Internet Cultured: Social media conflates online and real personalities

“Oh my God Rowan, that’s so on-brand for you.”

If I had a dollar for every time I had this statement thrown at me, I’d be wealthy enough to take a vacation to Bali and live out my true wannabe influencer aspirations. All right, maybe not that much. But the point is that I’m told I’m “on-brand” quite often. 

My so-called “brand” is something I’ve found myself contemplating more frequently than ever. My brand — and, by extension, the elements that make up others’ brands as well — is composed of everything from the way I speak to the clothes I wear and the activities I participate in. Obviously, having external facets represent who you are isn’t a new development because everyone has a thing called a personality. The difference, though, with having a brand is it’s all about how you market your personality, particularly in the social media space. 

In the past, developing your personal brand has mostly come into play when it comes to internships and job hunting. In a professional scenario, it’s essential to communicate to your potential employer that you offer a specific skill set and personality that will benefit the company. Simply, your brand was equivalent to your tangible function within the workplace, and aside from that, you were just a normal human being.

It’s a fascinating idea, really, that we’ve now shifted to commonly referring to people and their everyday activities as being associated with their “brand.” Branding, by definition, involves presenting a specific, consistent image that attracts an audience and, ultimately, generates revenue. It’s a capitalistic structure that has trickled down from products to people — an exchange of personality for profit.

Don’t get me wrong — I ironically live for the brand, and I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t check my own Instagram and Twitter profiles multiple times during the day just to check in on how people may perceive me and what value comes from that perception. When I get dressed in the morning, it has to be about more than just getting dressed for the day’s activities (well, at least most of the time). When I post a photo on Instagram, I don’t just upload whatever is in my camera roll, instead opting for an extreme vetting process with extensive levels of sorting and editing. 

Basically, everything that has to do with how I present myself has an extra level of intentionality that plays into presenting this personified extension of myself. Narcissistic? Definitely. Problematic? Potentially.

Despite acknowledging that I know I buy into my own efforts at branding, I place a hard cap on how much I internalize this character I put on. People, at their core, cannot be simply defined by “brand” because people are people, not products, and humanity itself should not be reduced down to its market value.

Before social media, the average person wasn’t concerned with broadcasting themselves to an audience to be judged. With the proliferation of internet culture, however, many of us have now actively chosen to fit ourselves into particular tropes online that may not reflect who we are in real life. 

For example, take TikTok culture. The year’s hottest app that is to blame for so many viral trends in the greater digital sphere. On the platform, a few of its most dominant, infamous characters include VSCO girls and e-boys. Countless videos have been based on re-creating different iterations of these characters, and they’re fun to observe. 

Various TikTok influencers have achieved virality by dedicating their entire page to these trendy personas, often rendering the person and the character inseparable from the audience’s point of view. This audience watches these influencers throw around their scrunchies, eye rolls and catchphrases as if they were already natural parts of that person in the first place.

A closer look reveals that the central problem with living for these images is that it’s not possible to carry over these traits into real life. Face it: If you saw someone on the street exhibiting any of the characteristics native to their online personality, you’d cringe and maybe even comment that that individual’s perception of reality is skewed. Further, these digital tropes are often the product of materialism and editing, meaning that beneath their curated images, they’re just like every other person.

But maybe that’s the fun in it — allowing branding to be a means of escapism. Creating a brand allows you to pick up your phone and be someone else for a moment in the fleeting digital space while still being able to return back to your average, everyday life. Just keep this in mind: The true key to developing your brand is to make sure you know where your brand ends and the real person begins.

Rowan Born is a junior majoring in journalism and law, history and culture. She is also the social media director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Internet Cultured,” runs every other Monday.