us. I’ve unfortunately had to face that stigma of racism when being assessed for a job. I guess I could highlight that being Native means hiring me helps fill government-mandated quotas for equal opportunity employment, but branding myself as “Hire me, I’m government quota-friendly!” doesn’t exactly scream “best qualified”…

However, when I think about it, “best qualified” doesn’t seem to matter all that much. It used to, but now that seems to have been replaced with “best promoted”. As I wrote earlier, I’m not the best at self-promotion. Self-promotion is something that is profoundly uncomfortable for me. Part of it is because of my upbringing. My adopted parents were children during the Great Depression and then World War II. What they were taught is that you’re part of a team, that we all have to work together, you should let your work speak for itself, and that self-promotion comes at the cost of social goals. They were also raised under the mantra of “a craftsman’s worth is shown by the quality of what he produces”.

Personal branding, in many cases, goes against that mantra. One thing I’ve learned from attending film industry meetings and networking get-togethers is that often the person promoting themselves loudest is, ironically, the person who has the least to actually give in terms of talent and ability. It’s the old “you can talk a good game” experience we’ve all had. With the explosion in social media, self-promotion is easier than ever and it’s no longer confined to just your personal sphere of influence. You can now post something on the internet and have it found around the world. The global village as led to global outsourcing of things you’d previously have to find either in your hometown or the nearest large city.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing. When TV was first becoming the media staple it is now, newsman and TV interviewer Edward R. Murrow said during an industry speech “It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other”.

Applying this to social media, the danger of over-estimating our wonderment to the world at large should be very apparent. It’s easy to let our egos run away with us, especially knowing that the anonymity of the internet means consequences and proving of one’s abilities aren’t much of a priority. For example, I could brag that I’m now an internationally-read blogger, since according to WordPress’ tracking data for Shaneisms my posts have been read by people from North America, to Europe, to Asia, to Africa and everywhere else in between. That might sound cool, but what does it mean? Humbly speaking, not much. I think it’s cool that people from all the planet have take time to read my words, but like Murrow said, that doesn’t confer upon me any greater wisdom or understanding.

*Note to self: add “internationally-read blogger” to bio*

It’s far too easy to assign yourself a title that sounds good and impressive on a bio, even if those words are a stretch of the truth. For example, if I wanted to make myself sound far more impressive than I actually am, I could list all the jobs and volunteer activities I’ve done. I could list times I’ve been featured in some form of media, or things I’ve given lectures and sermons on. Using that criteria of self-promotion my titles list could go as follows:

Maintenance man, security guard, waiter, carpenter, roofer, Philosopher, on-air video game reviewer, stand-in elf, snow shoveller, grass cutter, card shark, dog sledder, Marilyn Monroe impersonator, videographer, filmmaker, writer, TV producer, media adviser, social activist, workshop leader, amateur pilot, Christian, die hard fan of the Toronto Blue Jays and Maple Leafs, Theologian, tour guide, fake superhero, philanthropist, cat herder, dog walker, snowfort builder, poetry quoter, babysitter, haunted-house mummy, carpet cleaner, comic book writer, internationally-read blogger, imitation midget, podcaster, alternate Pope, fake mustache enthusiast and, finally, the man behind the Great Moon Hoax of 1835.

All of those descriptions could be correct. Okay, maybe some of them are made up. They could all be made up. That doesn’t really matter though, does it? When it comes to personal branding, truth doesn’t seem to exactly be the main thing in mind. It’s all about setting yourself apart, saying “I’m unique, just like everyone else, and this why!” as loudly as possible. It’s about careful control of one’s personal image, the idealization of who you could be, even if it doesn’t match up with who you actually are.

Should that matter? Nah. Put your best foot forward, wear a snappy suit, and use buzzwords and phrases like “stakeholder” “political capital” and “synergy”. Branding doesn’t actually have to mean anything if it sounds really important when you say it. I really do think Winston Churchill was on to something when he said “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”. After all, he knew a little something about putting forth a strong public image when it mattered most.

Personal branding does give me the chance to tell the world who I am on my own terms, which means I can present myself as the person I’ve always wanted to be. After all, my parents told me as a child that I could grow up to be anyone I wanted to be, even if it turns out as an adult this is called “identity theft“…

Maybe I should just be honest about who I am, warts and all. Honest is the best policy, right? But if I tell everyone who I am, warts and all, what if they don’t like me? What if they’re only interested in the snappy-suited, buzzword-using Shane? After all, it’s all about image, right? My actual talent doesn’t matter. I work in TV and film… we can greenscreen in my talent later, right? I’m so confused…

I guess I should go hire a personal brander to tell me who I really am…

“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” – Sean Parker, “The Social Network”

I am not a big fan of social media. If it was up to me, I would have no problem doing without the vast majority of it. I know what you’re thinking… “and yet you’re saying this via social media”. The irony is not lost on me. In fact, that irony, that realization, frustrates me to no end.

I’m old enough to remember when the tech du jour was an Apple II. I remember having a Commodore 64 in my room and learning to properly type using it. I remember the old brick cellphones and how cool it was when the phones got small enough to fit in your back pocket. I remember the hiss and buzz of dial-up internet and using a text based interface to navigate around the just emerging internet. I remembering using ICQ to chat to friends during my high school and college days.

