What I Learned at Personal Branding School

What does it take to evolve from human being to human brand? If you're enrolled in the right free online introductory-level course, about five weeks.

Daniel Kolitz is a writer based in Brooklyn.

Author not pictured. (Photo via Pexels/Google Image Search for "Sad Man at Computer")

Week One

Once, I'm told, you could have lived a full and meaningful life with nothing more than a tolerable personality. Conversation coursed unmonetized through the boulevards and esplanades, and only the phone company took a cut. Then a handful of dead-eyed Californians decided to mess the whole thing up, under the pretext of revolutionizing communications technology. The Californians said: "Give us your most intimate information, and thousands of hours of your time, and in exchange..."

The Californians just kind of trailed off.

No matter: We were sold.

The idea at first was to share meaningful life events, maybe reconnect with old friends. If you had a handsome nephew, for example, you could share a picture of him. You could even wish that nephew a happy birthday, if it was his birthday.

Then the world's economy collapsed. People were so desperate, they turned to their own social networks for cash. Some of us didn't even want cash: attention was good enough. The two were practically the same thing, if you were sufficiently blinded by hope. It was a kind of gold rush, except instead of mining for gold, we made bad jokes about the Oscars, or posted pictures of our asses on Instagram, and then waited for people we'd avoid on the sidewalk to applaud our jokes/asses. Most people did this for fun, but many saw a future in it. The trick was in building a brand.

This is more or less how we've wound up here today—“here” being Coursera.org's five-week “Introduction to Personal Branding” course, offered online through the University of Virginia, and “we” being a veritable United Nations of aspiring brand-havers, including but not limited to a Chilean dermatologist, an Uruguayan image-consultant, a Slovenian cultural anthropologist, a man who self-identifies as the "best-kept secret in European jazz," no fewer than three professional marketers (from Brazil, Pakistan and Las Vegas, respectively), a U.S. yarn-dyer, an education administrator from Ghana, a scientist from Switzerland, a communications manager from Columbia—even a podcast host named Paul from Lansing, Michigan.

You get all kinds, here at branding school. Triet Dong, in Vietnam, hopes to lift his family out of poverty through his “world-class home-made cakes.” Ann, a widowed auto worker in Dearborn, aims to expand her cosmetics company so she can spend more time with her kids. Derek, clothing company founder from Vancouver, wants to earn a hundred thousand Twitter followers in order to ease his transition into full-time “serial entrepreneurship.” Kimyon—once among ”the most promising vocalists in Massachusetts”—is after nothing less than “the flow of life as it lives inside me.”

Guiding us towards these disparate dreams is Ms. Kimberly Barker, a library scientist at the University of Virginia. She looks to be in her early forties, but vlogs with teenage flair—this week’s get-to-know-you lecture is only three minutes long, but Ms. Barker packs it with hair flips, head-slaps, wacky voices and broad pop culture references ("I have a great love of Hobbits—in fact, I am a Hobbit," she claims). In the can-do demotic of hotel-pyramid scheme seminars, stripped of polysyllables for global appeal, she acknowledges that, "in some cultures, the idea of putting yourself forward and saying 'I'm really good at this!' is frowned upon," but assures us that a "very clean," "very authentic" form of branding does indeed exist.

Everyone, she says, has a gift to give.

But what good's a gift without a solid social strategy?

Week Two

I figured this week we'd start studying some memes, maybe diagram a tweet or two. Instead we're told to boil our souls down to three representative adjectives. These "little words," as Ms. Barker calls them, are of massive consequence. They will form the basis of our brands, and in turn the success or laughable failure of our holistic prosperity start-ups, our e-books on "Visioning, Planning and Execution," our whole avoidably pathetic lives, probably.

She compares these Words to social speed-bumps, and illuminates the analogy with a personal anecdote. The personal anecdote involves a number of her peers disparaging her and her work in the field of "reputation management" in an e-mail thread she was inadvertently cc'd on. The three-little-words-concept, in this context, is like religion, or "visioning" the slow dismemberment of someone you despise: A barrier between action and thought, and also (probably) a boon to month-over-month Facebook page growth rates, although this connection is as-yet unclarified.

