If one did a semantic analysis of the language I use in my blog posts of late, I’d not be surprised if two of the words I use most are “many” and “different.” I much prefer many and different to “one” and “the same.” Which is where I think there are some ideas worth noting about identity online. Identity says to me “one” and “the same.”
We think of identity as the identity of a person. But people are far from one thing only, just as identity is far from always the same. In fact we could debate, and many do, whether or not there even is such a thing as identity.
It’s been said, I don’t recall by whom, that we experience ourselves as complex and differentiated, but that we see others as whole. I don’t know if this tendency also permeates how we think of users and consumers. But in the interest of pushing a little on the assumptions we in social media make about the user and his or her interests, I’d like to unpack this a bit.
Philosophically, I’m more interested in becoming than being. Much more interesting, to me, is not the identity of who we are, but the question of how we become. For we become not by staying the same, but by relating to something different. If identity is a valid concept, then to me it is still a process. If identity ever “is,” then it becomes so by identifying.
The aims of socially-mediated branding are to capitalize on the many and different ways in which companies can leverage relationships. Relationships through which consumers identify themselves, with or through a brand, friends and peers, values, and other kinds of interests.
The relationship is formed on the basis of identifying with something. This might be the brand itself, or its products, but also its principles, reputation, or values. In the case of a popular brand, and a lifestyle brand in particular, this relation usually involves relating to social perceptions of the brand.
Brand identity is not how the brand sees itself but how consumers relate to it: how they identify with it, and which facet or brand attribute it is that interests them (again: product, brand, values, reputation, etc).
Let’s take the example of a user interested in a football team. We say the fan identifies with the team. If this fan is a particularly fanatic one, then this identification may even be called an identity. It’s not who the person is, but how he or she sees themselves.
Identity might also be how the person represents him or herself to others, may be clear in how they talk, and will most certainly be involved in who they relate to and how. Other fans will be said to have the same identity. Fans relate to each other as fans of the same team, sharing a common identity.
Identity then is social. How we see ourselves is social. We see our own identities reflected in the social scenes we relate to and with which we identify. It’s never enough to ask “what’s the consumer’s passion” and stop there. Passion is social. It is expressed in how the person relates to others and to the social world of things that he or she identifies with.
We have left the information age and are now in the age of communication. That’s where our technologies and “industries” currently show much of the most interesting innovation. And in this age of rapidly socializing media, communication itself becomes a commodity.
Online talk, once it’s been captured, can be circulated and distributed, and can attract the value and attention that drives non-money social economies. As social currency spent, and as social capital accumulated, communication on social media represents a very disruptive shift to the uses of media for marketing, branding, and sales.
Whether we like it or not, the commodification of communication by means of social media will be used. It will be used to the consumer’s advantage, in some cases and by some brands. And exploited in others. This is how media work, when bound to the math of the bottom line.
As users identify themselves by means of media, as their relationships expose both individual tastes and preferences, as well as social affinities and common social identities, we should be advised that identity is not a fixed property. It is a work in progress and always in play. A dynamic of social identifications by which many and different relationships take shape through interactions and communication.
Brand identities, too, are socially determined. And brands interested in socially-mediated branding would be well advised to spend less on their identity. The brand’s view of its identity is not the same as the consumer’s. Brands, instead of communicating their identity, and identifying themselves, would do well to embrace the dynamic of identity through identification. Which is, in short, to identify with their consumers.