We had to brand ourselves, unless we’d somehow gotten ahead before the 21st century dawned and had therefore arrived in the new millennium prebranded. Otherwise, we were obligated to promote, pimp, shill and otherwise whore like never before. Our experiences were special, marketable and somehow universal. With effort and determination we could turn our quirky little selves into big cash money. There was no room for doubt, ambiguity or the nagging concern that this was all kind of a boondoggle. The era of personal branding had arrived, they told us, though I no longer remember who “they” were. You needed to blog about your shit or get off the pot.
I had ambition. I had guts. I had bills to pay. I had a wireless connection. What I didn’t have was someone telling me that the whole concept of creating a personal brand, of turning the most private details of the only life you’ll ever have into a prima facie profit-generating product is perilous, misguided and probably disastrous for the soul. Or maybe someone did tell me that and I decided not to listen.
When my parenting memoir Alternadad got close to its January 2007 publication, I smelled opportunity. Parenting, I believed, was hot, and hipster parenting was hotter. Social networking had begun to explode. The blogosphere promised great riches to those who understood how to exploit its uncharted social codes. I prepared myself for something much bigger than a successful book. Alternadad would pave the way to a branded lifestyle empire.
Five years later, I’m still, unsurprisingly, a parent, but my “empire” has been reduced to the occasional Facebook status update about something cute or weird that my son says and the even more occasional quote for a Father’s Day newspaper story. That’s as it should be, really. But like a puppy on a chair leg, I tried to dominate the world, never realizing I’d chosen the wrong target. Let my experience be a warning to anyone who tries to brand his life.
It almost never works.
In early 2006 I heard from a reporter at New York magazine. He was working on something called “Up With Grups,” about the “ascendant breed of grown-up who has redefined adulthood.” The piece, as the writer later explained in his summary paragraph, served as “an obituary for the generation gap. It is a story about 40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act and dress like people who are 22 years old.” His article graced the magazine’s cover, complemented by a series of portraits of men much hipper and more downtown-looking than I holding their children in their BabyBjörns. It made some social observations that seemed trenchant at the time, though it has a before-the-fall vibe that dates it badly. People who were trying to look cool in 2006 are now just trying to hang on to their apartments.
The writer called me with some questions. I answered eagerly. He sounded happy as I talked to him, like a prospector who’d just discovered a rich vein of gold. “My son seems to like the Hives a lot,” I said. “I mean, he doesn’t know who they are. He calls it ‘thunder music’ when I put it on. He gets very excited by that. That makes me sort of proud.”
The reporter had found his fool, the ultimate example of arrested intellectual development in a Gen-X parent. I fed his buzz-worthy thesis as if it were a hungry python. “You have to have a little bit of Dora the Explorer in your life,” I said. “But you can do what you can to mute its influence. And there’s no shame, when your kid’s watching a show and you don’t like it, in telling him it sucks. If you start telling him it sucks, maybe he might develop an aesthetic.”
Alternadad was still almost a year away from publication. It’s a simple, universal story of two people without much money trying to define their identities in the face of new parenthood. All the “hipster dad” stuff in the book, though prominent, gets played for comic effect. The book’s central joke is that no one who calls himself a hipster is actually hip in any way, and that’s doubly true for a hipster dad. But I hadn’t really thought through how I was going to present my upcoming book in interviews. So instead I said stupid stuff like “I recognize that changes and sacrifices are necessary. I do occasionally wake up before nine these days. But I didn’t want to lose touch with the world’s cultural progress. I didn’t want to freeze myself in time.”
The people of New York read the piece. My editor called after it appeared. He was doing a nice job with the Alternadad manuscript, but he suddenly didn’t sound too pleased to be representing the “tell your kid his favorite show sucks” guy. Damage had been done, he said. “Next time, you should consult with us before you give an interview,” he warned.
The theme had been set. One blogger wrote, “A generation of self-consumed male hipsters have suddenly discovered parenthood, and we’ll be forced to listen to them for years on end. Really, it’s enough to make you want to just crawl into a little ball and never read New York magazine again.”
Still, people were actually talking about, or at least around, the book. Even though I’d unwittingly become a reviled figure, I’d bullied my way into a corner of the cultural conversation. I’d done a poor job defining the brand. But there it stood anyway, branded, ready for exploitation.
“Isn’t there something unsavory in the idea of your kid as a kind of tabula rasa for you to overwrite with your tastes?” wrote the New York magazine reporter after a particularly pungent quote of mine. “Less a child than a malleable Mini-Me?” That moment, as it turned out, was the Alternadad brand’s pinnacle.
I had a personal website. For more than a year, in anticipation of the book, I’d been doing Alternadad-style material—cute jokes, little conversations, bits of cultural observation—and had built up a steady following with a decent number of commenters. NealPollack.com was all I really needed. But I wanted much more.
