How Labels Make Us Miss the Point

Labels. Our world is consumed by attaching labels to things, and then identifying with those labels entirely, to the point where the entire meaning of what that thing represents is lost.

Consider politics. Our politicians are depicted in both Canada and the U.S. based on labels. It’s not how well they can do the job, their integrity, their honesty that people concern themselves with. What is more important to people is to apply labels (“She’s a woman with a pregnant daughter”, “He’s an old guy with health problems”, “He’s black”.) In Canada – (“He has no personality”, “He can hardly speak English”, “She’s a livewire”).

(DISCLAIMER – The above quotes are NOT personal opinions of mine (I have a policy NOT to get involved in politics online). I’m simply trying to make a point.)

My point is, the real effectiveness of the entire election process is lost, because people apply labels, and then are led to believe that this is what our candidates actually represent.

Turn to social media, which these days is ripe with labels. Community Builder, Enabler, Trust Agent, Social Media Guru…these are all words I’ve heard in my travels around the Internet lately. There is nothing inherently wrong with using these words to describe an aspect of the subject matter. Where the line goes fuzzy is when people start to identify with any of these things. When people are identified with being one thing or another, then it’s easier for them to push other people aside. The feeling is “You’re not a [insert label here]…what possible contribution could you have to make?”

There’s also a point where labels can give people a false sense of credibility – something they can hide behind. Just because you put on your blog that you are a “Community Builder” or a “Social Media Expert” doesn’t make you that thing.

What gives someone authenticity and credibility is their actions. Some characteristics of this kind of person include:

  • He writes/presents well, clearly articulating concepts and opinions.
  • She debates cleanly and presents an honest alternative to the status quo.
  • He teaches others.
  • She is accepting of other points of view but stands up for what she believes.
  • She is friendly, open, generous and kind to people, even her detractors.
  • He doesn’t change his “label” every three weeks to meet the current trends.

Labels are necessary in order to make sense of our world on a practical level. But attaching anything more to a label than it’s role as an identifying marker stifles the ability for people to move beyond, to what is deeper.

In the end, the underlying truth of defining this new media space will be lost unless we move beyond superficial labels and begin to explore what is really going on here.

CNN Wants YOU!
Online Authenticity – You Be The Judge


  • September 11, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Couldn’t have agree with you more. Today’s society is all about “labels” and if you don’t have the right “label” then you do not belong to this group or that group. You can not contribute to this project or that project. It is the new favoritism.

    Oddly, one can completely make stuff up and give themselves the label (or label someone else incorrectly) to get into favor, but then not produce a damn thing. However, they have the label and no one will hold them accountable.

  • September 11, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Great post !
    I have noticed that in relation to labels, we, some of my highly judgmental friends and I, have actually audibly scoffed when we have heard someone give themselves a label.
    ” I am an Artist”
    ” I am a Musician”

    For some reason – being judgmental probably playing a large role – I feel that it seems more acceptable for a person to express what what they do, not pre-define themselves in what could be a very subjective medium.

    My own version of the “elevator presentation” – that quick self- introduction when meeting new people to let them know more about yourself:
    ” I sew. I teach belly dance”

    I do a lot more, but those two things are enough to give people pause.

    I have never actually wanted to be called/ labelled:
    a “seamstress” [ I do more than just sew],
    “fashion designer” [ I don’t create fashion lines to sell on a regular basis],
    and while my training is in haute couture, a “Couturiere” just sounds pretentious!

    So, let’s drop the labels and let our actions speak for us!
    Thanks for the chance to rant!

  • September 11, 2008 at 10:08 am

    I agree with all your points … except that labels work. They are effective in ingraining a tag to people that you remember.

    If you call yourself “social media expert”, many people will believe it even if you aren’t. Expert and other labels are also relative. to a neophyte, just the fact that you are regularly on facebook, blog, twitter, flickr, post to youtube and possibly use it a bit for business can make you an expert in their eyes and that would be accurate.

    On a wacky and deeper note, Eckhart Tolle has a good segment in his latest book “a new earth” on this topic. His contention is that labels and simple names like flower, child and so on really limit our perception of what something is because the label automatically bring up a perception of something is that is very limited. Brings back to my original point … labels work … but they are not necessarily a good thing.

  • September 12, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Personally, I have yet to find my label in life beyond Joe’s wife (which I personally love). I have worked hard to avoid labels other than idiot, twit, bitch. tiresome and self-delusional.


  • September 12, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    I blogged about labels because you got me thinking about one particular person from my past.



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