Most of my peers' Words, posted in this week's discussion forum, take their cue from Ms. Barker's. “Integrity” makes an especially strong showing, possibly because this week's very first commenter, a former model and aspiring style guru, was quickly reprimanded by a fellow classmate for neglecting it. "This isn't just about promoting a product or service," he reminded her—this is also about "integrity, and promoting ourselves based on our values."

I'd call this classmate a miserable pedant, but that would be contrary to the spirit of my Words. Besides, he's only imitating Ms. Barker, for whom branding is a form of missionary work. Everything you do on social media, she says, should both "promote your brand" and "further your values as a brand"—every person their own ethical shampoo company, or fanatically anti-contraceptive arts and crafts chain.

In her short lecture on "Brand Authenticity and Your Photo," Ms. Barker talks a bit about Queen Elizabeth I. "Full disclosure," she says. "I am a Queen Elizabeth I fangirl. So much to like about her! Some not good stuff, too, but as far as branding goes she was an absolute genius."

Queen Elizabeth's brand was, naturally, being a Queen, and her portraits were loaded with brand-reinforcing symbols—a sun on her left, a moon on her right, a pelican brooch pinned to her breastbone. "What a great symbol for a monarch—so totally brilliant!" she says. More impressive is that, going on about the folkloric significance of 16th-century pelicans, Ms. Barker is in fact subtly boosting her own brand. You look at the Jabba the Hutt and Star Trek figurines on her left, the Harry Potter books stacked on her right, and you think, or are benignly tricked into thinking: This person is just like me.

Next up are mission statements. Ms. Barker begins this lecture with a line of poetry, from Mary Oliver's “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The answer, in the short-term, is: “Expand our three words into a short paragraph, and also read a user-contributed Forbes listicle.”

As is well-known, the average CEO spends ninety percent of his or her energy on cable news hits, contributed business-mag essays, viral commencement speeches, and podcasts sponsored by mattress companies, and it is this material that forms the core of Ms. Barker's branding philosophy. The Forbes article, titled “Personal Mission Statement Of 13 CEOs And Lessons You Need To Learn,” makes clear that the mission statement is big in the business world, where CEOs who might otherwise spend their workdays poisoning municipal water supplies are kept on the straight and narrow via self-admonishments to, per one example, "live life with integrity and empathy."

I can get behind a culture of relentless self-promotion. A basic income guarantee would be preferable, but absent that, most non-violent food-gathering techniques are alright with me. I once watched a certified Influencer power-scroll her Instagram feed at a rate of maybe forty posed lifestyle pics per minute—an epileptic assault of cortado-swirls, beach-side fruit stands, huge ridiculous hats—“liking” nearly every shot as she went, and when I asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m engaging with my community.” Did I scoff? Sigh? Pull out my pen and draft an awful Black Mirror spec script? I did not. The behaviors associated with brand-upkeep are self-evidently sad and repulsive (and I’m not talking about “content” or self-expression—I’m talking about pruning your feeds at three in the morning, unfollowing your own mother for a better TFF), but pointing all that out is boring, and besides the point: We know this, and do it anyway. My take is, brand all you want—just have the decency to never talk about it with anyone, ever.

Or you could take Ms. Barker’s approach, and discuss it regularly and at length with your closest friend and family members. The transformation we have been gradually building to here—from human being to human brand—is finally completed in this week's last lecture, "Choosing Your Board of Directors," yet another concept culled from the nexus of self-help literature and PR-mediated Inc. articles. Our Boards—we are each assigned the task of forming a board, as homework—are to be made up of four or five confidants who will closely monitor your posts and match them against your stated Words. Once a year you’ll take them all out for dinner, and a frank, constructive talk about where you’ve been and where you’re going, brand-wise.

Obviously, this is not something I am going to do. Whom would I even ask? I know maybe one person who wouldn't openly laugh at a request like that, and we haven't talked in seven years. Luckily Ms. Barker provides an alternate option, which is to form a board without telling our board-members that they’re on it.

I picture my pals around a conference table, adjusting each other's party hats. They rise and cheer as I enter the room.

"Another bang-up quarter!" one of them says.

