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Embrace the Snake: Taylor Swift and Reclaiming Your Online Narrative

Reclaiming your online narrative header - Taylor Swift
Nowadays, news trends through hashtags instead of just sound-bites. It’s easier than ever to keep track of current events by checking out Twitter’s “Trends for you Sidebar.” The right hashtag can be educational, uniting people under causes and allowing people to track news about specific events or people
Unfortunately, not all hashtags are created equal. In fact, some of them can be downright unflattering. Think along the lines of #TaylorSwiftisaSnake and #TaylorSwiftisOverParty. In the wake of those nasty hashtags, Taylor Swift is doing some major narrative reclamation right now. It’s a big, bold move and an inspiration for anyone who wants to take control of their online narrative. That’s why I’ve put together a list of tips for reclaiming your online narrative, inspired by Ms. Taylor Swift herself.

The Feud That Started it All

You may have already seen the #TaylorSwiftIsASnake tweets, but for those of you out of the loop, here’s the origin story.
In the summer of 2016, Taylor Swift was locked in not one, but TWO feuds: one with Calvin Harris, the other with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. The Kanye/Kim feud culminated in a shady tweet that most fans figured was directed at Taylor Swift:
Inspired by Kim’s national snake day tweet, users bombarded Twitter with #TaylorSwiftIsaSnake tweets decorated with snake emojis and straight venom.

Taylor Swift responded with a now-deleted Instagram post (more on that in a bit) detailing her side of the story, which also went viral. Fans latched onto the last sentence of her note, turning “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009” into a meme.

The Great Social Media Blackout of 2017

Now Taylor Swift’s reclaiming the “snake” narrative in a big way. On August 18th, all of Swift’s social media channels went dark. As in, every post, follower, and followed accounts deleted dark. Remember that “excluded from the narrative” Instagram post I mentioned earlier? It’s one of the many victims of the social media blackout heard ‘round the world.
After the blackout came the Instagram videos. These cryptic videos turned out to be a series of three vaguely-reptilian segments that formed a snake when put together. Though there haven’t been any official statements from Swift’s camp, it seems like Taylor Swift is trying to make #TaylorSwiftIsASnake work for her instead of against her.
Obviously the snake videos were teasing something, and that something turned out to be Swift’s sixth album, titled ‘Reputation.’ NPR put it best when describing the cover: “[it] reads as a not-so-subtle allusion to the controversies and mini-backlashes Swift has had since the release of 1989.”

Taylor Swift Reputation
The cover of Taylor Swift’s new album, Reputation. Source: Big Machine Records

Instead of taking a passive stance, Swift’s latest marketing move is a decisive step towards defining her own reputation rather than letting others control the narrative. Her most recent music video, released just nine days after her social media blackout, sets the stage for a new narrative. Swift acknowledges past feuds, media headlines, and even calling out her own behavior. The video ends with a line of past personas mocking each other for bad behavior, and hints at a new and improved Taylor Swift.  It’s a powerful move, and it’s a great example of digital reputation management in action.

Reclaiming YOUR Online Narrative

Now that we’ve got all of that celebrity gossip out of the way, it’s time to get to the most important part: how to take control of your digital reputation. Whether you’re trending for the wrong reasons or just want to update your digital rep, there’s plenty to learn from Taylor Swift’s radical reclamation.
Here are my 5 tips for reclaiming your online narrative:

1. Think R&R – Realistic and Real

It’s almost impossible to go from despised (or disliked) to beloved overnight. Reclaiming your online narrative is going to take work and time. According to a Harvard study, it takes eight positive interactions to change a first impression. Now, that’s just from a bad first impression. If you’re looking to change your digital reputation and are facing constant negative impressions, it’s going to take a few more interactions to change that narrative. The good news is that it’s not impossible to change your online narrative. Let’s look back at Taylor Swift.
More specifically, let’s look at the online sentiment surrounding Taylor Swift post video launch. Based on a Social Mention search, the sentiment towards Taylor Swift over the course of this week was 3:1, positive to negative.
Taylor Swift SocialMention
That means that for every negative post about Swift, there were three positive posts. Sure, there are still negative posts and reactions, but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. Social Mention is a free way for you to track sentiment surrounding you and/or your brand, which makes it a very valuable digital reputation management tool. Recognizing huge shifts in sentiment towards you can help you head off a negative online narrative before it gets out of hand.
Another very important part of taking on a negative narrative is keeping it real. If you can’t own up to your mistakes and bad behavior, don’t expect to own your narrative. It’s better to be honest that you messed up and apologize, than refuse to recognize the negative impact you had based on your past choices/posts. While Swift isn’t necessarily apologizing with her new video, she does acknowledge the roles she’s played in the past (both in and out of feuds). She’s not afraid to admit to the things that she’s said, done, and posted in the past, and it’s working in her favor.