The word in 2007 was community. Facebook had become the thing, but it wasn’t yet the only thing. If you wanted to have a brand, then you needed to graft a social network onto that brand. Otherwise, your brand would never become stratospheric, and that would be a tragedy, because you were your brand and your brand was your life.
This trend excited me because it would bring me riches. My big branding idea was an online humor magazine, combined with a community, that would serve as the major cultural portal for my generation of parents. The idea, I thought, was brilliantly conceived, without flaws. This “new parenting” cultural space was mine to own.
I registered a site, gave the community a name, Offsprung, and went about rebranding a brand that already had a decent brand identity. My first and most brilliant coup was persuading my friend Ben to be my partner. Ben, who’d been coding social networks since before Mark Zuckerberg started stealing ideas from the Winklevoss twins, built a strong back end with profiles and chat functions and everything an online community needs to thrive. I took care of the editorial side, enlisting humorists, social commentators and personal bloggers, throwing together an interesting and random mix of voices, all of whom agreed to write for free. I’d pay them down the road, I said, if I could.
Offsprung launched modestly, riding on the back of whatever publicity Alternadad had generated. It was literate and funny, or at least I thought so. A few hundred people joined, and a few dozen of those started hanging out and exchanging baby photos. My complete control over this cultural sphere was taking longer than I’d planned, but it could still happen. Except that it couldn’t. I already had strong competition.
Babble appeared on December 12, 2006, the second major web publication from a company whose first online magazine, Nerve, had set the standard for neurotic confessional online sex essays. I’d written a column called “Bad Sex” for the company for more than a year. Then they fired me and turned the column over to other writers. So the relationship was already a little fractured and raw. It became even more so when they approached me to do something with Alternadad before the book appeared. I told them I was working on my own thing, but thanks anyway.
One of Babble’s first big articles was a book review called “The Ironic Thing: Why I Hate Parenting Memoirs Like Alternadad.” “Neal obviously thinks he’s so wild because he talks about shit-storms,” the reviewer said. “But every parent of every child in the world, as well as dog owners and workers in various segments of the service industry, have experienced shit flung at inconvenient moments, eaten or worse.” Babble, almost as desperate for traffic as I was, let me post a response essay. “I think ironic humor is a perfectly acceptable mode of expression when it comes to describing parenthood,” I wrote. “When the first thing you do in the morning is deal with the fact that your son has just pissed in his Barrel of Monkeys, is there any other way to respond than with irony and humor?”
This “debate” illuminated nothing other than my own desire to get publicity for my brand. In retrospect, the reviewer had some sharp, if overwritten, points to make. “As a generation,” she wrote, “what we know for sure is how to be sarcastic and irreverent. Parenthood is bigger than that. It inspires thankfulness, humility, rage, unfixable guilt over what we may be doing to our children, unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age, wonder and a quiet sense of sacredness.”
At the time, though, I wasn’t interested in thoughtful discussion. I was only interested in the fact that Babble had something like a million dollars because it was part of an actual business that could bring in big corporate sponsors. It paid its writers. I had about $1,000, thanks to Blogads, and could pay nobody. My Offsprung writers, understandably, moved on to other things, to be replaced by other writers who also moved on to other things. And yet the community continued. It was a nice group of people who believed in my brand and wanted to support it as best they could. Then Babble struck again, and I struck back.
We called our community section “Playground.” In 2008 Babble launched its own community section, also called “Playground.” In a blog post on Offsprung, I encouraged my members to go over to Babble’s Playground and start talking about how much they preferred Offsprung’s. It was clearly a measure of desperation. I got an e-mail from Rufus Griscom, the founder of Nerve Media, who referred to the behavior of the Offsprungers as “kinda tacky” and said, “We had no idea that you had social networking functionality on your site. I haven’t been there in some time.”
A blogger for New York found out about the flap—because I told him. He was somewhat sympathetic to my cause, writing, “Griscom has been a privileged person his entire life, after all, and he knows that when poor kids are mean to you, it is just because they are jealous.” I continued to lash out on Offsprung, threatening lawsuits and writing, “I wish them luck in their sterile loft community and hope that no more ‘kinda tacky’ people darken their doorstep.”
The branded snake had begun eating its branded tail. My partner, Ben, normally an easygoing, fun guy, sent me the most frustrated e-mail I’ve ever received from anyone. “Everyone else out there on the site who is still writing, they have worked hard with no return,” he wrote. “Yet you, the majority owner of this site and the person who would potentially benefit the most, are the one complaining about not making any money, complaining about the site not growing, complaining about our enemies.”
He was right.
The shadows had only begun to descend.
I took two paid Alternadad blogging gigs to support my branding habit. The first was with the website for Parents magazine, which refused to do anything related to search-engine optimization and buried its parenting bloggers deep within ugly pink graphics and shampoo ads. No one read that column. The other gig was with the food site Epicurious.com, which people did read.
