Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)

Social Studies | Posted by - October 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Our personal data isn’t exactly personal anymore. It has been used to spy on us, hire and fire us, and sell us stuff we don’t need. In Dataclysm, Christian Rudder uses it to show us who we truly are.

Below is an excerpt from this New York Times bestselling book:

Bass Ale's triangle logo was the first registered trademark in the English­-speaking world, and today that sturdy oldness is a big part of the brand's appeal. They lay it down right there on the label—"England's first registered trademark." But what they don't tell you is that Bass was only first because a brewery em­ployee happened to be first in the queue at the registrar's office the morning that Britain's Trademark Registration Act took effect. They've parlayed an accident of bureaucracy into a reputation that, at least judging by what's in those brown bottles today, far outstrips the actual quality of the product. Bass is a brand built on nothing more than the act of branding itself.

There were many brands and marks before Bass—enough for the UK to begin to regulate them, after all, and labels and image-making pre-date even the Industrial Revolution. I mean, brands were originally burned into flesh. It's hard to get more primitive than that. Archaeologists have unearthed branded oils and wine in desert tombs sealed five thousand years ago. One label found in Egypt reads "finest oil of Tjehenu" beneath the royal emblem and a pictograph of a golden oil press. Compare that to the "choicest hops, rice and best barley" beneath the "King of Beers" on a can of Budweiser—as far as branding has come, in many ways it will probably always be a Bronze Age science, because the emo­tions it plays to are eternal.

But while aspiration and the prestige of association may be timeless con­cepts, truly new territory has recently opened to the brand: people. In 1997, Tom Peters, a motivational speaker and management consultant, published an article called "The Brand Called You" in Fast Company magazine, and the era of personal branding was born.

His article, really more of a sales pitch, asks readers to first determine their "feature-benefit model" and then to relentlessly market it to employers, cowork­ers, and the larger world...or else! Those are literally the last two words, and they punctuate all the typical hokum ("Sit down and ask yourself...what do I want to be famous for? That's right—famous for!" and "You are a leader. You're leading You!") that the worst business writing has to offer. Reading it, you imag­ine Mr. Peters miked up and pacing the rostrum like a lion caged—caged by that darn paradigm that he's about to explode before your very eyes, with truth bombs, know-how, and exclamation points. He shows the kind of belief that a different type of person channels to rip phone books in half for his tight bro J.C. The byline at the bottom of the piece reads, "Tom Peters is the world's leading brand when it comes to writing, speaking or thinking about the new economy." He was also, at that point, not just the leading, but the only person calling himself a brand. Hence a mouthpiece for the "new economy" takes a page from Bass's Victorian playbook. And why not? Fake it till you make it. The article kicked off the idea of self-branding as a direct path to success and is still read in marketing classes today.

A few years later, a man named Peter Montoya expanded upon Peters's idea in a second influential manifesto called The Brand Called You. Yes, it had the same title as the original manifesto, and no, he and Mr. Peters did not work together; in fact, if anything the two men are rivals in the branding-guru business. Meld­ing the cold steel of cluelessness to brass balls is the well-paid talent of pitchmen everywhere, and Mr. Montoya just might be the master wizard. The Brand Called You (his version) is essentially one long outline, and this is the very first bullet point, which appears on page 2:

l. You Are Different. Differentiation—the ability to be seen as new and original—is the most important aspect of Personal Branding.

Naturally, The Brand Called You, the remake, was a bestseller, and Mon­toya, like Peters, has a thriving speaking career to this day. But if the pitch to be "your own personal brand" had gone no further than the nation's convention halls and hotel ballrooms, just absorbed like so much cold coffee and muffin dribblings into the tattered carpet of the zeitgeist, I wouldn't be writing about it. The idea had legs, strong ones, and now you see whenever there's a public faux pas or a stumble from grace by some national figure, the natural question is: How will it affect his or her personal brand? Peters and Montoya were in­novators, and I mean that sincerely. Some of the smartest and most deservedly successful people I know say the words "my brand" without irony. You can see the birth of the idea and its subsequent rise through mentions in print via Google Books:

Of course, the principles of personal branding aren't new. Neither Montoya nor Peters* are all that different from Dale Carnegie, who rebranded himself from the plain ''Dale Camagey" by borrowing the golden surname of the steel magnate Andrew, and who, like these latter-day men, reduced character to bullet points and saw influence above all as the key to success. The goals of personal branding are the same you'd find in any empowerment seminar or in any prosperity gospel sermon from any decade. The end has always been wealth and power.

The new part is that "personal branding" asks you to accomplish these ends by treating yourself like a product rather than a human being. Peters again:

Starting today you are a brand. You're every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop. To start thinking like your own favorite brand manager, ask yourself the same question the brand man­agers at Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop ask themselves: What is it that my product or service does that makes it different?

This is the core concept of personal branding and like Christianity + the print­ing press or pro football + television, the idea has found in social media the perfect technology to go global. I won't rehash the ways sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram give you the power to project yourself to the world. But I will point out that not long ago, only big companies, with big budgets, could get their message heard and beloved by strangers halfway around the globe. Now I can, and so can you, and so can everyone. The hardest part is getting anyone to listen.

The straightforward way is just to be entertaining, engaging, funny. But there's a reason comedians who can actually make people laugh are very rare. It's hard. An amateur who tries to build a following by being witty or provocative on Twitter is far more likely to end up the next Justine Sacco than the next Justin Halpern (@ShitMyDadSays), with his 3 million followers and a book deal. For every kid who tweets herself into college or into a cool job at the New Yorker—as people have done—there must be dozens who tweet themselves into the princi­pal's office, or more likely, into a brick wall of embarrassed silence.

* His mantra, by the way, is "distinct...or extinct."

Excerpted from Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking). Copyright © 2014 Christian Rudder. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Tags: instagram, books, excerpt, personal data, christian rudder, dataclysm, media

Christian Rudder

Christian Rudder is cofounder and president of OkCupid and the author of the popular blog OkTrends. He graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in math and later served as creative director for SparkNotes. He has appeared on NBC's Dateline and NPR's All Things Considered and his work has been written about in the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other places. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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