2. Be vulnerable:

Some people view vulnerability as weakness but, in many cases, it allows people to truly connect with you. Connection is one of the most important aspects of controlling your narrative, but I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. Brené Brown is a vulnerability researcher who emphasizes the power of vulnerability and connection in her TEDx talk, which you can see here:

The main takeaway is that it takes courage to be vulnerable, and people respond very positively to that courage. Dara Resnik’s experience is one of many that proves that point. The Pushing Daisies and Jane the Virgin Writer opened up about her separation from her husband on social media after much deliberation. Much to her delight, she found support, with none of the negative comments she expected. After that experience, she posted about her struggles with anxiety and depression. Once again, the reactions were full of support and mostly absent of trolls.


It’s scary to put yourself out there, but you stand to gain much more than you stand to lose by letting yourself be vulnerable. If you decide to embrace your vulnerability, I suggest giving the MarketingLand blog post “Social Media: Where Vulnerability Is Strength” a read. Courtney Seiter’s advice is brilliant: ask yourself the hard questions, pick your moments, and resist snark.

3. Find your voice:

Everything online is a conversation, and part of owning your online narrative is to establish your voice in that conversation and own the content that you put out (no matter what). Digital communications expert Danielle Di-Masi says it best in her interview with Emma Sedlak: “Do more than just open a social media account or digital space and fill it with noise.” Instead, you need to make your part in the conversation purposeful and uniquely yours.
Establishing a personal voice may sound tricky, and the number of articles and worksheets related to developing your online voice are dizzying. Unfortunately, most of those articles are focused on businesses rather than people. Luckily, Truly Social has a great video on a human approach to developing your voice.

One of the most important parts of establishing your voice is to make sure that it’s authentic. Websites from Gawker to Forbes have all critiqued Taylor Swift for being fake and overproduced in every aspect of her life, a carefully crafted facsimile of genuineness and PR fodder. Don’t let yourself get caught up in PR spin and meaningless pleasantries; instead, be real and be direct.
That approach has worked wonders for Taylor Swift. Her new song “Look What You Made Me Do” is a huge tone shift from the sickly-sweet country girl of yore and the payoff has been huge. That music video is the most-viewed video ever in a 24-hour period on YouTube. It’s clear that this new voice is appealing to a record-breaking number of people, which just highlights how valuable a direct and honest voice can be when fighting a negative online narrative.
To quote Taylor Swift herself, “the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.” Shake off the fake for a voice that shines through and brings YOUR narrative to light.


4. Remix the current narrative:

In the newly released video for Look What You Made Me Do, Taylor Swift directly addresses the media criticisms and feuds she’s faced with subtle and overt references sprinkled throughout the video. Buzzfeed, surprising nobody, already has a list of each and every reference in the video. From the squad manufacturing plant to her “you can’t possibly be that surprised all the time” callout at the end of the video, Swift gives us a new perspective on all the “drama drama” that’s plagued her throughout her career. This stands as a challenge, and Swift’s detractors have been drowned out in a sea of attention centered on the brand new Taylor Swift.
What’s out there is out there, and there’s not much you can do to change that. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should give up and let others control that narrative. Instead, take advice from Tyrion Lannister (from Game of Thrones, for : “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” It looks like Taylor Swift took that advice to heart, literally wearing snakes in her newest music video.

Taylor Swift with snakes on throne
Still From Taylor Swift’s new music video, Look What You Made Me Do

Swift is finding a way to remix it, giving the recognizable a fresh twist. Reclaiming your online narrative is all about taking ownership of what’s happening and making it your own. Find the icons, images, phrases, hashtags, and yes, even emojis that people are using against you, then make them work FOR you.
It’s obvious that Taylor Swift has put in hard work to remix her reputation. The real test of her new reputation won’t be how she capitalizes on the press surrounding her new song, single, and album, however. The real test will be how her actions align with the values she’s adopted. She’s embraced the snake, but Taylor swift is going to have to do more than just charm the snake and her detractors; she’ll have to talk the talk AND walk the walk (or slither the slither, as it were).

Talkin’ Bout my Reputation

This video from Lily Meade sums up this whole “Reputation” situation and has some interesting perspective on what it’s like to face an online narrative you don’t like:

My favorite line from that video? “Are you mad that Taylor Swift is still a snake? Or are you mad that she doesn’t care that you call her that anymore?”
What’s your take on Taylor Swift’s new Reputation? Let me know in the comments.

For more tips and tricks to help you navigate your digital life, subscribe to my new student-focused newsletter called Thrive Online!
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About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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