The nun who taught English my freshman year of high school was fond of saying "You are not your grade." Some of the high achievers in my class needed to be reminded of this, but it's a lesson I quickly took to heart. I was fortunate in my academic career to have a pretty good memory and above average language skills, so I was able to earn decent grades without much effort. I participated in drama, and goofed around with friends, and never obsessed about my grades. Throughout college I remembered that "I was not my grade." As I entered the professional world, I comfortably adjusted that mantra into "I am not my job."
It might seem quite obvious, but it's important to me to remember to pursue balance in my life. I don't want to be consumed by any one thing in my life. I don't want one single thing to absolutely identify me. I've been thinking a lot about this lately, largely in response to many of the people I've met and the events I've attended this year.
For example, while at Nokia World, I spent most of my time with gadget and phone bloggers. These were all interesting people, but I sometimes felt that the conversation was a bit myopic: there we were in beautiful Barcelona, Spain and yet almost all of our conversations involved phones, cellular technology, or mobile software solutions. On the one hand, this makes sense as it was our shared interest in these things that had brought us together in the first place, so it was natural that we should engage one another on these things. And, I suspect, gadget and phone bloggers don't often get to really geek out with other gadget and phone bloggers, so there was a natural release of enthusiasm as we met and interacted with kindred souls.
Toward the end of that trip, I had begun to learn things about my traveling companions beyond the gadget and phone focus, and that's when I really started to like the people I was with. They were a diverse and interesting crowd, and I'm glad I met them. Most of them, at any rate. There was at least one person who never switched off, and it wasn't until this trip that I really began to identify a lot of vague unease from previous events.
At PodCamp Ohio, blogOrlando, and barcamp Philly, there were sessions focusing on monetization of your life online. The advice was pretty much the same at all of them: apply yourself 100% to the task of making your "personal brand". It's easy enough to leverage social networks, ping.fm and other broadcast services to get your name in front of people. Your job is to make yourself known: comment on blogs, friend everyone, and update your own blog(s) as often as you can, being sure to use valuable key words as part of your SEO strategy.
It finally hit me: almost all of the people successfully making a "personal brand" online are Type A personalities: they're "time-conscious, insecure about their status, highly competitive". Many of the people making a living telling other people how to make a living on the internet seem to miss the fact that personality type is an important element of their success online. If I were a highly motivated, energized Type A personality, I would probably already be doing all the things these people tell you to do to make a living online.
Without a doubt the internet provides a unique and ideal opportunity for Type A personalities to thrive. You get easy-to-track statistics about how popular you are, immediately feeding your ego. You also get easy to obtain statistics about other people, making it an effortless thing to compare your popularity against other's. Modest effort can yield enormous results, if you're willing to focus yourself to the task.
And therein lies the rub. Many of the people I've met at conferences who espouse these techniques are, frankly, boring. Or worse, they're boorish. Their focus is on their brand, not their personality, and discussions with them are one-sided. They want to "friend" you on social networking services not because they want to keep in touch with you, but because they want to have another person who knows about them, somehow magically improving their "social capital".
I remember in middle school a lecture on the difference between being selfless, self-centered, and selfish-centered. The latter two were clearly differentiated from one another: what most folks call "self-centered" is what the lecturer called "selfish-centered". It's an absolute focus on the individual; whereas "self-centered" was described as a healthy middle ground between selfless and selfish-centered: a recognition of the things that are important to the self, but not focused to the exclusion of all else.
It occurred to me that many internet power users may be selfish-centered: they make decisions and actions that benefit their own self without much balance for rewarding others. They use other people to increase their own sense of value, without really valuing the contributions of others. What do these people produce, on their own? Most often, it's buzz -- links and aggregation to content created elsewhere-- and little else. These folks act as aggregation points for new information, but rarely produce new information on their own.
I mentioned above that one of the people I met at Nokia World never shut off. Every time he spoke it was "Me, me, me," and I was, frankly, supremely uninterested in speaking with him because he was a jackass. He showed an incredible lack of balance: everything he did was for and about him, and as a result he was a bore to be around. I understand fully why this was: the man was propagating his personal brand. He was famous for being famous, and the moment he stopped putting his name in front of people was the moment his fame dwindled. He was living proof of the old adage "asking for permission is asking to be told no": he never asked if he could do things, he simply did them. If there were negative consequences to his boorish behavior, they were minor in comparison to the propagation of his name and personal brand. After all, if people were talking about him, his brand was strong ("there's no such thing as bad publicity", right?)
I suppose the internet is somewhat tangential in this guy's case. He could be a perfectly successful jackass without the internet's help. The internet just gives him more immediate access to a larger audience of people willing to indulge him.
Despite the overly negative tone of this little rant, I generally don't have a problem with such "internet celebrity". In the information age, such people can provide real value to smaller venues which might not otherwise get sufficient exposure in the public consciousness. The internet celebrity's act of aggregation and dissemination can be a good opportunity to find audiences you might not normally reach. The real problem I have is when these internet celebrities begin taking themselves too seriously. They throw around terms like "thought leader" -- a notion that always makes me cringe, for the sheer Orwellianness of it -- and think that their opinions are somehow more valuable than the opinions of the "common" person. Aggregating lots of information does not necessarily provide you with superior insight into the relative value of that information.
They're inundated with new stuff, both cool and not-so-cool, and they have access to goods and services well before most consumers have access to them. Living on the cutting edge, where purchase price usually isn't a factor, tends to distort one's impressions. When things are given to you specifically because you might talk about it, rather than you having to make a conscious consumer decision based on need and price, your opinion of things changes. I've experienced this reviewing products for CrunchGear, and I try to be aware of the shift in opinion so that I can approach products from a consumer point of view.
I see clearly the formula to follow for relative success online -- indeed, just do what the Type A personality "internet celebrity" types do! -- but I willfully choose to reject it. It lacks the balance I so greatly value. It devalues the importance of legitimate interaction, and people become stepping stones on which one trods as they pursue fame and fortune, rather than unique individuals whose own experiences and insights can greatly improve one's own life, and sense of balance. I don't seek celebrity, and I'm not out to create a personal brand for myself. I don't want to be a one-trick pony, but a well-rounded person who can participate meaningfully in a multitude of environments. A friend once remarked of me that "The pond is wide, but not very deep," indicating that I was knowledgeable about a great many things, but not an expert at any of them. I'm comfortable with that.