How to Brand Yourself the Right Way
There’s a right way and a wrong way to promote yourself online. To do it well, you must master FOPO (fear of other people’s opinion) and come to terms with self-expression in the 21st century.
By Jena E Pincott published October 15, 2019 - last reviewed on January 14, 2020
Not long ago, I took my two young daughters to a Green Expo in downtown Manhattan. Stopping at some of the booths, we learned about composting, repurposing clothes, and delivering unwanted restaurant food to the homeless rather than the landfill. My girls, ages 4 and 8, were drawn to a play space set up by a community art nonprofit that reuses unwanted design samples. You got the sense that this was a forward-thinking event—with the sort of ethos everyone feels good about. It was, in truth, the perfect self-branding op, and I wasn’t the only attendee to reach this conclusion. A woman in her 20s asked me to take her photo as she donated two massive suitcases of jewel-toned clothes. “For my Instagram,” she explained. I asked her to take a picture of me and the structures my girls built out of swatches and tiles. “For my Facebook,” I agreed. The green optics did look good.
If you are someone who spends time on social media—that’s just about anyone over age 12—then you probably know about the impulse to broadcast good things about yourself on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms. It’s part of “self-branding,” a call-to-action going back more than two decades to business guru Tom Peters’s viral essay, “The Brand Called You,” in which he urged people to see themselves as free agents in a competitive and unstable job market where reputation is everything. “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Peters wrote. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
No matter what your “thing” is—counseling, writing, babysitting, architecture, selling macramé cephalopods—you probably find yourself doing some form of self-packaging, subtly or not. (At a minimum, you probably have a LinkedIn account.) Social media makes self-promotion not only easy but almost obligatory for landing a job, building a business, getting a gig, or even finding a date. (Some 70 percent of employers and nearly 80 percent of online daters use social media to screen their prospects.) As a writer and editor, I’ve self-consciously resigned myself to building a public persona that’s as nerdy and eco-minded as I wish to be seen.
But maintaining a social media identity can take a toll, even for those of us who aren’t aspiring influencers. It takes more time and emotional bandwidth than we care to admit, and that’s not even counting the times we pull ourselves out of a moment to leverage it, as I did at the Expo. (Average social media use is an hour and 15 minutes a day, according to research firm eMarketer.) Many users struggle with self-disclosure: Am I revealing too much or not enough? Many make the mistake of pegging their self-esteem to social currency—how much they’re fanned, followed, and friended. We care too much about who those people are and what they think about us. On reflection, we might even find that we’ve lost some of our “self” in the self-brand.
Social media isn’t going away and neither is the need to promote ourselves. Can we promote our personal marquees without selling ourselves short? Can we gain enough psychological distance? Is there a healthier hustle? With these questions in mind, we propose a few considerations for the age of social media.
1. You Are Not Your Online Persona
“My life is performance art,” says Andi,* a tutor and life coach in her thirties with thousands of Instagram and Facebook followers. She means that to be tongue-in-cheek, but she feels almost as if her identity, which had once been artistic and political, has been co-opted by an actor playing a professional role. “Everything posted is reputational,” Andi admits. Photos of her well-dressed kids, smiling with braces, suggest conscientious parenting; a tweet about healthier lunches at underfunded schools says she’s socially aware; a video clip at a STEM conference and award ceremony for girls demonstrates that she cares about what’s important. On social media, where she easily spends two or more hours a day, she never mentions her bisexuality, her far-left principles, or anything else that might conflict with or confuse her online identity or risk alienating prospective clients. “I applied for an art grant and got turned down,” Andi reflected. “Maybe they looked me up and saw this successful but straight-laced, middle-of-the-road bore and thought I wasn’t a fit.”
For Andi, the notorious prophecy of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to be coming true: “You only have one identity.” In an interview for The Facebook Effect , a book by David Kirkpatrick, Zuckerberg explained, “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers, and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” Social media and self-packaging, he knew, nudge us to consolidate our lives into one flattened, pigeon-holed, idealized narrative. Every post, tweet, and comment we make is linked to one projection of the self. “Having two identities for yourself,” Zuckerberg said, suggests “a lack of integrity.”
