Is your online-self a true representation of your offline-self’? Are you strategic about what you post online? And have you considered what impact your online profile, or lack thereof, could have on future job opportunities? We all have that friend who is constantly posting photos on social media about their perfect lifestyle, house, kids or marriage but the offline truth doesn’t seem to be quite so rosy. Without diving into a deep human psychology and behaviour discussion, it’s interesting to consider the conscious and unconscious actions that shape our online identities, and increasingly, the influence that our online portrayal of self can have on both personal credibility and career outlook.
I have begun a process of carefully planning and creating my online identity for professional purposes, and want to share my experiences and insights so far; some of the lessons I have learned along the way may also help you to create and leverage your own online presence.
What is online identity?
The notion of online identity has far-reaching effects beyond the basic expression-of-self in the online environment. In simple terms the Oxford English Dictionary defines identity as ‘the characteristics determining who or what a person is’. Online identity can be defined by our combined activities in social networking, building profiles, friending, liking, commenting, sharing, tagging, posting content and participating in online communities (Poletti & Rak, 2014).
The expression of our identity now extends beyond our offline activities to an accessible online environment, where the creation of content and social profiles is part of a ‘performance’ of selfhood. That is to say, ‘online social networking behaviour is as performative as ‘real life’ acts’ (Poletti & Rak, 2014). I subscribe to the belief that the expression of our online-self is consistent with our offline persona, and inevitably, although our online activities may be fragmented and multiplied, our online representations of self are fragments of the same core persona (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2015).
In the process of creating an online identity for business purposes, it’s important to consider the types of content that should be shared with your professional network, and which things might be better kept for personal profiles. This isn’t to say that personal opinions or humorous content should never be shared on your professional profiles. Sometimes, sharing the occasional personal post can give your online personality a touch of humanity ’and invite others to engage with you. There is a fine line here though; a good test is to consider if you would relate the same opinion or joke to any single member of your professional network if you were speaking to them in person. If you would feel uncomfortable doing that, it’s probably not a good idea to share it with them online. This is one of the reasons why it may be very important for you to create separate personal and professional online profiles.
It is important to qualify here that choosing which content you post online is not inauthentic; it is a calculated adaptation of information to suit the audience. We do this in exactly the same way offline when we adapt our topics of conversation to suit those we are speaking to. The information that we disclose to a best friend would most likely be quite different to that shared with a client or manager.
|When you have multiple active social and professional profiles, it is good practice to get into the habit of double-checking that you are logged into the correct profile before publishing any post!|
Creating an online identity
I first consciously started creating my own online identity in August 2007 when I registered my personal Facebook profile. I was a late adopter of social media and the last of my peer-group to join. Some of my friends had been active on sites such as Facebook and MySpace for a few years before I decided to join. I was concerned about privacy and didn’t see any personal benefit for joining. Eventually, peer pressure persuaded me to join Facebook, mainly for the purposes of photo sharing with my current friendship-group.
To give you a starting point for creating your own professional online identity, I have made a Slideshare presentation illustrating the framework of profiles that I have created in my own name, and in two business names; ‘Macro Grace’, which is my photography business, and this blog, ‘Brave Little Pig’. I have focused on LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, Instagram, a customised Website and Twitter for the most part. I have also got accounts registered with YouTube and Soundcloud for the purposes of sharing content related to both of my businesses. I have followed all of the principles outlined in the infographic just mentioned to create my profiles. The platforms that you choose to use for your personal brand or business is largely dependent on the industry you work in. For example, many photographers will create a personal website to display their portfolio, along with Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr accounts. The latter two are formats that lend themselves to displaying photography because they have a strong visual focus. Today, it is important to be present and active across a variety of platforms but I believe that it is better to be active and engaged on one or two, rather than present and inactive on many. Having said that, it is still worthwhile reserving accounts in your business or personal names (or both) on any platform that you can realistically foresee using in the future. This means that no-one else will be able to register that name while you hold it (check Terms and Conditions of individual sites; some have rules about how long you can have a registered name that is inactive). Of course, if you try to register an account in your personal name and find it is taken, search for alternatives that still look professional with a minimum of compromise. The name of your accounts may become important later if you get more serious about SEO. For example, when I decided to register a Twitter account in the name of Emily Wade, I couldn’t (it was already registered by someone else), but I found that EmilyGraceWade was still available. This is preferable to choosing a name such as Emily2576 or Emily_virgo11. When you are interacting online, your username will often appear automatically in messages and tweets you send out, so if it looks professional, so do you!
