The Temptations of the ‘Personal Brand’
Whatever else social media may do, it makes nearly everything performative. Of course, not all of us with Twitter, Instagram or TikTok accounts are there to perform. Yet the truth of Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “The medium is the message” seems unavoidable. The medium trumps our personal intentions.
In an Opinion essay exploring this idea in The Times last August, Ezra Klein noted that Neil Postman, the author of the influential 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” argued that television turned everything, no matter how serious and important, into entertainment. This development transformed society; it changed how we relate to ourselves and one another.
Today social media inevitably turns everything we share online, from political opinions to a heartfelt profession of love to a Bible verse to an expression of grief, into content, ideas for public consumption that elicit cheers or jeers as part of our personal brand. The notion of our very selves — our thoughts, beliefs, family, friends, feelings, images and vulnerabilities — being part of a brand would have been incomprehensible for most of human history. Now personal branding threatens to encroach on every moment of our lives: An article in Forbes magazine this month even coached readers on how to bolster their personal brands while they sleep.
This phenomenon has affected our society in vast ways. Take governance. We are in what David Brooks called “an age of performance politics.” The House’s recent Kevin McCarthy debacle felt like watching a slow train wreck of personal branding run amok. Republican lawmakers who opposed McCarthy as House speaker didn’t have a bold alternative plan, but they did have a following. “These people seem to be crafting brands as much as political careers,” wrote The Times’s columnist Michelle Goldberg, “meaning they benefit from high drama and have little need to work their way through Republican institutions.”
Of course, the fact that people become well known is not itself evidence of a problem. Plenty of public leaders, artists, writers, scholars or politicians have become visible not through branding but by way of their skills, accomplishment, dedication to service or good governance. But the point of online branding is often less about doing excellent work, building healthy institutions or contributing to society and more about gaining notoriety through personality or spectacle. We’ve all become familiar with public servants performing for the public rather than serving it, like Ted Cruz famously checking his Twitter feed immediately after his remarks at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. It makes one wonder what matters more in a political career today — the good of the nation or some sweet, sweet retweets.
In a recent Times article, the reporter Emma Goldberg wrote about how the rise of social media and influencer power has made it such that young people, in particular, find their livelihood, success and sense of self inextricably entwined with an online presentation. She wrote, “With personal branding, the line between who people are and what they do disappears. Everything is content.” A strange, exhausting new twist in being human is that each day, each of us must decide how much of ourselves, our family life, thoughts, work, photos and feelings we will share with strangers online. Goldberg quoted Tom Peters, a marketing writer, who explained that, we are each “head marketer for the brand called You.”
To reduce ourselves to brands, however, is to do violence to our personhood. We turn ourselves into products, content to be evaluated instead of people to be truly known and loved. We convert the stuff of our lives into currency.
This new way of interacting with the world is driving institutional dysfunction, personal anxiety and the hollowing out of ourselves. In this morass, religious faith ought to have something to offer. Though the Gospel that Christians proclaim has never needed to be put in quite these terms, increasingly part of the good news that churches must offer people is: I am not a brand; you are not a brand; we are not a brand.
Klein confessed that social media had made him hungry for validation. It offers us, he said, a steady drumbeat of “You exist. You are seen.” This longing to be seen and validated is universal, but this desire has been co-opted by technologists to capture more and more of our time and attention. Churches and other religious institutions are meant to be places where people in all their maddening complexity might be truly known and loved not for their performance but for their inherent value, not as avatars or online personalities but as whole human beings.
These institutions, at their best, offer a reaffirmation that there is an internal essence of a person that can never be reduced to a brand, that we have parts of ourselves that are beyond the reach of likes. They can remind us that we are made for embodied relationships with people who are committed to us and that looking to an online crowd to fulfill our desire to be loved will most often leave us more lonely and insecure. They can assure us that we are made, as the Christian faith teaches, not to perform but to live as people known and loved by God and by others.
Faith also challenges us to exist for something higher than ourselves. A faithful understanding of vocation calls us to the common good. Jesus even spoke in the stark terms of “dying to self.” A modern paraphrase of his teaching might be, “What good is it for a person (even a congressperson) if he gains tens of thousands of followers but loses his soul?”
Yet though religious communities could offer a prophetic antidote to our infatuation with branding, platforms and personas, they often do not. In her book “Celebrities for Jesus,” Katelyn Beaty writes, “The American church has overall mimicked celebrity culture rather than challenged it.” The temptation to embrace personality-driven religious leadership runs deep in America. The historian Harry Stout, in a biography of the 18th-century American cleric George Whitfield, portrays him as the first American “religious celebrity.” Whitfield drew on his acting background to draw huge crowds and even had a publicist.
This latent tendency has run rampant in our era. First, we had the advent of the televangelist. Then the megachurch pastor. Beaty highlights the rise of now-disgraced pastor-celebrities like Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels and Carl Lentz — Driscoll declared to his church staff in 2012, “I am the brand.” Then, with the rise of social media, came the spirituality influencer. In a 2021 essay for The Times, “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” Leigh Stein, who identified as nonreligious, called these online spiritual gurus the new televangelists. The temptation to turn ourselves into a brand can be particularly insidious in a religious context because people of faith do, of course, want to reach people with their message. I know of churches across the theological spectrum that broadcast online services explicitly in order to reach a national audience. But a local church and its mission lose something crucial when it seeks to curry national attention.
A pastor, and a church, is not a brand. A key part of religious communities is that they are not merely a spectacle or a show but are primarily a people, a community living life together. I have gotten letters from time to time from readers declaring me their pastor, and of course, I’m flattered and grateful. I hope to be of help to them, yet I cannot be their pastor. I cannot hold their hands and pray over them in the hospital. I cannot grieve with them after the loss of a loved one or rejoice when they land a job. A pastor and the work of local churches more broadly are tethered to a place, an institution and a particular people, with all the complexity, hilarity, struggle and mystery of their lives.
What we need most at the end of the day has nothing to do with influence or brands. We need quiet beauty and enduring truth that we share with those who walk this journey with us. Local faith communities and faith leaders can offer this, but only if we give up our quest for a winning brand.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”