Thursday, August 27, 2015

Self Promotion

Academia is a very strange tribe. On the one hand, getting one's name "out there" and becoming "famous" is the goal of academic research and publishing. On the other hand, academics look down on scholars who become media stars. I know many academics who do no see speaking to the media as part of their job description. Self promotion needs to be done, and yet if it is done too obviously and blatantly, it is criticized.

One place you can see this tension between modesty and promotion is in messages that academics post when announcing a new book or article. They typically will preface the announcement with the phrase "shameless self promotion." It is as though "good work" should somehow rise to people's awareness without the author needing to promote it, and bringing attention to our own work is somehow embarrassing. (It is, actually. Seems vain and self-important. And yet, it needs to be done.)

I notice that some scholars list their newest publications, especially books, as part of the footer of their email messages. This way they are not actually telling people about their new book; it is just there, part of the message. It is a form of passive self-promotion.

The tension between self promotion and modesty exists in all fields, but in politics and business, much more self promotion is tolerated and expected. Tom Peters even had a series of books and talks about "Brand You." His famous 1997 article in Fast Company began:
Big companies understand the importance of brands. Today, in the age of the individual, you have to be your own brand. Here's what it takes to be the CEO of Me Inc.
Scholars' reticence to bring attention to themselves must be at least in part because they a) write for their peers and not for the general public, and b) are paid a flat rate to teach and do research, not based on clicks or sales of their work. Journalists like Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Dubner (of Freakonomics) gain more sales for their books and articles by attracting attention of the public. They have a virtuous circle, where more attention gives them more income, which allows them to continue to do even better work (with assistants, etc.).

Musicians and actors are used to writing their bios that are published in programs handed out to the audience. In their bios, they all appear to be famous and well traveled. They are always written in the third person, as if the concert organizer is introducing them, though the artists (or their publicists) write them. When I read programs and realize that these artists have written their own PR bios (including classic lines like "and was part of the traveling production of Cats"), I can't help but feel a little sorry for them.

Now I've actually found someone who is extremely successful who nevertheless finds the self-promotion of the bio to be embarrassing. Clay Johnson was the founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that helped Barack Obama win the 2008 election with social media. He's written a book called The Information Diet that argues we should be more selective in what information we expose ourselves to. In his bio to his website for the book, he says that a bio can't capture who he is, and it recommends watching him online or seeing the introduction he was given before a talk. He ends:
Johnson is also terribly uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person. 
We should all be.

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