This is not how humans work, argues Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor of communication at Cornell University and author of a social media critique, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love . This thinking “presumes that people have a singular, static identity,” she says. Yet the opposite is true: Identity is fluid and dependent on context. When friends, coworkers, family members, romantic partners, and others are privy to the same projection of the self, Duffy warns, we get “context collapse,” not integrity. Maybe it’s ironic that personal branding embraces the feeling of authenticity, but to be authentic we must be free to act out a variety of selves. That is, to go off-brand.
Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation , worries that social media could ultimately limit self-expression more than liberate it. With so much of our time spent online—thanks to the engineered addictiveness of social media—we may find ourselves developing a transactional online persona at the expense of other more expressive parts of ourselves (creative, irreverent, empathetic, self-reflective). The gap between our carefully constructed self-image and reality may make us feel depressed, fraudulent, or confused. “In theory, you know the difference between your self and your Facebook self,” Turkle writes. But “it’s like telling very small lies over time. You forget the truth because it’s so close to the lies.”
How can you explore the sides of yourself that are too silly, flawed, political, inconsistent, and off-color for your public image? “All of us should have spaces for self-expression that aren’t so carefully scrutinized, policed, or surveilled,” says Duffy. One solution, she says, is to showcase discrete elements of ourselves on different platforms. Andi might use her Facebook and Instagram accounts for her coaching venture but channel her artistic, political, angry, more adventurous sides on alternative platforms such as DeviantArt or Behance. If we wish to keep our party pics, vaccine views, and spiritual thoughts separate from our universal identity, we could use an anonymous account like a finsta (fake Instagram), or secret Snapchat. Or we might adjust a platform’s privacy controls to filter content for different audiences.
Yet no platform can truly safeguard us from context collapse. “The employer on LinkedIn who sees a buttoned-up you can follow you on Twitter where you rant,” says Turkle. Handles and burner accounts are more secure, but even then we might inadvertently out ourselves via our content or the meta-data in photos. At the moment, for Andi and all of us, there’s only one sure way to enjoy an off-label life: Live more of it offline.
2. Put FOPO in Its Place
Many years ago, just as I was beginning to build my author identity, an online mob came after me. A book review’s headline had misrepresented my stance on whether pregnant women should be able to drink an occasional glass of wine. While the science is nuanced, the public reaction was not; people who didn’t know me or my work swamped my blog, Twitter account, and Facebook author page with insults and personal threats. (I stated that the only dose of alcohol guaranteed to be safe is none, but I was accused of advocating otherwise.) This was my first experience with context collapse: The boundaries dissolved between my private and professional lives, and it was horrifying. The mob trashed me, my reputation, my brand.
My fear of people’s opinions—FOPO, a term coined by psychologist Michael Gervais— heightened after the episode. I worried so much about inadvertently offending people and triggering another swarm that I overedited subsequent posts. Most of us internalize the censor, concluded a joint study by Pew Research and Rutgers University. We worry, with good reason, that a misstep on social media could tarnish our reputation, come back to haunt us, even threaten our livelihood. The study found that frequent Facebook and Twitter users were less likely than nonusers to share opinions on hot-button topics (such as government surveillance or what to do about Gaza) unless they felt confident that their followers who inhabit the same echo chamber would agree or approve. What’s worse, online self-censorship appeared to spill over into real life, where social media users were also less than half as likely to speak their minds.
To complicate matters, the mandate of packaging a persona can contradict itself: You silence yourself on a controversial subject, like politics, but freely disclose personal content that makes you interesting and relatable. Women do this more often than men, Duffy explains, because of “gendered prescriptions for ‘appropriate’ self-promotion.” For women, intimacy and openness are more “appropriate” behaviors than assertiveness, so they more often employ a soft-sell approach. While some users, like Andi, conceal information they think might alienate their followers, many of us don’t think twice about sharing seemingly innocuous intimate fodder about our health, kids, or relationships, or posting sexy selfies from the beach.