Some years later, I began to build more social networking profiles with the core purpose of improving SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) for my freelance photography business. My efforts to create a professional online identity have been slow but strategic, and everything that I post online has been carefully considered to align with my personal and professional values. I prefer to post images and other content that I have created, or on subjects that I am genuinely interested, sourced from quality content-providers. I take pride in my work and always strive to create aesthetically pleasing publications. These high personal standards have admittedly slowed my online profile building. The infographic (left/above) lists five key principles that I have applied to building my profiles across multiple platforms. Have you applied any of these to your own profile building yet?
Moving beyond quality profiles to the world of creating and connecting
Creating good social and business profiles is only the first, small step in a process of building a robust professional network. It is certainly a necessary element in providing ‘social proof’ of employability (Guiseppi, 2016), but only forms part of the online identity equation. The next part of the equation; producing content and making connections, even has benefits beyond the professional realm. As Gauntlett (2011) argues in his book, Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, that although the majority of people are consumers in this digital world, the tools available for individuals to be able to make and share creative work online can lead to connections and community-building in new ways, which in turn can lead to increased happiness and self-esteem. Gauntlett says, ‘The ‘making and doing’ culture does require a bit more effort – but it comes with rich rewards.’ Possibly one of the most exciting aspects of this theory is that the ways in which these connections may manifest and the opportunities that could arise are largely unpredictable.
I posted a poll on Twitter recently (below) to gauge my peers’ attitudes to the importance of professional profiles and quality content. Thirty-eight respondents overwhelmingly agreed that both are equally important.
Ticking off one aspect of creating a professional online identity doesn’t automatically lead to career opportunities. The subject of content creation is one that enters online discussions daily, in the form of blog posts, social media posts (usually with the purpose of marketing a business or service) and forum discussions. This article from Smart Company discusses the large proportion of marketing budgets that is now spent on creating content, and how the focus on digital marketing (which includes email, social media and various forms of content) is driving businesses forward; when I shared a link to the above-mentioned article on Twitter it attracted a tweet of agreement from a fellow student who said: ‘There is a saying in my office that content is king’. These kinds of discussions highlight the increasing awareness among business owners and employees alike that creating quality content is essential for promoting a personal or company brand.
After discussing the equal importance of building profiles and creating content online, I hope I have inspired you to continue your professional online identity building with renewed strategy and positivity. My personal focus now rests with developing a regular schedule of posting and engaging online that is both consistent and sustainable in the long term. There is a lot more to come on this journey, such as the types of content to share, best times to post, how to use scheduling tools and develop marketing plans. So, stay tuned!
Gauntlett, D., (2011), Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, Cambridge: Polity.
Guiseppi, M., (2016), Mind Your Online Reputation: The personal branding social proof paradigm and two little-known ways to master it. Career Planning & Adult Development Journal, 32 (2), 101 – 106.
Poletti, A. & Rak, J. (2014), Identity Technologies: constructing the self online. The University of Wisconsin Press.
Oxford Living English Dictionaries (2017), https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/ Last accessed 9/04/17
Sandy, C.J., Gosling, S.D., & Durant, J (2013). Predicting consumer behaviour and media preferences: the comparative validity of personality traits and demographic variables. Psychology and Marketing, 30 (11), 937-949.
Chamorro-Premuzic,T., (2015), How different are your online and offline personalities? The Guardian (online) https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/sep/24/online-offline-personality-digital-identity?CMP=share_btn_tw Last accessed 9/04/17.
Cover Image: Adobe Stock