My Beef with Branding

Jason and I have an ongoing conversation about using the word branding in referring to a person creating his or her own digital media content/presence and posting making it accessible online.* Our most recent exchange began when Jon Becker tweeted this

In later tweets, Jon clarified that he imagined the “commercial” would give those who viewed it a sense of “what I’m about as an educator.” I responded that I thought it was an interesting idea, and Jason replied

While in general I feel squeamish about the commodification (either by myself or others) of my content online, the word branding is especially irksome. There are two broad categories of reasons which make me uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘branding’ in the context of digital presence.

Historical– The word branding refers, originally, to the practice of marking livestock as a sign of ownership. The practice was extended to human beings as a mark of ownership of slaves in antiquity. Africans were often branded either before or shortly after being transported across the Atlantic by Europeans and Americans to be sold as slaves. In Puritan New England those convicted of adultery were sometimes branded with an A on their chests. So the history of human branding is fraught, to say the least.

Slave Branding

Many of those who use the term branding in the digital context refer to self-branding. Others refer to branding content or creating your brand. These uses of the word seem less problematic to me, since they give the creator agency in branding and remove the connotation of human being as chattel. However, I have real difficulty ignoring all the historical association when humans and branding are mentioned in the same breath.

Commercial– The other more amorphous reason the word branding makes me uncomfortable is it suggests by creating content online, I am selling something or at least setting myself up to sell something. Virtually all of the content I create online is Creative Commons-licensed and can be used by others for non-commercial purposes without any cost. I’m also uncomfortable with sending the message to children that they should be thinking about ways to commodify themselves at an early age (eg Jeff Utech‘s post- “When to Start Teaching Self-Branding“). Is it possible that this content will result in work that pays? Sure, but that’s not the purpose of its creation. I’m interested in reflection, connection, and storytelling.

I’m still wrestling with my commercial objections. I’m not sure whether my dislike of the word ‘branding’ in this sense is self-delusional, in that I am part of a capitalist society and to pretend that the hours I spend on the internet don’t contribute to that is silly. But I do think that there is something powerful in maintaining that as educators, we are about  encouraging our students to be not  just employees or entrepreneurs but thinkers and community members.

Perhaps this is all a semantic dance, but I’m convinced that words matter.

*I’ll apologize in advance for any mischaracterizations of Jason’s thoughts/arguments. I look forward to reading his thoughts in the comment thread.

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