It is almost ten years since this article by Tom Peters in Fast Company first announced that “in the ‘Age of the Individual’ you have to be your own brand.”. At the time Peters explained prophetically (remember this was ten years ago) how the web enabled ‘Brand Me’ better than anything since “anyone can have a website”, and roughly 7 years before The Long Tail said this:
“Hollywood may be interested in only blockbusters and book publishers may want to put out only guaranteed best-sellers. But don’t be fooled by all the frenzy at the humongous end of the size spectrum…the real action is at the other end.”
Peters was of-course right. But I’m not sure even he could have predicted just how much web 2.0 and social networking would bring his vision to life. The web is changing our notions of identity – not only how we constuct it, but how we represent and shape it.
Our online identity is a ‘distibuted construct’ sure enough, and it increasingly enables our interaction with other people. But it is also a complex, multi-faceted assembly of multiple elements that change by degrees according to the context in which we anticipate or want them to be used.
As Andrew Walmesley of i-level has said, a persons online behaviour can reveal more about their life than anything they would reveal to a focus group, yet at the same time the web equips people with more and increasingly elaborate ways of concealing their true identity should they want to.
Which means that we can construct our digital identity to be whatever we want. And maybe ‘construct’ is exactly the right word since we build and hone it over time to be a carefully crafted representation of ourselves, or rather how we’d like others to perceive us. It’s that important.
And increasingly, our digital identities provide us with the social and cultural currency that help determine how we communicate. When I was a kid, cultural currency was generated by the latest single you’d bought. If you hadn’t yet bought ‘Wham Rap’ on 45, you were seriously behind the times. Now, the same is true of your MySpace or Bebo profile. I recently sat in a restaurant and listened to teenagers at the next table spend half an hour comparing how many ‘friends’ had linked to them on My Space. One of them had hundreds.
The fluidity of my digital identity presents a challenge for brands, but perhaps this is where brands can help me. Maybe I want to invite some brand names to be a part of my profile, much like people wear designer labels. The brand names say something about who I am. Their presence on my pages adds value, perhaps it adds functionality, it certainly makes my profile better.
Pretty soon, my profile becomes mobile. I carry my digital identity, and the brands that help make it, with me wherever I go. It interacts with other people’s profiles. Maybe it does this continuously. Perhaps it even selects people I should be connecting with, using the brands they have chosen as a reference.
All this is happening. People already embed branded content into their profiles, they already define themselves by their favourite music and film as well as their wider interests, the mobile operators are partnering up with the big networks at a rate of knots.
In this environment, the difference between the genuine and the inauthentic will likely be harder than ever to determine, but there’s no doubt that people will get more skilled at identifying and defining it. Either way, the frames of reference for how we construct our face on the world have changed forever.