How Not to Suck at Creating an Online Presence

Admit it. You have Googled yourself. And depending on your degree of shame, ego, and self-worth you may have felt guilty about doing so. But every employer, client, collaborator, romantic partner, creditor, and nearly anyone else who needs to know you has first started by exploring your online presence. As an academic or graduate student, your online presence is likely to be the primary tool that people use to investigate and judge your impact on the field of research and suitability for opportunities.

View your online presence through the eyes of people who may want to work with you. If your name is Zolton Murphy Lipschitz, then your online presence is wide open for you to develop. If your name is John Smith, then you may have difficulty having your presence appear within the first 20 pages of Google search results. I once Googled a prospective student and found out that she had the same name as a porn star (I am sure that search got me on a special list at the university). She then began including her middle name prominently as she developed her online presence. As someone with a common name, I know that Steven Shaw is a famous photographer, magician, swim instructor, food critic, personal trainer, athletic director, college football official, college professor (but not me), and many other things. Steven Shaws are everywhere.  My goal is to differentiate myself from others who would be seen on the Google search of my name and to appear somewhere on the first page of such a search.

An even more important aspect of your online presence is to ensure that the image projected is one that you wish to create for people who may want to work with you. As an academic, I have a lot of leeway in the nature of this presence. It is acceptable and even desirable for academics to be quirky, prickly, whiny, and opaque. Yet, most of my students are preparing to be psychologists who work with children. These students must have an online presence that is scrubbed clean. They may have to work hard to ensure profanity, photographs with alcohol or drugs, sexually explicit or suggestive pictures or messages, and even excessive sarcasm and cynicism are minimized in an online presence. Frequent self searches are necessary as photos can be tagged (on Facebook and other sites) by others and appear online without your knowledge. For the most part, there is some wiggle room for graduate students. Colleagues and the general public expect to see some pictures with your significant other or having a glass of wine with friends. That is what young people do, so just show some discretion. However, a picture of me (a middle-aged guy) drinking with students (mostly young females) will send the wrong message for most audiences. That said, education and psychology are among the most difficult professions in which to manage an online presence because parents are entrusting their children to you as a professional and are rightly cautious. Consider what you are communicating about yourself.

Although academics have much freedom, there been high-profile cases of untenured and tenured professors losing their jobs due to tweets, blogs, and other aspects of their online presence that have offended their employers. I am fortunate to be at a university that does not micromanage online presence. However, I try not to comment on religion, politics, or sex. I also usually do not advocate for social issues as they are often entangled in politics. Of course I have opinions that are not too difficult to infer based on my tweets, blog, and website — but I try not to express them directly. It is also generally not in my nature to attack or troll others, but I make an extra effort to ensure that none of my comments can be perceived as insulting or diminishing others. The goal of my online presence is to convey hard work, continuous efforts to improve myself, the value of scientific thinking and quality written expression, a normal and relatable human, and someone who values the efforts of students and colleagues. There is no question that I could do more with my online presence, yet I try to provide a reliable message to establish a consistent personal and professional brand.

I know some students and colleagues who completely ignore the concept of an online presence and generally leave it to the fates. Withdrawing from social media and other online outlets for fear of making an error or minimizing their importance is equally as problematic. I am not a digital media or online expert. However, I wish to control the narrative of how my thoughts, work, and general message are received by colleagues and the general public. If you do not control your online presence then someone else will. How you are perceived is essential to advancing in your career and communicating your message to the appropriate outlets in such a manner that it will be heard, respected, and valued.

Professional and Social Divide. The hard part is that the Internet does not care whether your pictures are intended to be social or professional. Facebook posted photos from your last vacation are intended for you, your family, and friends. But clients may view these photos as well. I recommend setting privacy settings on your social media accounts so that only approved friends and family can have access. Try your best to make the professional and social divide clear for all those investigating your online presence.

Social Media. There seem to be some informal rules concerning social media outlets. Linkedin seems to be primarily for business. In this setting, a highly disciplined and entirely business focused approach is recommended. Facebook is mostly social. Yet, businesses and academia often use Facebook to engage with the general public. Twitter is an effective communication platform for developing learning networks and reaching specific audiences. The primary problems with Twitter is that in 140 characters responses can be created and sent quickly and it is easy to be misunderstood. Be sure to double check tweets before sending. There are a host of other social media sites. Each has its own quirks. It is still best to keep most of these accounts private and control who can view them if there is any chance at all that your desired professional narrative would be diluted or undermined by social media.

Research Portals. Research portals such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and others provide outlets for academics to place research products online and available to other scholars. These portals are valuable for communication and dissemination of research articles within a scholar’s area of research. Research portals are safe and essential aspects of the scholarly online presence. The weaknesses that research portals are not typically used by the public and do not lend themselves to knowledge transfer and communication with professionals outside of field study.

Websites. Standalone websites are static and serve as a repository for information about scholars as professionals and as people. Static websites have the advantage of providing full control over the message.

Audio and Video. The use of video through dedicated YouTube channels and other mechanisms is a valuable way to get messages across in a convenient approach. Lectures, demonstrations, and PowerPoint plus lecture can all be effective mechanism for communicating information to a wider audience. Likewise digital audio files can be stored on websites and used as a method of relaying lectures and small talks to others.

There are certainly digital media planners, strategists, and other extraordinarily knowledgeable people who can assist in the development of detailed strategies for improving one’s online presence. However, online presence has become as important to an academic career as a CV. Be clear, be strategic, and have an understanding of how you want to be perceived by employer, client, collaborator, creditor, and nearly anyone else who needs to know you. Be cautious not to get carried away with the time spent in developing online presence. You run the risk of spending more time developing an online presence than doing the actual work that you are trying to publicize, transfer, or otherwise disseminate. Be mindful, strategic, and have an effective online presence that allows you to control the narrative of who you are as a person and as a professional.

SR Shaw

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