Social media self-promotion: The urge, the ick, the outcome

Humility is out. Self-advocacy is in. CNET's Emily Dreyfuss, a member of the Millennial Generation and an ambivalent self-promoter, ponders why we brag the way we do on social media.

Emily Dreyfuss Former Editor
Emily Dreyfuss is the senior associate editor charged with keeping CNET's home page fresh and on point. With 7 years experience as a journalist, she writes commentary and is the former co-host of CNET TV's Rumor Has It.
Emily Dreyfuss
4 min read
Screenshot by CNET

"My agent just sent my book to publishers! Fingers crossed!" That's the status message I just stopped myself from writing on Facebook.

It took all the willpower I've ever had.

In fact, I'm now eating a block of cheese because focusing so hard on not updating Facebook with that status has depleted my willpower reserves. My diet is left defenseless.

I'm 29, and I'm working hard to make a living, to produce something I am proud of, to pay the rent, to scrape some savings together, to make time for love, to eat right, to not be stupid.

I'm a Millennial in post-recession America. I grew up with Boomer parents who told me that I could be absolutely anything I wanted and that doors would open for me as they did for them. And I am trying. But the tactics they used don't apply these days. With a massive number of 20-somethings flooding a workforce lacking the capacity to hold them, we have to find new ways to stand out.

So we turn to social media. And, boy, we let loose. We promote ourselves like the only person who can hear us is our mothers. "I just got an A!" "I just got a raise!" "My movie is coming out!" "I made chicken and didn't burn it!" "Come eat at my new restaurant, where I'm the -- wait for it -- head chef!" "I'm starting a Kickstarter for a documentary about my life!" "I got into medical school!" "We bought a house!" "We're pregnant!"

There's also the humble brag, a la "God, I hate it when I'm going to meet my agent for a lunch and it starts pouring and I idiotically forgot my umbrella. LOL." But even that's passe. You don't need to humble brag. You can just brag. Be straight about it. These days on Twitter, I'm more grossed out by veiled humble brags than I am by bald-faced self-aggrandizement.

I hate to admit it, but I've been perfectly capable of the humble brag:

You can see why the outright brag is so much better. You just got an amazing new job? Great. Just tell me. I'll congratulate you, and then lament my own title and paycheck for a short minute.

When I began to write this piece, I was going to include choice status updates of my friends that exemplify this phenomenon. But that's cruel, and there is something unfair about taking a Facebook status out of its native context and presenting it elsewhere. It's like revealing pillow talk. It is beautiful and acceptable in your bed, with your love, but repeated the next day to your best friend at work it's, well, gross and embarrassing.

When someone uploads a self-promotional status to Facebook they are trusting that it will stay on Facebook, among all the other self-promotional status updates and flattering pictures, where it won't stand out, among its kind. So I won't post the status updates of my friends. I will, however, post one of mine because if there is one thing in life I've learned, it's that no matter how pissed off I get at myself, I'll get over it. Hell, I have to live with me.

Last week I uploaded this to Facebook:

Screenshot by CNET

Ninety friends have liked it. Not that I counted. But I did, obviously. A week later, I have to ask: Why did I write that? I've been working on my book for years; it "going to publishers" means less than nothing, as there is every likelihood in the world that none of them will want to publish it. And yet, I wrote that.

My first motivation was actually accountability. I was struggling to edit that chapter. I was distracted. I wanted to read tweets on Twitter instead. I didn't want to face my work. So my overt reason for posting it was once I did, I would be forced to edit it. I had to follow through because now people would know if I failed, and I'd be ashamed. Except of course, no one would ever know. So that motivation actually makes no sense.

The real reason must be because I wanted people to know I was succeeding, in some way, in reaching my dreams. Hey guys, don't forget about me! I'm still going to be a success someday!

But why does it matter if people know you are succeeding? Because self-promotion works. This is my main point, the crux of it: Self-promotion works. People who say, "Go see my new movie" get people to go see their new movie. They are the kind of people who make movies in the first place.

The Facebook generation has learned that it pays to be your own unabashed advocate.

Is it kind of icky? Of course. It's awful. But it's also, in some ironic way, incredibly honest. Through the layers of artifice and posturing that Facebook and Twitter conceal us behind, these moments of promotion are raw bursts of emotion that all say the same thing: Be proud of me.

And we are -- after we're done gagging.

Writer's note: Obviously this blog post is unquestionably a humble brag in itself. I said I had to live with me, but I didn't say it was easy.