While promoting my book, I revealed my struggles with so-called mommy brain (forgetfulness, absent-mindedness, emotionality), and although I discussed research findings and gained some sympathy and validation from other new moms, several commenters told me to get over it and stop making mothers appear less employable. According to Duffy, women’s tendency toward self-disclosure makes them particularly vulnerable to criticism, trolling, shaming, and cyber-stalking.
As a general rule, people should not share sensitive, risqué content on social media, but neither should they give in to fearful self-censorship. The key is to do a better job of establishing boundaries, advises Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “Many of us feel perfectly comfortable walking away from an unpleasant individual or telling someone off in person, but we may not see we have the same rights with online behaviors.” To avoid abuse, Rutledge advises us to look up privacy and security information on each platform we use and “block rude people, review comments before they are posted, delete, don’t engage with jerks.”
Techniques drawn from cognitive behavioral therapy offer further emotional protection from hostile encounters. Research led by Ethan Kross, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, found that self-distancing—a form of self-talk that uses second- or third-person pronouns, you, him, her instead of I —reduces anxiety in that it allows people to transcend the ego and see criticism or conflict more objectively. Reframe a negative experience as if it happened to your social media identity, not you. Tell yourself—in your head, out loud, or in writing—what happened from the perspective of a distanced observer and offer yourself reasoned reactions. Your online persona took a hit after that mommy-brain post. But you raised awareness of the condition, and that’s a step toward reducing its stigma .
In the wake of my social media meltdown, I could have used self-distancing to detach myself from the ego-centered aspects of self-promotion and ask myself about my big-picture goal. Apart from reputation building, why am I on social media? You’re an emissary of science. You’re an example of working motherhood .
Focusing on a higher purpose—to represent a diverse perspective, tell a story that others can learn from, raise awareness of a cause, anything—taps into a more powerful source of self-worth than public validation. The ego recedes, the comfort zone expands. Though still cautious, I became less cagey about expressing myself and hot-button pregnancy topics. I filtered out trolls and nasty comments. I invited critics to comment, thereby owning the dialogue. A sense of greater purpose allows us to shift the mindset from self-defense to self-empowerment as we learn to steer the conversation. In the end, our SOPO—shaping of people’s opinions—can be stronger than our FOPO.
3. Quell the Urge to Compare
In real life, we never really know how we measure up to others. On social media, we always know. We know because platforms provide metrics: likes, followers, tweets, retweets, views, subscribers, shares, and so on, in real-time, with ruthless precision. Metrics make us anxious, and even the CEOs of Instagram and Twitter have admitted that metric-free platforms would be healthier. Without metrics, we might stop thinking of ourselves as products whose value depends on our popularity. We might post what’s interesting to us instead of what’s people-pleasing, attention-grabbing, and superficial. Maybe we’d stop basing our self-worth on how we stack up against others.
“It’s one of the pitfalls of self-branding,” says Mai-Ly Steers, a social psychologist at the University of Houston who researches the impact of social media on well-being. “If you are basing your self-worth on external validation, your self-esteem is subject to the whims of others rather than being rooted in your own sense of self-worth.”
Unsurprisingly, viewing the feeds of people who are doing better than we are—upward comparisons—leads to destructive emotions and depression, Steers found in her study of Facebook users. Celebrities are bad enough, but how do you react when a chicken in Brooklyn has more Instagram followers than you? Envy is especially damaging if we interpret it as a sign that, deep down, our core self is insecure and a little cynical, which makes us feel even worse about ourselves.
Downward comparisons are surprisingly destructive, too. You’d think you’d feel better when your status compares favorably with others, but this also eventually backfires, Steers found. If you take pleasure in another’s misfortune, what does that say about you?
To relieve the torment of knowing everyone’s precise numerical status, Benjamin Grosser, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, created a tool called the demetricator. This free web extension hides all visible counters on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, including friend counts and retweets. If a competitor’s post shows that 8,000 people like it, and yours shows eight, the demetricator flatly reports both as people like this .
