Who Can It Be Now

On social platforms, the “fluid self” is not a rejection of personal branding but another manifestation of it

It’s a psychological truism that personal identity is fluid and that its continuity — whatever it is that links the you of today to older versions of yourself — is asserted against a backdrop of flux. Social platforms, however, have distorted and jumbled up the sense of which parts change and which don’t. The many means of expression they provide and the archives they maintain suggest that everything about who we are (and were) may be reimagined and exhibited in an endless array of new formats. 

These formats may be app-specific, as are the strategies for maximizing visibility on them: Studies suggest that tweets that blend “general Twitter language” with “personal style” are more likely to go viral, while theories about the best days and times to post on Instagram abound. Beyond the specific strategies tailored to particular apps are more general approaches to standing out, including different approaches to writing, oscillating between sincerity and irony, or between grammatical precision and laxity. If these hairpin turns perplex some audiences, all the better: Hence the emergence of the post-brand account, which is meant to keep some audiences guessing.

Earlier this year, in an Atlantic essay titled The Personal Brand Is Dead,” Kaitlyn Tiffany argued that the standard features of a brandable web presence — including visibility, relatability, and cohesion — are seen as trite and boring among the Gen Z cohort, who find it “natural” to be “confusing and inscrutable” online. Such attempts at incalculability are innocent enough; they can even be life-affirming, offsetting the stultifying effects of routine. As account owners construct enigmatic, shape-shifting mashups of motifs and concepts with no clear unifying theme, they attempt to resist their own commodification. It would seem to defy the ethos of digital capitalism, which is predicated on rational and predictable correlations between data and behavior.  

In Tiffany’s account, this apparent defiance is less an innovation than a return to the web of the 1990s, when the internet was used more for exploration than audience building and who you were mattered less than what you did. Users felt no need to present a coherent public image and often chose to connect with others through pseudonymous alter egos that could be adopted and discarded at whim. Only with the social media platforms of “Web 2.0” came the notion that online and offline lives should be consistent and that one’s profiles should make sense to loved ones and strangers alike. 

Platforms assign users a personal brand whether they want one or not

But any reversion to a spirit of obfuscation and exploration doesn’t mean that the 1990s are back. In some respects, they never went away. Users, especially young people, have always found ways to evade being understood by the wrong people, deploying veiled references and in-jokes to make sure that certain messages make it only to intended recipients, a technique social media scholar danah boyd described as social steganography.” If historically, spies would plant codes in knitting and embroidery, today, steganography might take the form of absurd or mysterious self-descriptions in a Twitter bio, or  posting for seemingly different audiences, like one’s professional network and one’s fandoms, on the same profile. Creating separate accounts for an exclusive inner circle and the general public also cultivates mystique, as does simply locking your account. 

None of these techniques, then or now, obfuscate users from the tech companies that administer these platforms, however. Rather, such strategies participate in the liquefaction of identity on social platforms’ terms. While social media platforms preached transparency to its users and attempted to enforce real-name policies and blue-check verifications, it also built opaque back-end infrastructure to support the brokering of those users’ personal data. These mechanisms remain in place regardless of what trends currently shape posting behavior or content. 

To a degree, this infrastructure assigns users a personal brand whether they intentionally participate in that construction or not. Even if we’re anonymous or confusing to other people, we remain pellucid and knowable to platforms, which establish a recognizable personal brand of sorts algorithmically. When we encounter ourselves in the guise of recommended content and customized ads, we are meeting our coherent public image, as the platforms have deduced it from an entire range of our data, and not only our deliberate attempts to communicate. 

This is not to say the “end of the personal brand” is illusory or insignificant, however. It is to suggest that conscious self-branding — an exhausting obligation for many under current labor market conditions — is in tension with its underlying structure of ubiquitous surveillance: how strategically one chooses to present oneself now inescapably occurs within this unchosen context of being tracked and documented and predicted. The efforts made to avoid detection feed the same systems, contributing to the phenomenon that they appear to resist.

Self-branding meets the principal demand of the corporate web, which is to act as if we are commodities. But so too does self-obfuscation. Whereas self-branding primes the self to be mined for “insights” and placed in market categories, obfuscation concedes that these functions now mediate our social lives. It becomes another form of branding, since it presents one as a deft navigator of the web. The anonymous owners of hyper-niche meme accounts, for example, are fluent with obscure cultural artifacts and mainstream internet use alike, a double-edged savviness that constitutes its own kind of market logic. No matter how we use social media, we’re always making sense, in one way or another.

Whether we use platforms to advertise or camouflage elements of ourselves, it still confirms in practice the proposition that who we are may be modified or renounced at any moment according to the platforms’ understanding of what identity is. And our platformed identities are not under our total control. Algorithms may surface and recontextualize our old content, and their recommendations affirm a version of ourselves determined by our statistical proximity to population averages. The degree to which my online browsing is normal for my gender and income category — or, more accurately, my estimated gender and income category — will have an impact on my experience of the web.

