How we unknowingly learn to sell ourselves instead of engendering trust.
Today, people tend to look to psychology or self-help to improve life mainly because they see themselves as an endpoint rather than a social junction. Wisdom gained in self-help can provide some benefit but often fails, having ignored external influences. If trying to improve yourself or relationships, an effective strategy manifests in understanding cultural and social forces promoting or inhibiting honesty, rationality, and many other beneficial qualities. We feel the pressure these forces exert, most notably from economic systems.
Economic systems shape life in many ways, not excluding our social interactions. I cannot speak for other countries, but in America, capitalism environs people with the selling of everything, including necessities like healthcare, and this endemic commercialization makes people evaluate everything economically with a cost-benefit analysis. How frequently have you heard an argument over the cost of welfare and someone questioning, “Well, how would we pay for that? Who is going to pay for that?” Society’s costing of social interventions is just one example of capitalism’s ability to transactionally define everything, including your thinking.
To succeed within capitalism, you quickly learn from birth to value things because not doing so determines failure or success through gain or loss of money. Valuation is perhaps the plainest and most necessary behavior but far from the only capitalistic stimuli impacting life. A constant influx of buzzwords, advertisements, and many other business influences pattern our personas, often detrimentally, as seen in branding.
Business defines “brand” as a product or company promotion that provides distinction from competition, but the concept’s understanding does not make you less vulnerable to the perceived need to brand. In fact, awareness can worsen the effect if you apply the concept deliberately, but whether knowingly or unknowingly, self-branding presents across many areas of life, exemplified by social media.
How Brand Manifests in Life
Many believe programmers like Mark Zuckerberg created social media via applications like Facebook for users to share information. Nothing could be further from the truth. Social media’s birth came from advancements of large companies that provided the infrastructure to make this form of communication possible. The growth of social media required the expansion of internet technologies, explained perfectly by Facebook’s need to build server farms to facilitate traffic for lower cost and efficiency. Social media is, in many ways, just the history of the internet, which didn’t occur in Zuckerberg’s dorm but evolved from companies financing the research and applying the technologies.
Social media is a commercial enterprise capable of supporting more egalitarian or socially concerned ventures which produce an illusion of community and ubiquitous use, but the purpose of profit underpins this fantasy denoted by the ads plastered on the sites. Contrary to what users believe, the core service of sites like Facebook and Twitter is not a means of communication supported by advertising, but a means of marketing, specifically, you. Similar to television commercials becoming part of the American psyche, social media’s commercialization manifests in the users not as a memorable ad but as posting memes, political diatribes, and other content as an act of self-branding. To understand this blending of marketing and persona, you need only ask yourself what you actually do on social media when you build a profile?
Building a Facebook profile is not an expression of yourself. Though sold this way, your profile creation is more akin to erecting a billboard, making most features and interactions self-marketing devices, evidenced by the offering to boost posts. Critics argue these features furnish a way to learn about people to facilitate friendships and other relationships, and though sometimes true, the need to brand oneself renders most interactions disingenuous.
Consider the act of setting up a profile on Facebook and all the different options meant to display facets of you: music, books, hobbies, etc. What is the purpose? Interest? Engagement? For who? All your real-world friends should already know these things about you, so if meant for strangers in the virtual world, you posted an ad about you. Step back and consider when people meet; they don’t hold a sign advertising their many attributes. More to the point, no one sane posts all their flaws on social media — just like no company will post a billboard proclaiming all the bad things about a product.
Instead, you brand yourself with all the things you want people to believe about you.
Social media’s truth omission or blatant dishonesty is well-known but not new since the same issue occurred with other media like newspapers’ classified and personal ads that evolved into Craigslist, online dating apps, and other communities that reflect self-marketing existed long before the internet. This self-branding is not always a terrible thing depending on the situation, such as LinkedIn, which is perhaps one of the more credible forms of this self-marketing since the site facilitates a means to sell oneself to companies. The internet perhaps holds the blame for making self-branding more necessary and apparent. What is less obvious are the problems caused by self-branding inadvertently infecting one’s behavior.
