i lick my finger and stick it into the wind. i smell money.

i stick up a butterfly net to see if i can catch any, but it floats on by. i raise my eyebrow, stick out my lip. a twenty slaps me in the eye. it’s sticky, a little oily. on a long string, it trails a thousand tiny obligations and ties. i let it pass.

i turn the eye to the sun, looking for a bigger bill, one trailing things i already want to say.

there’s been cash in the oxygen out here in the ether for a long time, since before my time.  but the ecosystem has shifted in the past couple of years. make no mistake, social media is now a business environment.

sure, plenty of folk out here still have active and rewarding and even successful social media lives on many different terms without engaging in any sort of commercial transactions. there’s much beauty out here that’s not selling anything.

except itself.

be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out there and it works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged, sometimes into capital, sometimes into opportunity, sometimes simply  into connection. we all have our eyes on a prize; we are none of us pure, without want.

likewise, those here to do business are still entities within a social environment. we are here, all us Whos; identities performed here as friends and caregivers and consumers and braggarts and afficionados. we may be tycoons, or mothers: the walls between leak and merge. this changes everything for everybody, creates new ground rules.

and the first is this: the word brand does not mean what you think it means.

i tried to write about this a month or so ago. i meandered my way through a big messy post trying to posit that branding – a word many consider vulgar beyond redemption – is a key in understanding how to educate 21st century kids, who exist within this relational economy and expect to be able to interact with information and with people in ways that schooling structures seldom allow. i made it part way towards articulating my own research interests and ideas. but as my wise friend Sue pointed out to me on twitter, to bring anybody else along with me i need to explain what i mean by branding.

i say branding is the sum total of the choices you make about how you get presented and understood through social media…and also, how those choices get taken up by others.

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth. it is about image and perceived capacity.

your brand is whatever version of your best self you happen to be selling out here. even if it isn’t you at all.

branding, for all its polluted inheritance of capitalism and cows, actually allows for the complexity that one’s reputational identity or brand can be both contrived and uncontrolled. you can try all you like to look cool, but unless somebody takes you up on it and shares your cool with their peeps in turn, little happens. you do not amplify.

(branding is much like reputation, but as reputation is an equally sullied word laden with strictures about how women should act, i find brand less confining. plus branding better captures the fact that one’s online identity exists within an economy of monetization. whether you capitalize or not – or how high up the ladder you wait to capitalize – is up to you.)

you can ignore your brand all you want. but it won’t stop others from perceiving it, and perceiving you through its lens.

years ago, when Dave and i were first together, we had a conversation about clothes.

his wardrobe had always puzzled me, and since our friendship preceded the relationship by many years, i’d had the opportunity to observe it up close for quite some time. it consisted of a pile of disparate items that all seemed to have been bought by different people. it was not so much eclectic as just…odd, like anchovies on a hamburger. he wore polo shirts or funky Malaysian handwoven pullovers, apparently without distinction. he tended to look like he’d been dressed by well-intentioned missionaries.

i’d said nothing. we were still – clearly – in that first blush of love.

and then we went shopping.

i held stuff up, asked for reactions. i just wanted to know what he liked, what his impression was of different things, whether he thought they suited him. he refused to engage the conversation. he tried to step outside it.

my clothes aren’t ME, he said. and i understood.  he saw clothes as extras, add-ons. he saw the thousands of implicit judgements we base on clothing as false, masks for the genuine human beneath.

i know, i said. clothes do not make the man.

but you DO get, right, that you not wanting to be interpreted by others based on your clothing choices doesn’t mean you AREN’T?

yes, he was a unique snowflake. yes, he was more than just a jock, or a geek, or a post-grunge hippie expat and wanted to be understood as such. but there is no way to put clothing on the human body that does not open you to the interpretation of other people, however shallow or misguided they may be. you still dress like something, i was trying to explain to my dear one. unless “dressed by missionaries” is the image you’re dying to project, you might as well make choices that impact that interpretation along lines you actually, y’know, like.

so that’s what i mean by branding. we signify, everytime we interact with others, through our clothing or our tweets or our blog headers (and thankyou, kind and clever Kate, for eventually staging the intervention on my out-of-the-box theme template). we signify whether we want to or not. it is part of the price of admission.

there is no neutral. you cannot escape making some kind of statement. you might as well decide which one interests you and make it.

in every arena of life, it takes time to become literate in making judgements even for yourself. Dave’s found a style of clothing that he’s comfortable with, but it took time and years of watching and paying attention to understand what social significance different choices carried, and what he wanted to convey of himself with those options. me, i’m not so sure Hawaiian shirts go with corduroy blazers. but it’s his call to make. it took me a long time to even see that my old blog theme said much of anything, because reading social media images was a skill i hadn’t cultivated. i was aiming for neutral.  Kate took me gently by the hand and said, in effect, there is no neutral. and i said, oh merciful gawd, thank you. can i have typewriters? art deco typewriters?

if you are out here, you are being read: your words, your style, your interactions, all you carry with you. this is brand. own yours.