While social media without metrics might be better for mental health, Rutledge sees the numerical feedback as part of our desire for social validation—a stressor to channel rather than stifle. “We expect and need the reaction of others,” she argues, and without that motivation, “there would be little reward or purpose in publishing anything online.”
Perhaps it’s easier to overcome the comparison complex by seeing the flaws in our thinking, according to Steers. The automatic thought, I feel less than others, can be challenged with, People don’t present themselves online as they truly are— they use their idealized selves or highlight reels . If you’re beating yourself up for not reaching influencer-level metrics, Duffy’s counterargument is: “Metrics are based on an assumption that [influence] can be translated into numerical data.” Sure, you can quantify exposure, but influence—how much of an effect you have on others—is infinitely more complex.
Finally, as Steers notes, social media platforms are not level playing fields. Algorithms on Facebook and Instagram determine whether and how often others see your posts; for a variety of reasons out of our control, some accounts get much more—or much less—exposure. We should never allow an algorithm to determine our self-worth.
4. Self-Promotion with a Twist
It’s tricky to navigate an online persona. On one hand, we must express ourselves, assert our self-worth, and trumpet our accomplishments. We also want to protect ourselves and our hard-earned reputation from the wrong type of exposure. And at the same time, we need to consider our audience.
One woman with a side gig selling wellness products errs on the third count. Suzanne* posts photos of her kids’ piano recitals, their gorgeous boxed lunches, a weed growing in a crack along the sidewalk, anything under which she can plug her products and write boldface revelations about her enviable life. She shares streams of selfies—including one in a yoga pose, her blown-out balayage hair draped over a leg, with the caption: “Twisted my ankle rushing to the gala—darn Louboutins! But feeling great now, thanks to my best healing salve…” At first, it’s fun and funny, but quickly it becomes too much.
In real life, people talk about themselves—their musings, experiences, and accomplishments—30 to 40 percent of the time, according to a study by Harvard psychologists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell. On social media, where we may feel pressured to promote ourselves or our “thing,” the rate soars to 80 percent. Self-disclosure is part of the soft-sell approach to authenticity. It also feels good. Using fMRI brain imaging, Tamir and Mitchell found that they could activate more of their subjects’ reward circuity—regions of the brain associated with food, sex, and money—simply by asking them to talk about their personal experiences and opinions (compared with talking about others’ opinions or neutral topics). Self-disclosure offers solid benefits: It boosts self-esteem, enhances self-knowledge, gives us ownership of our subjective experiences, and helps us regulate our emotions. In the study, people would forego money for the chance to talk about themselves.
As good as self-disclosure is and feels, sometimes we make an emotional miscalculation, an overestimation of how much followers really like the posts they “like.” A study published in Psychological Science found that 66 percent of self-promoters experienced positive emotions when sharing their achievements compared to only 14 percent of recipients (77 percent actually experienced negative emotions). Like Suzanne, people radically overestimated how much others would enjoy their news and feel proud of them and underestimated the extent to which others would feel angry or annoyed—or see it as preening, bragging, or worse, the dreaded humblebrag. “Bed in first-class lies flat, but I couldn’t sleep a wink because they served too much coffee!”
Luckily, social psychology has uncovered a delicate workaround: the attenuation strategy, or tooting the horn without blowing it. Self-promotion, concluded a Twitter study published in the Journal of Pragmatics , is received best when packaged in specific language—for instance, a disclaimer or self-denigrating statement: I won the Pacesetter Award at work! If only I could do the same at the gym . A reference to hard work rather than natural talent: Proud of myself because, believe me, it’s been hard . An oops or long-way-to-go device: My first baby step. An expression of gratitude or a shout-out to others who’ve supported you: Grateful for having the chance .
Done well and without humblebragging, “selling” oneself is more like “sharing,” as if you’re providing a service, especially when your content stream is varied to include useful tips, lifehacks, puppies—anything that has nothing to do with overt self-promotion. If you must self-praise, research finds redemption in the use of self-aware hashtags: #brag or #humblebrag.
