The age of connection has dissolved into a meaningless sea of us trying to help each other — if only to love ourselves.
We’re done, guys. Well freakin’ done.
(Insert a lone slow clap, echoing into the vastness of fibre optics).
It is midnight. I am in bed. I cannot sleep. As I scroll through my feed, I notice how 8 of the last 10 stories on Instagram are focused on something weird: Everyone is trying to position themselves as an altruistic god.
“I’m here to help you be happier.”
“I’m here to help you make your 2017 the best year ever.”
“I’m here to help you find your why — and live it.”
“I made six figured making a webinar and achieving my dreams — and now I want to help you to do the same.”
“I can help you be rich.”
“I want to help you lose that belly fat and love your life!”
While I could use a the best year ever, lean in children of the internet (yes, that was a Children of the Corn reference) because Uncle Jor-Jor has something to tell you: “You are hurting!”
I can see it from a mile away! Even two mi — nay, three — miles away! You are screaming for help. You are screaming for validation. You are screaming aloud and declaring, “I am more than these pixels, let me outta here!”
Now, to be fair, the issue isn’t in the intention of wanting to help others. Many of these people do believe in what they peddle, I’m sure, and are trying to be genuinely helpful. The issue is the incessant and all too often hollowness of it all. Because it’s all bullshit — and deep down you know it.
Because in the digital world, we’re all a brand. We’re all low-level digital con artists — but we pretend we’re gurus.
For years, we have been told that personal branding is the key to differentiation in the digital space. Otherwise — gasp — we’d be unremarkable. We’d be like everyone else. We’d be normal by using the internet to connect with people and ideas or something silly like that.
Over time we evolved from rudimentary digi-mammals clinging to Geocities, Lycos and ICQ into more sophisticated beings capable of giving and receiving acknowledgement online. How? Why, followers on MySpace, Friendster, and yes, LiveJournal.
And before we knew it, our evenings and weekends were spent contemplating our strategic use of sticky caps, whether not we should add our crushes to MSN Messenger, and what the “Casual Encounters” section on Craigslist was actually for.
It was all going to plan until we started to realize that social norms from the real world blended over to the digital one. All of the sudden your high school crush was still too good for you both online and offline, despite your sticky caps name on MSN Messenger — and “Casual Encounters” turned out to notbe meet ups to share stories about casual encounters with aliens. Bummer.
But true to human ambition, we adapted.
With the explosion of Facebook Pages, Facebook Ads, selfie sticks and the Kardashians, we’ve became cognizant that we could reinvent ourselves en masse. All the sudden, faking it wasn’t just for your dating profile, but for everywhere.
We learned that we could be whoever, saying whatever, and finding our communities no matter the niche. We started to build personal platforms, identities and brands. And from these brands, we’d build leagues of loyal followers.
See, this is why we can’t have nice things. We get a gift like the internet — the ability to access lifetimes of information within a click — and we turn it into a snake pit of social posturing.
In person, online, it’s all the same.
Today’s weight loss guru on Instagram is no different than that Jenny Craig franchise in the strip mall by your parents’ home. The guy that wants to make you insanely rich is no better than Tony from the Cash Converters on Queen Street. And that bro telling you that he’ll help you pick up 10x women, well he’s just the same jerk that flirts with the waitresses at The Cheescake Factory while sitting at the bar… every Monday.
But no! Online they have it all. They have the look. The brand. The identity. The niche. The promise of a better life. They are remarkable and I, a mere mortal, am so small.
We’re All An Old White Guy
It’s not just “them” though… it’s all of us. We all do this, whether or not we’re actually a Selfhelp Guru. We all project one version of ourselves, even if just to friends and family, while subduing another. Because there’s a simple truth to all of the human experience: We all want to be remarkable. Why? Because no one wants to be forgotten.
But what happens when we’re all so remarkable that none of us are? What happens when we all try to offer value to each other that we forget how to just be? What happens when we forget when we forget what connection was all about in the first place? What happens when we believe the snake oil being sold to us by people just as insecure as we are?
I’m serious. What the hell happens?
Let’s start with a truth: None of us believe we are enough. Rather than go deep — or work hard to reconcile that — we have the capability to make up for that with digital traction. Okay fair.
So then we try to make up for feeling worthless by making a bold statement. We develop a unique brand. A way to be different. A way to stand out. A way to say, “Screw you guys, I’m not like ya’ll.”
I’m sorry to tell you, but we are all the loveless 55-year old white guy with a red sports car that hasn’t gotten laid since an Alice Cooper concert 1980s.
“But no, J-Rock, that’s not me,” you’ll howl. “I have the best of intentions. I just really want to share my meal prep strategies every week. It’s transformed my life and I think it can help others!”
And I’ll reply, “First, I asked you to stop calling me J-Rock. And secondly, yes. You are the problem. And so am I — even though, let’s be honest, your meal prep tricks are bomb.”
See? It’s seductive.
Because as much as one side of my brain thinks, “This is all such bullshit!” The other side still thinks, “But, Jor-Jor-Rock-Rock, you really do need to learn more about meal prep from Jenny The Meal Prep Girl.”
And so I’ll click, scroll and repeat just like I have tonight. I know it’s wrong, but I’ll cave. And what’s more, I’ll partake too by selling my own dream to people of what could be.
Enough Of My Jokes
I think of my own website and its bullshitty plethoras and promises. I think of all the ways that I wanted to be different, all the ways that I wanted to be more. Then I’ll think back to the kid on the playground that got bullied so bad he lost a sense of himself, growing up with the ingrained belief that he’ll never be enough. And over two decades later, here I am, the same kid that’s still crying out for someone to love me.
Look, my ranting and sarcasm aside, we’re all trapped on this hamster wheel together.
In the world of personal branding and gurus, we believe that the only way to be whole is to offer value (“I’ll help you win big at poker!”), because that will lead to validation (“Holy shit, I am showing how good at poker I am and how rich I must be!”), and with validation — supposedly — some sort of grand alignment and purpose (“I am the Poker King! All hail to they Poker King, fuckers.”)
But why oh why do we stoop? Why aren’t we enough as we are? Why do we need to find our niche, fill our funnel, convert our visitors? And who are they? What are they feeling and thinking?
Because I don’t think it’s about money or entrepreneurship, nor is it validation or about offering value. It’s about our age-old desire to be somebody — because only then, we reason, will we love ourselves.
Here’s The Clincher
Tomorrow morning I am facilitating a workshop with a group of grade 7’s and 8’s about the lies that we all live.
We will talk about how we don’t feel like we’re good/smart/funny/rich enough. We will talk about where these ideas come from. And then we’ll talk about the early pain they cause, candidly. Some students will admit to self harm, others to abuse and addiction. It will be horrifying in its honesty but hopeful in its possibility.
I want to tell them that it will get better. I want to tell them that it will get easier. But I know it won’t. It can’t unless we remember that all of this is not about trying to prove anything to anyone.
Besides, it’s a bunk argument. In the age of personal branding and gurus, there is no differentiation anymore. Because it’s all noise and we’re just supporting each other’s feedback loop.
That’s why it’s the end of personal brands. Because we’re branding 24/7 and still hurting more everyday.
And that includes me. What about you?