I was walking down the street on my way back to the hotel this evening, and saw a guy wearing a Cubs t-shirt. I instantly felt a bit of kinship with him. I’ve commented on the way sports provides an instant community before, but it was a little bit bizarre, honestly. Maybe it was because I’m in New York and don’t expect to see a Cubs fan here, or maybe it’s because there are so many people in New York and I’ve been feeling a bit lost in the crowds. Hard to say.
But it got me thinking about this whole phenomenon of branding ourselves. I was talking about this with a friend many months ago when he was complaining about how his waiter at a restaurant had been wearing a kabbalah bracelet. I compared it to the Livestrong bracelet fad. All of these are ways for us to join a “community”, but a community that has no entry requirements, requires no initiation, and no effort to maintain membership. Which, in my mind, means it doesn’t really qualify as a community.
This no-commitment “community” is a result of the continuing shallowing of American social ties, as detailed in Bowling Alone, among other places. In the Eisenhower years, people had fewer ties, but those ties were much stronger. They had their family, their neighbors, and their bowling leagues. And that was all they had time for, because each of those ties required a large effort to maintain (a couple nights a week at the bowling league, regular dinners with the neighbors, etc.)
In modern times, we are overwhelmed with the plethora of different things clamoring for our attention. We know more people because we tend to keep moving between jobs and locations, but no longer have to lose touch with folks once we move on (and actually specifically keep those weak ties alive for networking reasons). There are more media options than ever before. More activities, more charities, more ways to spend our time and attention. So finding ways where we can be part of a “community” with no effort is important.
Why is it important? Because it allows us to visibly recognize other members of that “community”. When I saw that guy in the Cubs shirt, I could have gone up to him and said “Hey, Cubs fan! Are you from Chicago?” and easily started a conversation. MIT alums who wear their Brass Rats can count on that as a way of being easily recognized by other alums. Other such signals, from gang colors to hipster fashion trends, can serve the same purpose.
It makes sense to me because the hardest part of meeting new people for me is finding an excuse to start talking to them. I’m a reasonably good conversationalist and can find common ground with many people and talk about interesting things with them. But I have to get into the conversation for that to work. So having a conversation starter like a Cubs shirt or a Brass Rat is valuable because it provides a way to make that initial contact, even though it is based on a superficial “community”.
One thing that I am interested in going forward over the next few years is how people’s blogging tendencies will play into this self-branding phenomenon. It’s a little weird to meet somebody who I’ve only read electronically, because it feels like I know them, but I don’t. But it does provide another way to break the ice, by talking about something you read of theirs that you found interesting. So as more people have an electronic presence, maybe we won’t need things like the Livestrong bracelets any more. We’ll just need Augmented Reality glasses that can instantly correlate people’s images with their electronic alter egos. My blog will be my brand. DocBug, get to work!