When I look at the way the internet and social networking have evolved, I honestly feel like we’ve taken a step back as a society. There’s something disconcerting about knowing that I can call, email, text and yell off of my balcony trying to get hold of someone to no avail, but send them a Facebook message and *boom* less than five minutes later I’ve got a reply.

I have a Facebook account and I post almost every day. Usually I try to post something that is so absurd that when you read it will make you laugh and forget all the drama going on around you. I’ve wanted to leave Facebook several times but every time I want to I get flooded with messages saying “I’ll miss you!”, “Don’t go, you make me laugh!” and “If you leave, where will I get my daily reminder of how important my sanity is to me when I see you’ve clearly lost yours?”… and then my wife chimes in telling me she likes to have me on Facebook as a balance against all the drama people post.

It’s that drama that makes me want to leave and why I don’t like social media to begin with. I’m all for wanting to stay in touch, checking up on how my friends and family are doing, and finding out about what’s going on in the community. But that makes up maybe 20% of what comes across my Facebook page. The rest is usually a weird mixture of baby photos (or statuses about how little Timmy or Janie learned to use the potty or discovered the cat doesn’t taste as good as it looks), Instagram photos (I don’t understand how over-saturating the colors makes a photo 72% more awesome), and drama about how your boyfriend or girlfriend is the greatest person since Albert Schweitzer, or something about how you can’t believe your “best” friend would do whatever it is they did. This time.

It is true that I’ve found long lost friends using social media. It’s fun to reconnect and see that I’m the only one not going bald and that their hopes and dreams are still, like mine, hopes and dreams. I like being able to support friends doing fundraisers (when I can afford it) and cheer them on when they have a big event like a wedding, birth of a child or when they finally finish grad school. Yet, for all these good things I find myself feeling strangely more disconnected than ever in terms of having actual one on one face-time with people.

When I was growing up, if I wanted to see what my friends down the street were doing, I’d put on my shoes and go ring their doorbell. Most of the time that was the extent of planning out the afternoon. We’d run home and get our bikes and baseball gloves and go to the nearest diamond, or ride over the mall and see what was new at the comic book store. It seems that walking down the street has been replaced with texting and while it’s more efficient, I don’t find it anywhere near as fun.

I understand the allure of texting… you can have a conversation with someone without having to actually have a conversation with them. It’s also handy in an emergency, since you can get the word out quickly no matter where everybody happens to be at that moment. Unfortunately, I see our society dumbing down because of it. I’ve seen entire Facebook posts written in just “netspeak”. A friend of mine who is a university psychology professor has told me he’s had papers written almost entirely in that same netspeak shorthand. I can’t shake this feeling that if we continue this way that a few centuries from now we will have thumbs that rival Superman’s but will end up saying “oh… so that’s what you actually look like” when we finally meet up with each other. Assuming we can make that coherent of a sentence and not just “u look funy. lol. :)”

Maybe I’m too old fashioned for my own good, but I hate texting. No, not “hate”. Maybe “loathe to the very core of my being” is better. Seriously, if you want to tell me something, take the two minutes to call me. The usual complaint is “but it costs more”. Congratulations… you’ve just shown how valuable you consider your time and conversation to be. If the cost is really that big of a deal, next time I see you I will give you a dollar to cover the immense expense of calling me.

There are two other aspects of social media that really bother me. The first is this sense that the world needs to be informed of your every decision. Do I really need to know that you went to Wal-Mart? Or what you had for dinner? Or that you like it when your socks don’t match? As riveting as all this information flowing about is, I’m pretty sure I can live without it. It might be difficult to shoulder on in a world without knowing that your cat likes to be called “snookums” as opposed to “fluffy” but, somehow, I’ll manage to go on.

The second aspect ties into the first aspect of over-estimating one’s importance to society. It’s that the anonymity of the internet puffs people up into making “tough guy” statements they have no chance of backing up in real life. From calling someone out for any slight, real or otherwise, to making racial, ethnic and religious slurs, there’s a sense that because you’re not face to face with the person, there’s no real consequence. You’ve all read comments to this effect. I really wonder how many tough guys there would be if they had to say it face to face, knowing the other person can instantly retaliate in a way you can’t avoid simply by disconnecting from the internet.

Perhaps what I’m really missing is the feeling of community and good, engaging conversations. Social media seems to have put us on the path to be trained to limit our thoughts to 140 characters and whittle away our feelings to whatever fits in a soundbite. Social media consultants will tell you that the explosion of personal media outlets is the greatest transformation of the past 100 years. I don’t buy it. And not just because they’re paid to hype social media. For all the chances we have for reaching out, we squander them on mindlessness. I fear that many truly brilliant ideas have been missed because of the never-ending cacophony of all our social media outlets.

I’ve heard it said that social media is a necessary evil. I disagree. “Evil” is only “necessary” when we refuse to live without it, despite a better choice possibly existing. I’ve heard people say “I can’t live without my smartphone”. Really? Try leaving it at home sometime and see just how quickly you die, probably by falling over-dramatically, in slow-motion, with choral music playing.

We can say more than ever, in more ways than ever, but do we really have anything to say? Now… stop reading this, leave your computer and go outside without any communication device on you except your own vocal chords. Get reconnected.