"You're a good person, you owe none of us upwards of six hundred dollars, and your persistent unreliability has remained rakish and charming well into your late twenties!" says another.

Cake, hugs, etc.

Then of course the whole scene tumbles into a particle accelerator of fear and other people's achievements. Law-school-acceptance-statuses collide with tropical vacation photos collide with the thousand-odd data-points which constitute my collapsing brand.

And then it was a wrap for week two.

Week Three

At the end of this week's first lecture, "Choosing the Best Social Media Platform for Your Brand," Ms. Barker invites those of us a little further along in our studies—those of us who have had "a lot of success, or maybe not so much success" with personal branding—to share our stories with the class.

If success is measured in material wealth, or the ability to even briefly reflect on your life without wailing dementedly for twenty full minutes, then I suppose I was not a success.

But I did have a brand, and the fleeting esteem of an insular Internet community. What I'd do was print out popular websites, cut them up, paste my own satiric content over them and then publish the results on Tumblr, which struck me as a perfectly sensible thing on which to stake a self-image, back in 2013. I even liked doing it, for the first couple of months. The year after that was unbearable, but what was I going to do? Something fun and profitable? Not with a brand to fortify. Plenty of writers have tried to smuggle self-expression into fundamentally mercenary work (studio screenplays, ad copy, daily culture blogging), but here I was trying to liven up work I was doing voluntarily, for free, in the misguided hope that it could lead to anything besides an awful Urban Outfitters book.

I'll admit I've sneered through most of Ms. Barker's course so far. I've even laughed, once or twice—not real laughs but forced, performative hate-chuckles, little signals to my next-door neighbor that I wasn't taking any of this drivel seriously, on the off-chance he could hear my laptop through the wall. I've never even seen my neighbor, for all I know he's in there snorting Soylent and lip-synching to TED Talks all day, but I still needed him to know that I was not the kind of guy who would do exactly what I was doing, were I not doing it in a quasi-journalistic context.

Except, what was I derisively pretend-laughing at here, exactly? The idea that people should be kind to each other? My classmates' desire to improve their lot in life? I might've thought my content was nobler—I wasn't just churning out shitposts, I put real care into my satirical collages—but I was after the same thing they were.

A year into that project, I'd so thoroughly fused with my brand that even the most anodyne post on any social media platform (“visiting Philly—any recs?”) came to feel like a deranged, highly public plea for whatever scraps of love or attention my network had handy; and the fish-brained chaos of Internet life, reborn without context every fourth second, seemed to guarantee that whichever plea I posted last would come to stand in for my entire brand/self in the minds of my extended social network, necessitating a second and in some cases a third or fourth post to replace or complicate the self (the brand?) posited in the first one. I've barely posted a thing since 2014.

It was clear that if I ever again wanted to idly link to something on Facebook without teetering on the brink of all-out psychic collapse, I'd need to re-learn the rudiments of—the rationale for—sharing moderately interesting articles on the Internet.

And so I try to watch Ms. Barker as if I've never branded before. I try to watch her intro to Twitter like I don't already know what Twitter is, i.e., a place where podcast hosts are famous. Ms. Barker must cover Pepe in Advanced Branding, because here she just sticks to the basics, such as: What exactly is a hashtag? And: how does one log on to Twitter? I picture my aged classmates patiently following her instructions, sending out an innocent test tweet, and spending the rest of the day wondering why a cartoon frog wants to kill them. (Really, the way Ms. Barker talks, you'd think Twitter was some kind of fun, easy-to-use resource for interesting news and opinions.)

So that's mostly what we do this week: learn the rudiments of Twitter. We're done distilling ourselves into words and statements: It's time for some real-world practice—or, if your brand is "sucking real hard," praxis. Not that a brand needs to be any one thing, apparently. "Now, I love nature,” Ms. Barker says, during her tour of Twitter. "Is there anything particularly related to my brand about these birch trees with the beautiful sun behind them? Probably not. But I love birch trees, and I love nature, and I fell in love with that and I wanted to use it as my cover photo."

A beautiful sentiment. I’ll leave it there.

