Two decades ago, before social media existed, Zygmunt Bauman articulated a perfect description of how it would soon shape our behavior and frame our relationships to one another. In his 2000 book Liquid Modernity, Bauman wrote: “Seen from a distance, (other people’s) existence seems to possess a coherence and a unity which they cannot have, in reality, but which seems evident to the spectator. This, of course, is an optical illusion. The distance (that is, the paucity of our knowledge) blurs the details and effaces everything that fits ill into the Gestalt. Illusion or not, we tend to see other people’s lives as works of art. And having seen them this way, we struggle to (make our lives) the same.” The conditions Bauman described had already emerged in other media environments, such as television, but the participatory nature of the internet and specifically social media would compel everyone involved to develop an online identity, intentionally or not, that would correspond to their offline identity but would never quite mirror it perfectly. The personal brand, that groan-inducing pillar of digital existence, only occasionally amounts to the refined display that its most sophisticated instances embody. For most people, though, a personal brand is an accidental side effect of their digital presence, something they assume to be a faithful reflection of their “real” selves whether it really is or not.
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