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What's Your Type? Why Self-Knowledge is Big Business on Social Media
Two types of content dominate my Instagram and TikTok feeds right now.
The first is users talking about different personality and developmental conditions. The second is all about personality types and astrology signs.
I’m sure some of the prevalence of this content can be explained away by my interest in both of those topics. Platforms naturally surface more of that content for me because I spend time engaging with it. But it’s also obvious that others are just as—if not more—interested in this content as I am.
People are Instagram- or TikTok-famous because of how clearly or cleverly they communicate information about the Myers-Briggs system, ADHD, the Enneagram, rejection sensitive dysphoria, the Human Design framework, or borderline personality disorder. You can easily find accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers that focus on a wide variety of conditions and types.
I am here for it!
And, I’m super curious how the quest for self-knowledge became big business on social media—and beyond.
At the end of the day, I guess we all just want to know: Who am I?
This is the fourth installment in the Self-Help, LLC series. (Find Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) This series is all about the business and politics of self-help—how it operates, why we’re so attracted to it, and how we might think about personal growth in new ways. The series also poses a core question: Are we all in the self-help business now?
In this article, I examine the business of self-knowledge—specifically, why personality typing on social media has become so popular—with the help of Steph Barron Hall. Steph is a twice-certified Enneagram professional who holds an MA in Communications and Leadership Studies. She’s also the founder of NineTypes.co--a coaching & consulting business that leverages the Enneagram to help people communicate better. @ninetypesco is also a wildly popular Instagram account with over 300k followers.
But before I get to Steph, I want to take a closer look at one of the most fundamental questions of the human experience:
Who am I?
When I first encountered this question, I assumed I was trying to uncover my core, essential self. My true identity. The nut of who I am without the pressures of the outside world. But the more I explored the question, the less it seemed like I could uncover that essential self.
Well, I am in good company when it comes to doubt about my true, most authentic identity. Existentialist philosophers started to come to this conclusion almost a hundred years ago. They argue that there isn’t some pre-established essence inside each of us. There isn’t a Who I Am underneath layers of dust and culture and lived experience.
Skye Cleary, in her new book about the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, explains it like this:
“To become authentic means to create our own essence. It’s the creation that is vital here. We don’t discover ourselves, we make ourselves.”
One way to see all the content about personality types and conditions is as a response to the yearning for an essential Who I Am. But another way to see it is that it helps us to identify ourselves at this point in time and learn more about who we want to become. About who we want to make ourselves.
This content also helps us see others as they are and as they might want to become. While biases certainly exist, a system like Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram is purposefully ambivalent about any hierarchy when it comes to types. My 3 is not better or worse than my husband’s 9. My INTP is not better or worse than his ENFJ. But, knowing that he’s a 9 and an ENFJ helps me make sense of our differences and remember that he will make different choices than I do. Knowing that I’m autistic, and he’s decidedly not, helps us navigate misunderstandings.
This awareness helps me stay mindful of our intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity is what Beauvoir calls “mutual recognition and respect for another’s freedom.” Cleary explains that the choices that make our own most authentic selves are not part of “a selfish, inward-only quest.” Instead, existential freedom and authenticity come with responsibility “we share the same human condition.”
What is the Enneagram?
The Enneagram is a system for understanding one piece of our shared human condition. Specifically, the system addresses what motivates us—and, in turn, how we communicate or relate with others because of how we’re motivated. For instance, as a Type 3, I’m motivated by a quest for significance. I want to be useful, valuable, and even distinguished in the fields that are important to me. Within that motivation, I have a deep fear of being worthless and undeserving.
On the other hand, I know my husband, as a Type 9, is motivated by a desire for peace and stability. He prefers to avoid conflict and so ends up being very agreeable—sometimes in self-destructive ways.
So what the Enneagram is not offering is a picture of my essential self. In fact, it offers pathways for healthy growth and shows how stress can manifest in action. It’s a system with existential freedom and authentic change built-in—at least in my own understanding. I’m not an Enneagram evangelist, and I’m not unaware of the challenges with any personality typing series—but I do appreciate the wider range it gives us for understanding ourselves and others.
I’m not sure when I first came across Steph Barron Hall’s @ninetypesco account on Instagram. But I was immediately struck by the care she offers in each post. Personality type content can so quickly become self-referential share-bait—but Steph’s content was clearly rooted in deep subject knowledge. So when I started thinking about the rise of self-knowledge content on social media, I immediately reached out to her for an interview.
Steph told me that her fascination with personality types started young. “I remember having a book that [said] if your favorite color is X, then that means [Y] about your personality,” she said. Her childhood interest blossomed into an educational interest and inspired her to study psychology in college. But it wasn’t until her husband introduced her that she learned about the Enneagram system. Those early conversations with her husband dovetailed into a bit of an obsession. And before long, it turned into a business idea.
