Personal Branding – Vanity or Utility?

The Invisibles

A few weeks ago, while traveling to Boston, I was listening to my favorite program on my favorite radio station, that I miss dearly since relocating West – “On Point” on WBUR. I caught a show called “The Invisibles,” with guest David Zweig, author of a book by the same name.

The premise of the book and the program is that in the age of social media, most everyone seems to be very focused on self promotion, and their “personal brand,” their online reputation. A fringe of the population seems much more interested in doing the work, than promoting it for glory; these are the Invisibles. Those people from anesthesiologist to fact checkers, who perform an important function that ultimately someone else will get credit for as a part of the publicly visible greater whole. The book goes on to define a method by which the Invisibles can live a very prosperous and productive life, more so than those constantly seeking out external validation for their work.

Both the show and the book look down on those who seek to improve their reputation, driven by a sense of self importance, often via social media. However, in my view, they completely miss what social media has enabled for personal branding and success, which is so much bigger than an ego boosting machine for the insecure.

The Social Tech Revolution

In the last 30 years, technology has experienced 3 revolutionary inventions that have changed everything from the way we work to the way our governments function, or even the boundaries of countries.

First came the personal computer, to store, at scale, knowledge, ideas, and opinions. Then, the Internet, that connected all personal computers and created a web of knowledge accessible real time. Finally, social media organized the online world by people, widely distributed knowledge, built relevant connections, and gave recognition to contributors. To get a sense of the order of magnitude, IBM has assessed that every 2 days (and shrinking), we now create more data than we did from the beginning of recorded time to 2003.

The Visibles and Business Success

Much of humanity’s progress has been a balancing act between the creation of primary knowledge and the dissemination of the knowledge to adopt, build and transform. Social media has made it possible to more quickly access data that affects everything from buying decisions to the development of medical cures, products and ideas. We now see open source projects with contributors at the four corners of the world; research teams sharing genome sequences from Boston to Tokyo; and buyers making purchase decisions based on a thorough review published by someone living thousands of miles away.

In today’s world where business is done at the speed of light, getting access quickly to the right information is critical to success. To build an online personal brand in this context is not always a task of the egotistical – it’s also necessary to perform a job, access the nodes in communities who will help solve problems quicker, and be equally accessible to others who need information.

It is undeniable that today’s context of social media has tilted the balance towards those who are skilled communicators (and yes, in some cases, egomaniac self promoters). In the same regard, the tools available today make it easier for anyone with relevant contributions to become a good communicator and well-connected source of information.

The outcome of this is much more than glory or fame, rather a gratifying, easier path to get jobs done well. In the business world, building a personal brand as a connected thought leader to cultivate fruitful relationships is a much more valued outcome of social promotion than digital fame for fame’s sake.

After all

“Social media spark a revelation that we, the people, have a voice, and through the democratization of content and ideas we can once again unite around common passions, inspire movements, and ignite change.” – Brian Solis, Engage: The Complete Guide for Brands and Businesses to Build, Cultivate, and Measure Success in the New Web