To exist on platforms is to be subject to this kind of continual identity reconstitution, to fluidity. Self-branding attempts to hide this inevitability by claiming agency over it, as though by choosing to turn our identity into capital, it becomes a free choice. Self-obfuscation, on the other hand, effectively embraces it through a kind of acceleration, deliberately trying to make identity not only fluid but random. Such behavior functions as criticism in practice, marking the distance between fake authenticity and the actual depths of our inner worlds. But it can only ever be reactionary, as it does not challenge but reflects the system it appears to oppose. To invert the logic of fabricated realness is to acknowledge its grip on our imagination, which only makes the grip stronger.

These observations align with a well-founded critique of capitalism. In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Mark Fisher argues that even as the tragedies and contradictions of the market economy demand that we distance ourselves from it, the market finds ways to accommodate this distancing, offering products that give the feelings of political resistance without threatening the status quo. Fisher cites Hollywood’s frequent villainization of corporate America as one of many examples. These fictional substitutes not only neutralize the audience’s potential power; they persuade us that we are complicit in our own neutralization. This reinforces the atmosphere of what Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” in which viable alternatives to capitalism appear unthinkable: In effect, our conscious resistance comes to belie a deeper belief that it will never be vanquished. 

Social platforms have become the means of assimilating our very sense of self to capitalist realism. If we accept that from capitalism’s perspective, cohesion and transparency of identity are ideal, then self-obfuscation allows us to experience a kind of mental detachment from that condition, which can become an excuse not to address it more directly. In shielding us from the feelings associated with being manipulated, self-obfuscation becomes a false proxy for a more forceful renunciation of digital capitalism. But this shield works only at the level of individual experience. For practical purposes, it makes us accessory to our own commodification. 

Our algorithmic self may or may not be faithful to how we see ourselves, but it has just as many dimensions and secrets

In We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves, John Cheney-Lippold argues that tech companies assemble an “algorithmic you” from your data and captured behavior that renders your identity into a set of probabilities based on how your profile correlates statistically with other profiles. As he points out, the “algorithmic you” is less a product of one’s posts than an ever-changing sequence of habits that exceeds the sum of one’s deliberate public-facing endeavors. This composite picture draws from virtually everything we do online, including behaviors that are tracked and linked without our knowledge. (This is why deleting your period-tracking app won’t throw off those who might use it to infer your pregnancy status). 

Our algorithmic self may or may not be faithful to how we see ourselves, but it has just as many dimensions and secrets. Whether we generate data deliberately or not, more information makes this shadow figure more economically valuable. As Cheney-Lippold suggests, data serve as a common denominator that permits the universal evaluation of individuals against one another. While our digital selves constantly change shape, they are always connected with pre-categorized identities, which makes them readily saleable.

The fluid self has become a part of capitalist realism. But that doesn’t mean we should embrace the conservative view of the self that holds it to be above social influence, dismissing the role that identity and class play in inhibiting our agency. The philosophical ideal of the fully autonomous, “pure” individual ignores the privilege (in race, gender, class and other categorical features) required to exercise “free will” independent of the strictures of one’s social circumstances. The challenge to this “pure” individualism has informed progressive movements from the 1960s to the present era. 

Nonetheless, the concrete practices of the tech industry now structure identity and individuality in ways that support its own hegemony. While it presents endless avenues for expression, it sees us as wholly reducible to market logic, where we are real to the degree that our consumption habits are rational. This vision of selfhood promotes uniformity and bourgeois individualism alike. If social media use appears to lead to self-obsession, at the same time it seems inextricable from groupthink. The true refutation of this vision, then, is neither one nor the other but the ebb and flow of identities and subjectivities across various contexts, reflecting the fact that our identity is always a  function of those around us. Such movement is at least as real as the “you” reified by algorithms.

If social platforms currently facilitate “amour-propre” — Rousseau’s term for the sort of contrived and other-directed self-confidence that develops as we mold ourselves to fit into society — we can consider what might sustain “amour de soi,” which he saw as a more natural inclination toward a “love of self” that cannot be unearthed and severed from the outside. Such individualism has long grounded capitalism’s competition-based economy, and it is tempting to believe that simply inverting it would seek the opposite goal. But by engaging this logic on its own terms, self-obfuscation strengthens it. Ultimately, branding and unbranding represent two sides of the same coin. To pick a side is to play a game that commodifies self and society alike; it is more radical to refuse to play at all.

Emma Stamm is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. She specializes in critical theory and philosophy of technology. Her website is www.o-culus.com and she’s on Twitter @14floating.