Before NineType.co, Steph ran a wedding florals business—on top of a full-time job. She was exhausted from the relentless schedule and the physical demands of working with flowers. In an effort to generate some cash flow without further taxing herself, Steph started to think about building a digital product. “I basically got bored for five seconds,” she told me--enough time to get inspired to create coffee mugs for each of the Enneagram types. ”So I just hired a designer, and we started creating these coffee mugs and started posting those on Instagram.”
Quickly, Steph realized that while she could post nice photos of the mugs, the content itself wasn’t super engaging. So she tried to post about the Enneagram as a tool, educating followers on how the system works. “When I actually posted about the Enneagram tool, that’s what people really liked and engaged with,” she said. “I kind of pivoted at that point to offer more of the service and education [content].” That was June 2019. Steph had a full-time job, she was in graduate school, and she was running her growing Instagram account. She was burnt out. And she knew she needed a break.
Feeling desperate for a bit of time off, Steph took to Instagram. She posted to her Stories and asked her followers: “How do you find rest?” As the responses came in, she realized there were strong themes that could be organized by Enneagram type. “So I created this post called Nine Types of Rest. I just threw it on a graphic, posted it, and walked away,” she recalled.
You can probably guess what happened next. Steph had a viral post that just wouldn’t quit. “Two months later, Sophia Bush posted it on her Instagram,” she told me. Unfortunately, since Steph wasn’t expecting her post to be seen by millions of people, there was no branding on the graphic. Once the image was separated from her original Instagram post, it spread uncredited. “All these different people started finding it and reposting it.” Credit or no, Steph could tell that she was on to something.
It might be hard to believe now. But posting graphics on Instagram used to be kind of schlocky. It just wasn’t what the cool kids were doing. It was all selfies and photoshoots, and maybe some candid snaps for a bit of authenticity. “When I started, posting graphics was not how people did things on Instagram,” she explained. A year after she started the account, after she’d amassed over 100,000 followers, a social media marketing friend told Steph that what she was doing (i.e., posting graphics about the Enneagram) shouldn’t work. The friend told Steph, “I don’t know why this works because it shouldn’t. The algorithm is not supposed to like this.”
Of course, a lot has changed on Instagram since 2019. Where it was once a sort of photo album of candid snaps and branded photoshoots, it’s become a place filled with graphics, illustrations, memes, and (to most people’s chagrin, it seems) video. Steph was at the very tip of a tidal shift in how people use Instagram. By August 2019, Steph posted a graphic about the Enneagram and communication--the subject she was studying in graduate school. That post went viral, too, and her following doubled. She continued to post lists like those, and her following doubled again. Steph realized that posts like these were how her followers (and potential followers) wanted to learn about the Enneagram.
Back in 2019, I would have completely agreed with Steph’s social media marketing friend: this should not have worked. And yet, this is exactly what the platform loves now. As a consumer, this is the kind of content that I enjoy engaging with and, more importantly, sharing.
Creators and social media marketers are always trying to figure out what The Algorithm is going to do with their content. No one likes to spend time creating a great set of graphics or crafting an engaging video only for a minuscule segment of their audience to see it. When we talk about “changes in the algorithm,” we often do so in a way that makes it sound like there is someone out there dictating what content is going to do well and what content is not. Now, that’s not entirely untrue. For instance, Instagram’s leadership has put the thumb on the scale when it comes to video, for instance. But the vast majority of the time, The Algorithm uses data about what content people engage with and then surfaces more of that same content to those people. This happens on an individual user level and on a platform level.
So if we want to figure out what content will do well on the platform, we need to consider how humans are actually engaging with the platform. What are they there to do? What needs are being fulfilled? And how does that impact the kind of content they’re likely to comment on, save, or share? Instagram has become a key way people develop and signify their personal brand—not only in an entrepreneurial sense but in a human relationship sense, too. We want people to know what we’re about, so the photos we share, the graphics we create, and the videos we post help clue others into who we are.
Self-knowledge content goes viral because people want to share things that reveal interesting or unexpected things about their inner workings.
I might share a meme that reveals some quirky autistic trait or evidence of my pervasive anxiety. You might share a meme that reveals how much of a people-pleaser you are or how much you love following rules. But for as much as we reveal through sharing this type of content, it’s only a tiny fraction of who we are, much less who we are becoming. We don’t share to be seen as who we are—we share to be seen as who we hope others will believe us to be.
Micki McGee explains that the work of self-help has often taken the form of visualizing ourselves as if we were directing ourselves in a movie. We view our inner world by “imagining how it might appear” to others. As an autistic person, I do this constantly—it’s part of the self-monitoring we call masking. As a woman, I learned to regularly take stock of how my appearance and demeanor might be perceived by men. People who hold other marginalized identities self-surveil to make sure they’re not out of step with the dominant culture in a way that might be dangerous to them.
WEB De Bois called this “double consciousness.” With any form of marginalization or objectification comes the need to both know yourself and know who others believe you are.
On Instagram, the double consciousness is quantified. We visualize ourselves as if we were starring in a movie because we’re making videos starring ourselves. Self-monitoring becomes constant invisible, uncompensated labor. And that impacts how we know ourselves.
Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley dubbed this the “looking glass self.” We don’t simply know ourselves as we are. We know ourselves through our social interactions with others.
There’s a lot we can know about ourselves through those interactions. And, there’s more to knowing ourselves and being known than any Instagram post, personality type system, or viral meme can reveal. Hopefully, that’s kind of a no-brainer. But the challenges Steph has run into creating that kind of content show that we might take our looking-glass selves more seriously than we’d like to think.
Creating content that naturally goes viral has its upsides. But it also has some serious downsides. Steph told me that, year over year, her account has actually lost a few followers. By which I mean not only has her account not grown, it has fewer followers than it did a year ago. For Steph, tapping into the motivation to post has been a challenge: “Part of what comes with this whole social media thing is that you do face a lot of backlash, and you get more feedback than anyone is really made to experience.” She even noticed some symptoms of trauma related to threats and hostile messages she received in early 2021. Throughout that year, she found it difficult to post—or even log onto the app. “I would go months without posting, delete the app, and just not even be there,” she recalled.
I know lots of people—myself included—fear disingenuous critique on social media. Well, “critique” isn’t even the right word. Trolling. Threats. Hostility.
The writer Melissa Febos recently shared that, for her writing students, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is writing for the “bad faith” reader. In other words, her students are writing first drafts thinking about what some disinterested party is going to say about their work on Twitter or in the comment section. I’ll admit that this is a big problem for me, too.
The bigger your audience, or the wider the reach of your work, the more likely you are to encounter those bad faith readers or viewers.
And that leads to some difficult boundary-setting: “I've had to make some really tough choices. And I've also had to say, ‘okay, now we're stepping back from this viral moment that lasted a few years and actually building a business.’”
Even with 300,000 followers, building a business hasn’t been a walk in the park for Steph.
One result of self-knowledge content making a splash on Instagram is the proliferation of “enthusiasts” selling (or offering for free) their services in the form of coaching, consulting, and workshops. For Steph, experience and credibility really matter (they matter to me, too--we’re 3s, after all!). So it can be frustrating to see the subtleties and nuances of the Enneagram system get lost in the shuffle. Steph currently offers one-on-one coaching, typing sessions, and an online course called the Enneagram In Real Life. Corporations and entrepreneurs are also paying big bucks to learn more about their teams. Steph offers workshops and consulting building on her specialty in communications and leadership.
Personality typing is sort of a natural extension of our ongoing task of labeling, quantifying, and sorting data. And while any sorting mechanism brings with it the potential for bias, getting to know yourself and others through this kind of shorthand can also offer ways to communicate better and approach teamwork with more emotional intelligence. Steph told me there’s a marked difference in the way organizations invest in emotional intelligence for their teams and use a more “holistic whole person approach to professional development.”
Working on her business has invited the critics, too--both internal and external. “Threes can have this sense of ‘I’m not doing enough all the time.’ That leads to a lot of burnout, a lot of struggle,” Steph explained. She’s learning to notice that pattern, though, and replace it with reminders that her work—and the value of that work—is grounded in specific areas of expertise. On the other hand, “One of the challenges of being a 3 in the space that I’m in is [that] 3s are kind of pegged as the shallow, ‘all they want is money and success’ people, but that has never been me.” She added, “just this last week, I got a comment saying, ‘Of course, you’re selling something, you’re a 3,” and I was like, ‘wait, no, I’m selling something because this is a business.’”
I asked Steph what she’s learned about herself teaching the Enneagram online, and she pointed to the skill of “self-observation.” She’s built the capacity to “notice in the moment, ‘oh, I’m, doing that thing again,’ and not be self-critical about it.” Instead of getting tripped up, she tries to notice the pattern and then moves forward—accepting that it’s going to come up from time to time.
With the kind of audience and reach the NineTypes.co account has, Steph has plenty of opportunities to practice boundary-setting, self-observation, and processing her responses. She told me that, for a long time, she’d stew in the “central nervous system activation” that would occur when faced with a harsh message. Today, when she gets an unkind comment or direct message, she uses many different tools--including dialectical reasoning--to sort through how she feels. She asks herself, “Why did that set me off? Why did that upset me? Is it because it’s true? Is it because I think that about myself? Is it because I think about myself really differently than that?” And then reminds herself that it’s one person’s comment in a crowd of people who loves what she shares.
Of course, it’s one thing to be able to process the psychological and even physiological responses we have to visibility and critique. And it’s another to have systems in place to deal with it. Steph has learned to set those systems up, too. She realized that the people who engage with her posts in good faith tend to comment within the first 24 hours—so that’s when she joins the conversation, too. After that first day, though, she doesn’t check her comments. She also works with a virtual assistant to help screen comments and DMs. Finally, she reminds herself that “at the end of the day, I can’t connect with my audience if I avoid posting altogether.”
“My worth is not in the amount of recognition that I receive online. My worth is in just being a human being who exists in the world.”