“You have to put this into a column,” my wife insists as the ER intern is stitching her index finger.
“I should write about your slicing your finger with a hand blender?,” I snarked as I filmed the procedure with my iPad. “But I think you will get points at least for delaying your self-assault until Mick Jagger was done with his second set on SNL.”
“Noooo! You should write about how I married someone who brings his iPad to the ER thinking that this would be great to ‘get in HD.’”
“The sutures don’t really come through in low-res.”
That didn’t help…although the interns and nurses in attendance seemed to think that a husband filming these things with a mobile device was pretty much a given. While I have never been accused by anyone of being a standard-issue sports-loving, beer-popping, atta-boy type of American male, it is always good to have maleness as a cover for my antics.
“Who are you sending this to?”
“Well, your mother, of course.”
“Nooo! She faints at the sight of blood.”
And so begins what has now become a new ritual of everyday life, editing one’s own life broadcast. Self-branding, the arts of personal public performance and exposure are not inventions of mobility. Turning the private into public performance is an American theme of the last decade. A culture of self-esteem education, reality TV, and social media have all been accelerants in a cultural redefinition of selfhood that runs deeper than I can handle here. Like it or not. Want it or not. Facebook America is one where everyone is engaged in personal branding. Mobility is going to change personal “walls” into me-networks. With a new multimedia richness, mobile tools are here to make reality TV shows out of every one of us.
But the device and mobility have made these trends all the more powerful. We are now all editor/directors of our own PBS (Personal Broadcasting System). Years ago, video network and search engine Blinkx’s CEO Suranga Chandratillake told me that at some point in the future we would have always-on portable cams recording every minute of our day. With the right search tools we would be able to find and review any aspect of our lives. In some measure we have the tools at hand now to do that. We carry with us the awareness that all and any moment is recordable and share-able. We are in a position of choosing what not to record or how to share and with whom.
Interestingly, it took all these years for Facebook to move from an old media news paradigm of a “newsfeed” to describe personal posting to the more personable “timeline” metaphor. Too late. The weird linkage between personal communication and traditional media structures is unavoidable. We are all media companies now. We all are directors and managing editors deciding from the flow of normal events (the “wire service” of experience) what goes out and what doesn’t, what is “news,” what properly brands us, what is best left unsaid -- I mean, un-broadcast.
A lot of journalistic ink (or pixels) has been expended on the private becoming public under this new generation of over-sharing youth, powered by blogs, social networks and “you-can-be-a-star” TV programming. I am sure it is bigger than this and runs much deeper than can be attributed to any single media platform or device. But the changes are significant.
American cultural historians in the 1980s (during my stint as an academic) used to distinguish broadly (too-broadly) between a 19th-century American culture based on notions of personal “character” and a modern turn to ideas of “personality.” The former was grounded in an agrarian and mercantile economy where identity was tied to profession, craft, work ethic, behavior within a smaller community. “Personality” was an urban modern creation where self was seen as more presentational -- a function of corporate, bureaucratic relations, being personable in a world of strangers. One of the great bestsellers of the 1930s was Norman Vincent Peale’s religiously based The Power of Positive Thinking. In a similar vein, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was the first handbook for self-branding, a guide to building an image of yourself in the minds of others. Believe me, the culture of Facebook was not built overnight.
The character/personality dichotomy is laughably oversimplified but still helpful in grasping how changes in attitudes and approaches toward “self” are tied to very complicated shifts in economy, philosophy, religion, work, and physical circumstance. Is it any coincidence that we see this emergence of self-promotion and self-branding at the moment when almost everyone in the American workforce must define himself and herself as free agents? In the post-union, service economy of startups we all are likely to have many jobs and even careers in the course of a work life. Of course we are always building our brand; we are always for sale.
What does this mean to marketers, media and mobility? I am not sure yet. Actually, I am not even close to understanding it yet, but I am hoping to start some of that discussion in these columns in coming months. But there are some obvious points. The mobile device is a tool in a larger cultural shift involving selfhood, but it is the most intimate tool that may have the biggest role.
From the time that ringtones became the first successful media form on feature phones, we knew that we were dealing with a technology of a different sort -- that people were leveraging phones as tools of self-expression, not just as platforms of content consumption. Understanding this basic aspect of mobile media suggests we can do a lot better than “sponsored stories” in Facebook feeds and interactive rich media ads that let us swipe and tap our way toward “engagement.” Surely the smartest mobile media and marketing will become collaborators in the project of self-branding -- not just commercial interruptions.
“Shall I post this to Facebook?” I ask my wife. She is sporting a comic finger bandage that is so oversized, white and bulbous she looks as if she had been wounded in a Warner Bros. Merrie Melody cartoon. “You look like Wile E. Coyote after a run-in with the Roadrunner. I am already imagining the caption.”
“Sure, wiseguy. Post it. What does it say about my husband that he spent his time with me in the ER filming my finger being sewn up?”
“That I am a dogged researcher of the outer edges of mobility and modern self?”
“Yeah, Professor. Brilliant. That is exactly what people will think. Run with that one.”
Okay -- so I guess I have to think through my own self-branding acumen. Those who can’t do, teach.