My assignment was to write a column about kids and food. I did an entry, “Intro to Turophilia,” that described a trip with my son, Elijah, then four years old, to Whole Foods, where we sampled cheese. He didn’t like one sample, spit it out and said, “This cheese is too boring for me.” In the end I decided that all the cheese was too expensive, and we went home.
A blogger for the website Gawker saw the post and wrote a response, titled “Elijah Pollack Is Going to Be a Horror.” The writer quoted my post, using it as evidence to describe my son as “big, big trouble in the making” and said this about the kid: “He is essentially a formless mass that has been fashioned into what he is by his father. But if we were to come across a sculpture that resembled, for instance, a large penis, we would be remiss not to mention that fact simply because the statue was created by a sculptor and did not form itself.”
The moment I read that, I lost my taste for the whole branding enterprise. I recognized that, largely by my own design, I was a public figure of sorts. And when I said something obnoxious in public, or even just appeared in public, I was fodder for snarky websites like Gawker. I didn’t always like what they said, but for the most part I didn’t mind the press. And I had certainly slung enough snark in my time to warrant what they dished. But when they started calling my sweet, innocent son a “horror” and “the worst” and barely even mentioned me at all, that’s when I started to doubt the brand I’d tried to create.
I sent a self-pitying e-mail to various friends and media people. Gawker got hold of it, which I knew it would. The writer did a post in which he referred to “Elijah blowback” and made a snide reference to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. He started getting positive attention for attacking me. As such, he created a fake son character for himself named Mordecai, about whom he began to blog. After I made a few histrionic phone calls to the editors of Epicurious, they made the decision to “rotate me out” of their daily blog mix.
Everyone was leaving the Alternadad business.
In two years, I had taken a potentially lucrative media property and reduced it to an unread blog on Parents.com. But I still had Offsprung. I cashed in a couple hundred bucks of my ad profits and gave it to a local print shop in exchange for a box of glossy promotional postcards, which I took to the BlogHer convention in San Francisco.
BlogHer is a kind of consortium of mommy bloggers and one of the foremost proponents of the art of personal branding. Its support has brought along quite a few excellent writers who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten much attention—as well as quite a few terrible ones. Every year, its members gather in large numbers to share strategies for generating online revenue, to talk about their kids and to drink lots of cocktails. Occasionally men get to attend, but the women run the show.
I rode buses to parties, passing out my postcards and trying to talk up an enterprise in which I no longer believed. Everyone was trying to brand herself, but it was all the same brand: I have a kid or kids, and I am manic-depressive/a former beauty queen/from Kansas/24 years old. It seemed like the world was vanishing into its own navel. The BlogHer crew didn’t care about Offsprung. They had their own branded parenting empires to create, and they were doing it a lot more smoothly than I had. How had I let things get like this? How had we all?
My fellow BlogHer attendees, many of them nice, kind, smart and sincere, and some of them sleazy phonies who filled my soul with dread, made me sad. We were a mostly college-educated and largely middle-class group with no skills other than word processing and a little graphic design and no resources other than our wits and our amusing anecdotes. Our business cards bore retro logos and winky slogans that turned our adulthoods into small-batch branded products that most humans would never consume. I’d joined an army of Erma Bombeck clones all marching toward the same slender piece of leftover cherry pie. Arianna Huffington made millions aggregating content. We made hundreds doing the same thing to what passed for our lives. A generation had strip-mined its collective domestic memory for grocery money.
I returned home. Ben lost focus on Offsprung. It began to develop technical glitches, and he was slow to fix them. Members started sending me panicky e-mails, and I didn’t know how to respond. Eventually, a kind Offsprung couple, Alan and Kathy, came to me with a proposal. They could see that my heart had gone out of Offsprung, and they offered to take the site off my hands. It was a relief to get the offer, like when you finally decide to put down an elderly pet.
They wanted to move Offsprung to a low-maintenance social-networking platform called Ning. I told them they’d have to pay for any transfer fees themselves, but otherwise they could have it for free. The transfer took about a month. Most of the community went with them. I agreed to contribute an “advice” column, to which I’ve submitted seven entries in two years. The brand died like a dog in the sun, and yet it still lives, in a way.
Last fall I was in Seattle on a book tour. A longtime Offsprung member attended my reading. Afterward, she came up to me. “I just want to thank you for what you did with Offsprung,” she said. “It helped a lot of people through a lot of hard times.”
I thanked her, but it felt bittersweet. My ego and greed had blinded me so much that I’d barely even considered the idea of establishing a site to help people. The fact that it had was a fortunate by-product. Offsprung is still out there, still limping along and still helping more or less the same people it was when I was in charge. It’s not flashy or particularly interesting to nonmembers, and it’s certainly not a brand. But it’s a good thing. Knowing that I helped make it will have to be enough.