Yet these strategies require the ability to see another’s point of view: How will my post make my followers feel? How will they perceive me? What would I think of this post if it came from another person? It’s surprisingly difficult to tell when we’ve crossed the line, as the researchers point out, especially when we’re in a narcissistic or defensive mindset. Self-presentation requires self-control, and we’re likelier to mismanage it when stressed and distracted.
There’s a way to sidestep this dilemma, according to a study led by Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford Business School: Ask a third-party to promote you, perhaps a friend or LinkedIn colleague. You can come across as significantly more likable and competent when another person sings your praises—and less so if you convey the same news yourself. Surprisingly, the favorable impression persists even when evaluators know that the endorser and the recipient have an existing relationship.
5. More Give, Less Take
Perhaps the best way to self-promote is ultimately through touting and supporting others. “I admire so many amazing artists,” says Mahwish Syed, an interior designer in Manhattan. “I don’t just friend or follow them; I give them an unsolicited boost.” On Instagram, she puts together collages that combine the works of multiple artists, sometimes drawing on historical material, so they see their work appreciated in new contexts. “I tag them and see what comes back,” she says. “I sprinkle a lot of seeds.”
Many have germinated. Mahwish says the artists and designers she has tagged are often delighted, and opportunities have blossomed from her efforts. Her superstars follow her back, and their followers find her. They boost her; she boosts them. Social media, after all, runs on one of the strongest of human instincts: reciprocity.
Mahwish hasn’t met most of these artists in person. They’re at the fringes of her social network, her distant connections. Yet, as Rutledge points out, these connections—not the strong ones of your inner circle—put you in you touch with new information that is otherwise less likely to come your way, helping you get your message to far-off groups. Rutledge says that making more ties in our social network is an effort: First, research the types of titles, content, links, and hashtags that are relevant to your online identity. Find out where your target audience hangs out. Join those groups, share content, be supportive, be a giver.
For most of us, being a giver of online attention isn’t our default mode. It’s easier to be a taker, promoting our own content and collecting likes and comments. More often, we’re lurkers, passively scrolling through other people’s feeds (an act linked with depression and loneliness) and occasionally clicking “like” for our stronger ties. As givers, we cultivate our wider connections, too: chiming in on discussions, acknowledging the work of others. Each tag or hashtag is another seed.
Cultivating extended connections may also offer a surprising psychological payoff, concluded a series of studies led by Gillian Sandstrom, of the University of Essex. She found that the more daily interactions people have at the periphery of their social network, the equivalent of chatting with fellow fans at a concert or with colleagues in the elevator, the greater their sense of well-being and belonging. Supporting the theory that these extended relationships are a form of social compensation, a study led by Wim Meeus at Utrecht University found that the more interactions that introverts have with “online-only” friends, the higher their self-esteem and the lower their rate of depression.
“Just as a diverse financial portfolio makes people less vulnerable to market fluctuations,” Sandstrom speculates, “a diverse social media portfolio might make people less vulnerable to fluctuations in their social network.” Remote ties offer freshness and variety, low emotional intensity, and the chance to interact outside of our routine roles. They offer a sense of social support we might otherwise lack.
There are limits, of course. For emotional well-being, online acquaintances obviously can’t replace more intimate time with close friends and family. Context collapse remains a problem—anything you say and do may still be linked with the identity your future boss sees—and the bandwidth spent on making wider connections on social media may be better invested at a networking party or the local pub. On most days, my social-media cap is 30 minutes, the limit after which mental health takes a downward turn, according to a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology .
But the giver mentality inspires a new metric that centers on depth and engagement. Not just how many friends or followers you have on social media, but how many you’ve actually interacted with that day. Not just the number of people who “like” your content, but how much of an effort you’ve made to like others. Not just how widely your content circulates, but how free you feel to express yourself. Not just what social media does for your brand, but what it does for your whole self.
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