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21st Century Name-Branding

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A confluence of news items over the past two weeks has me thinking about the state of self-promotion in 2009….

Item 1: Facebook user names.

Last weekend, Facebook enabled users to re-label their personal pages with a unique user name (i.e. www.facebook.com/noel.murray), and while many users rolled their eyes at this seeming non-event, that didn’t stop a bunch of us from grabbing our page-names anyway. For Facebook, the benefit of the change is clear. The site is looking to increase the likelihood that users will treat their Facebook page they way they would’ve treated a personal web page a decade ago (or MySpace a half-decade ago). Facebook wants users to direct all their friends and business associates to a custom-named page, which’ll hold pictures, video, and thoughts on the issues of the day. The result: more page views, longer stay-time, net win for Facebook.


But what does all this really do for Facebook users, aside from setting all the John Smiths and Bill Whites in the world against each other in a mad rush to claim nominal supremacy? Mainly it’s an opportunity for an individual to extend his or her brand. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that I’ve made more business connections in the past year through Twitter and Facebook than I have in my previous 20 years as a pro critic, simply because it’s easier to find colleagues, contact them, and have short, friendly on-line conversations. Because of that—along with other reasons, like The A.V. Club’s decision to add blogs and comments a few years ago—I toil away less anonymously now, for better or worse. In the current media landscape this matters, because while outlets founder and die off, the people who once wrote for them still find ways to maintain a following. I know that I'm more likely to follow people on Twitter if I recognize their name, and a lot of time the main reason I recognize their name is because I've seen it a lot on Twitter.

This phenomenon has applications outside the media as well. For example….

Item 2: Tony LaRussa sues Twitter

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa recently filed a lawsuit against Twitter, regarding an impostor’s account. While the “Tony LaRussa” Twitter page reportedly included the tag “Bio Parodies are fun for everyone,” that disclaimer didn’t appease the real LaRussa, who took issue with Tweets like, “Lost 2 of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving accident or dead pitcher.” Twitter has removed the page and was reported to have donated the amount of LaRussa’s legal fees to his Animal Rescue Foundation. (Though Twitter denies making any such payment.) But the whole situation raises questions about the limits of parody on social networking sites—and elsewhere on the web, for that matter. As the comments on this site prove, a lot of people put time and effort into their online personas, be they a true representative of who they actually are or a comic exaggeration. And there’s a longstanding tradition on the net of other people swiping and skewing those identities for the purpose of prankery.


But when does this cross the line and become actionable? That’s something Twitter may increasingly need to consider, since it’s so easy to set up an account on the site, and each Twitterer’s page offers so little information about who’s actually doing the tweeting. A fake Tina Fey has been posting Fey-like comments for months now, while the actual Shaquille O’Neal posts random absurdity that sounds almost like someone imagining what it would be like to be Shaq. If someone starts a new Twitter page, calls himself Tony LaRussa, and begins commenting on the performance of various Cardinal players, it would be perfectly reasonable for a person reading that page to think they were hearing from the real LaRussa. And though LaRussa could easily issue a statement saying that he’s not on Twitter, as long as the page stays up a lot of people will continue to be confused. (Fey disavowed her Twitter-imitator a while back but I’ve since seen other media outlets cite it as genuine.)

LaRussa has said that he didn’t shut down the fake Twitter page because of its content—although given the Cardinals’ recent history of drunk driving and tragic deaths, the nastiness of the tweets probably didn’t endear their author to the manager—but because he felt he had a right to control his own name. And I believe him. Though sometimes celebrities go overboard in brand-protection—like Prince shutting down fan-sites, or Spike Lee suing Spike TV—there’s definitely potential value in an authentic Tony LaRussa Twitter feed. Not monetary value necessarily, but value to LaRussa’s personal image and future fan interactions.

Item 3: Bradley Cooper might be a movie star

On Glen Kenny’s blog Some Came Running, Kenny noted a recent cover of Details magazine featuring a picture of a grinning, damp, scruffy Bradley Cooper and the tagline “That Guy From Wedding Crashers Is About To Have Hollywood By The Balls.” Kenny was amused by the in-your-face attitude of the copy—his suggested follow-up: “Robert Pattinson Is Going To Cock-Slap You Silly”—but I was more aghast at the idea that Bradley Cooper was being pitched as a player. Don’t get me wrong: I like Cooper. I thought he was great on Alias, and on the short-lived sitcom Kitchen Confidential, plus he has a voice and face that reminds me a lot of a good friend of mine, so I’m always happy to see him on-screen. But I can’t imagine anyone leaving the ramshackle-but-amusing The Hangover and thinking, “Man, Bradley Cooper rocked it!”


Yet that Details cover isn’t the only place I’ve seen the “Thank goodness Bradley Cooper is having his moment” sentiment expressed (even though any sane person should realize that The Hangover’s breakout star is Zack Galifinakis, or perhaps Ed Helms). And it makes me wonder whether Cooper’s publicists are working overtime to leverage one surprise box office hit into what often gets called “the new conventional wisdom” in Hollywood. It also makes me wonder if they realize the risk of that strategy. Everyone loves an underdog; not so much an “it” boy. (Just ask Matthew McConaughey.)

At the same time, it’s true that the media landscape is both rocky and wide-open right now, with very few conventional “stars” either on TV or at the movies. Pattinson-lust aside, it’s really the Twilight franchise itself that’s the star, not Mr. Scruffy. A smart publicist—or a publication with a cause—has an opening right now to start a whisper campaign to turn someone like Bradley Cooper from “familiar face”/“reliable workhorse” to “beloved icon of the silver screen.” How else to explain this week’s Entertainment Weekly (their annual “Must List” issue), which features a shirtless Ryan Reynolds on the cover? Again, like Cooper, I have nothing against Reynolds, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, but when EW trumpets him “Our New Favorite Leading Man,” all I can think is, “Really?” I don’t mind seeing Reynolds or Cooper on screen, but there’s nothing distinctive enough about either actor to make them a “favorite,” in my opinion.


This past weekend, Medialoper posted a link to a blog post from someone who attended a “Twitter Boot Camp,” which featured panels on how to use Twitter for marketing purposes, and among those ideas were some devoted to using Twitter to promote a person, a la “THE_REAL_SHAQ.” The existence of the Details and Entertainment Weekly covers shows that the old media model still exists too, of getting a person or an idea lodged in the public consciousness via repetition, co-operation, and well-chosen images. But increasingly sites like Twitter and Facebook are taking the “co-operation” element out of the mix, allowing people to control their own public personas more directly. This kind of direct access can have an effect on our culture in important ways, as with what’s happening in Iran, where Twitter and YouTube are allowing the citizenry to provide an instant rebuttal to the government’s (and the international media’s) version of their story. But more often than not, it’s going to have its effect in more subtle and mundane ways, as the famous and the obscure alike keep repeating their names in the public sphere until they stick in our collective brain.