Week Four

A slow week here at branding school. No reading material, no homework—just a pair of short videos on update schedules and the optics of automation. The forums are silent as dorm-lounges on the day before spring break; Ms. Barker, her hair suddenly a few shades lighter, addresses us from a white bench in what seems to be a park, backed by branches and assorted greenery. Low in the mix, birds and summer-bugs duet the old-fashioned way before the roar of a distant lawnmower joins their band. I picture myself in an undershirt and colorful shorts, twined around the branch behind and to the right of Ms. Barker. It occurs to me I will never see the back of her head. The front of her head is saying, "I think you should update at least—at least—twice a week," a statement made in crazed defiance of death, sunlight and the single line of Mary Oliver's poetry I am personally familiar with. I mean, what kind of way is this to spend our allegedly wild/precious/singular lives? Soon we'll be stooped, insane, elaborately cathetered, battering neighborhood tweens with canes and limply sucking on mentholated cough drops, every bird-chirp/cicada-thrum/distant-lawnmower-rumble a reminder of wasted vigor, or more likely a reminder of other, long-distant summer days spent indoors, fine-tuning Facebook update schedules.

Enough. This line of thinking will get me nowhere, I know. Even sad regretful thoughts are a luxury, in this economy; if I don't firm up my brand now, I'll wind up mourning my youth in an unventilated flophouse, as opposed to—who knows?—a lush historic estate, or a higher class of nursing facility. I'd already doodled and napped my way through sixteen years of regular schooling, all while my peers laid the groundwork for their future high-engagement “Some personal news…” Facebook announcements. I've always hated those posts, and promised myself that if anything good ever happened to me, I'd keep it to myself. This resolve has never been tested, and might never be, if I don't start listening to Ms. Barker. Right now she's explaining the 80/20 rule, whereby one's content ratio should be eighty percent fresh material to twenty percent self-promotion. A sensible rule, I think. I write it down.

Ms. Barker's back inside for the next video, her hair returned to its earlier shade of blonde. She is talking now about automated social media updates. "I'm a bad-news-first kind of person," she says, "so I'm gonna start with the downsides." The major downside, as she sees it, is that automated content might dilute or damage the "personal connection" that exists between brands and their followers.

The irony here is that the very course we're learning this in is itself automated; as we learned our first week in class, Ms. Barker's direct involvement with Coursera ended sometime in late 2015. She still leads each week's forum discussions, but her prompts were written years ago, and are re-posted verbatim each monthly class cycle. As far as I can tell, there isno one moderating this course; our mission statements and social media anecdotes are being read only by each other, and most of us aren’t even reading them—which strikes me as great training for life on social media.

Week Five

As a rule, humans tend to learn the simple stuff (shoe-tying, double-spaced-essay-writing, etc.) before reckoning with the random terror of neurological degeneration, or the speed with which a wasted month can rot imperceptibly into a wasted half-decade, etc.

Well, surprise, surprise: this same principle applies to free ungraded Internet branding courses.

Weeks One through Four had sketched social media as a playland of cat photos and opportunities for tasteful self-advancement. Week Five pans out to show the mean-mugged crooks ringing the perimeter. Ms. Barker has alluded to her work in "reputation management" before—it was, recall, what had so bothered her peers—but here she finally makes her case for it. "How many of you use a search engine to find out information about your children's teacher?” she begins. “How many of you use a search engine to find out information about people you're thinking about going on a date with? How many of you use a search engine to read reviews of products that you're thinking about buying?"

As she relates these questions, her affect switches, from loose and casual to composed and practiced, and in that switch a searching eye can see dozens of mid-day department presentations, thousands of spongy Costco bagels, who knows what quantity of sneerage, smirk and skeptical eyebrow-play; and indeed these very same rhetorical questions reappear as bullet-pointed prompts (“Teacher,” “Dates,” “Products”) on slide four of Ms. Barker's standard reputation-management slideshow, which we're asked to click through as part of this week's course material.