One might argue everything said prior restates human socialization as “selling,” indicating a play of semantics. A rational argument but not correct because humans present themselves to one another using “impression management.” In his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman analogized human interaction to a theater where people act differently on stage depending on the audience. The job interview stage requires a formal presentation, but backstage, drinking with friends allows for more relaxed interaction. Similarly, meeting your fiancé’s parents requires a frontstage persona, which is often erroneously viewed as “selling” yourself when you actually attempt to “engender” trust with this new family.
They’re not buying a daughter or son-in-law.
Earning trust with a new family requires them to get to know you enough to move interactions from frontstage to backstage. Oppositely, at a job interview, we sell ourselves with skills and other attributes in exchange for pay or status, and the interviewer bases trust on your resume, background, and personality. This semantic, fine line between selling and engendering trust represents capitalism’s influence that unknowingly muddles our intentions.
If you watch toddlers interact, you will readily see they play together without consideration for anything but play because children have not been indoctrinated by capitalism yet. As they age, they will learn to create a brand to sell themselves and develop distrust of brands. Unlike the child, adults question people if they believe they are selling something, and this brand suspicion often goes unrecognized because entrenchment in capitalism makes mistrust appear natural having grown in us over time. If you have ever tried to help someone and she refuses your assistance for seemingly no reason, pride or self-sufficiency is not always cause for her reluctance. This distrust can negatively impact your life, especially if you don’t realize you are selling yourself when you should be engendering trust.
Unawareness of self-branding in social encounters makes you appear dishonest or creates relationships based on the wrong interests. Worse yet, branding forces you to continue promoting yourself to maintain these relationships, which is nearly impossible since you are not yourself but an image. Consider the number of failed relationships, lost friendships, or the difficulty of making friends, and our intention might explain many of these outcomes. Were we honestly trying to engender trust with that person, or were we unknowingly selling ourselves? Sadly, this is not an easy answer, and the question exposes another problem caused by branding: pervasive distrust.
Your best efforts sometimes fail when trying to meet people because they, often unknowingly, distrust what they perceive as you selling something, even if you are not selling yourself. In a world defined by economic valuation, people learn to distrust as quickly as they learn to brand themselves because no one wants to be sold a lemon, whether a car, boyfriend, or girlfriend. In today’s hyper-commercialized world, especially the digital world, you need to be distrusting, and this need combined with self-branding, creates many relationship issues.
You Can’t Leave the Market
The logical solution to this branding problem is to examine one’s intents and determine whether you are selling yourself or trying to engender trust with people. Self-analysis opens a tremendous introspection of intention determined only by you, but ultimately the market still traps you since you live in a capitalist society. For sure, disengagement of practices that reinforce self-marketing will benefit you.
Not to pick on social media, but Facebook and Twitter are two primary examples of hardcore self-promotion that reinforce this tendency within us. Facebook, in particular, glares with self-marketing, further proven by Meta, which allows avatars and other new, exciting ways to brand yourself. Companies like Facebook and Twitter do not engender trust; they just continue providing new means to self-market.
Let’s be clear. I am not arguing the technology because, in other applications such as gaming, virtual worlds become fun places to visit and a better means of meeting people since everyone shares a common interest. Similarly, social journalism can be a place of self-expression or devolve into an untrustworthy, publish-for-profit motive.
Determining what elicits self-branding can be difficult, but generally speaking, nothing happens, or life improves after disengagement from a practice that promotes branding. Most people who exit Facebook and Twitter suffer no consequence, and in many cases, they socialize more effectively since there is less need to brand. We should apply this same disengagement to any area of life that promotes branding, such as using dating apps or joining activities for selfish motives like joining a running club solely to meet women or men.
You should participate in activities you have a genuine interest in since these interests are more likely to foster relationships with like-minded people.
We cannot change the system we are born into but releasing self-branding practices helps us realize our true intentions since we are not performing the very marketing that promotes distrust. Stripping away these harmful practices, we become more authentic and honest with ourselves and others.
Original Photos by Priscilla Du Preez & Mediamodifier on Unsplash