But you can bet those people won't be skeptically raising their eyebrows when it's their turn in the hot seat. Probably, what they'll be doing is contorting their eyebrows into expressions of unfathomable regret and sorrow, as if to say: If only I'd listened to that nice lady from the library! If only I'd taken detailed notes as she elaborated such concepts as Google Truth ("the automatic acceptance of Google results as an accurate representation of reality") and enumerated the dos and don'ts of reputation restoration! Alas, I made a big show of not doing those things, and now thousands of strangers are yelling at me for making uncharitable remarks about the Italian military. Et cetera.

I click over to the next video, “A Bit About Mistakes,” in which she details what might be the last and most confusing of her nicknamed mnemonics, the “one two four” rule. “One” is a stand-in for the singular, ineluctably Barkerian truth that "everyone makes mistakes." Okay, simple enough. But then: "The ‘two’ part of the equation is the two things not to do when you make a mistake." Mind the negative—because, of course, "the ‘four’ part of the equation is the four things that you should do when you make a mistake" (emphasis mine; also, the way she describes it, it's really more like five things).

The actual substance of what one should and should not do after making a mistake I'll leave unsaid, for reasons of relevance; Ms. Barker has artfully blurred the line between brand and human throughout this course, but here, our time together drawing to a close, she's really just giving us life advice. (Section three, article one of the “one two four” rule clearly stipulates that the mistake-maker look their victim "in the eye" as she or he begins the process of amends-making, and brands obviously don't have eyes, just engagement metrics.)

Only at the last moment does Mr. Barker veer her discussion back towards the edge-seeking realities of contemporary Internet marketing, suggesting that a mistake might serve as "an opportunity for you to demonstrate your brand integrity."

Next comes “The Highlights of Digital Privacy.” "With digital privacy," she says, "the rule I want you to follow is, just assume there is no privacy. Okay? Just assume that anything you put out there digitally is going to be seen by your worst enemy." By now Ms. Barker is like a real estate agent who runs through all the great nearby shops and restaurants and then starts brightly suggesting you keep a switchblade in your shoe after sunset. She tells us to be wary of free wi-fi ("they [they??] are monitoring that"). She warns us about Big Data, and how it all comes down to selling you something. She tells us to set a "really good password."

I click over to the next video, "Jeremy Bentham, Edward Snowden and the Late Capitalist Surveillance State.” Kidding: There is no next video. Ms. Barker is gone. Our class ended there. No teary final bar crawl, no gowned stadium ceremony, not even a diploma to hang at our luxury life-coaching gymnasiums or bespoke skin-cream boutiques (there was the option of a $50 "Shareable Certificate Link," which I would've bought, if I were insane). One moment a surprisingly woke Ms. Barker was lecturing us about Big Data, just another blissful day at branding school; the next we were cast out on our own.

I finished class that day with my assumptions shaken—not about Internet privacy (I've seen Citizenfour, too), but about Ms. Barker. Early on in our time together I had done to her what everyone on social media does to everyone else, all of the time: I judged the shit out of her. (Same happens IRL, of course, but there are more opportunities for it online.) I pegged her as a certain social type; I grew a kind of mutant Ms. Barker out of the one small hunk of her personality on display in her lectures, and I mistook that mutant for its fuller counterpart.

It was exactly this tendency, projected onto my entire social network, which led me to stop posting online in the first place. And while there’s a fairly obvious lesson here about empathy and imagination and how even the rankest alt-right pustule might conceivably possess a rich interior life, I'd rather just despair at the fact that I have to care about all of this in the first place.

I know it’s pointless to pine for a pre-Zuck world: That golden age when, if you wanted to feel inadequate and self-conscious and also thoroughly disgusted with yourself and with humankind generally, you had to get in your car and go to some party. It’s pointless because, as Ms. Barker writes in her slideshow, keeping a low online profile “does NOT equal a positive image and, in fact, can be viewed with suspicion.” I don’t want to be viewed with suspicion. What I want is the unyielding love and attention of as many people as possible. That’s why I spent all that time churning out involved BuzzFeed parodies, back in my branding phase; if I’m being honest with myself—and what choice do I have? Honesty is one of my three little words—it’s probably also why I’m writing this.

It's brand or be branded, as the branding experts say. Might as well wield the poker myself.

Daniel Kolitz is a writer based in Brooklyn.