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Is An Online Identity Necessary and What Should You Do to Maintain It?


In the past few weeks I've been thinking/writing about online identity. A few days ago, I posted on transparency and an excellent article in WIRED magazine on The See-Through CEO. In comments on that post, Christy Tucker shared an experience she had in a networking forum recently that I think deserves further discussion. She said:

I quoted both you and the Wired article in a discussion in an online networking group I'm in, and got some fairly nasty responses from the moderator. The moderator mentioned how she's advising college students doing job searches to not just clean up their Facebook profiles but to delete discussion board posts and contact Google to remove cached copies of unflattering content. I'd previously posted about the Wayback Machine and the fact that even if you can have something removed from the Google cache, it's potentially still out there somewhere. Besides the fact that I think trying to remove all unflattering content is a losing battle, I don't think it's really the right way to go. So you made mistakes--you're human. If you have enough good out there, the good outweighs the bad. It also gives people a chance to see you as a whole, complex person.

I was frankly shocked by the negative response, especially from someone who's all about online networking. Besides saying I was dogmatic for disagreeing with her approach, she argued that no one has an obligation to have an online identity. She says transparency is just a "goofy" philosophy based on "no data, but an ethereal presumption that people will like you more if they know more of your foibles -- and certainly no application of those free-floating impressions to the very specific and often brutal world of job-search." I think she really believes that transparency hurts people's chances in business.

Christy's question to me was have I experienced anything like this level of negativity and what do I make of it?

What I'm thinking is that it opens up a large and interesting can of worms. I see two issues here:

Do you have an obligation to have an online identity?

To what lengths should you go to maintain that identity? How transparent should you really be?

I think the answers to these questions may differ depending on whether you're talking about individuals or organizations. For example, I think organizations, particularly nonprofits, do have an obligation to be online as part of being visible in the community.

Individuals, on the other hand, may not have an obligation to be online, but I do think that, as Christy points out, they should seriously consider the overall benefit of having an online identity. It's the first place many employers are going and in Christy's organization they've discussed having a preference for applicants who blog. How quickly might that start to happen in other organizations?

The issue of transparency is also different for individuals vs. organizations. Again, I think that organizations do have the obligation to be as transparent as possible. It's the way to build trust and loyalty with your various constituents and is increasingly becoming the way a lot of places are doing business. In the case of nonprofits, I think that it's particularly important as part of the stewardship of donor and grant dollars coming into your organization.

For individuals, I think the issue is a difference between personal and professional transparency. I think it's very good to have an online professional presence in which you are authentic and present yourself as a multi-faceted human with strengths and weaknesses. I don't think it's a good idea to post on how wasted you were last weekend.

So getting back to Christy's example, it makes sense to be cleaning up your Facebook profile if all that you have are references to all the partying you're doing. But should you be trying to erase all digital traces of yourself as the woman in Christy's story seems to be suggesting?

There's a lot to digest here--I'd be curious to get your ideas on the issue:

  • Should we be crafting an online identity? Is it necessary? Do we have obligations to do it?
  • What should we do to maintain that identity?
  • Are our responsibilities different depending on whether or not we're talking about an individual vs. an organization?
  • What, exactly, should we be sharing and what should we be keeping to ourselves?
  • Does transparency hurt or help us?

BTW--the graphic is from a flickr photo I found by Marc Fonteijn and I think it's a kind of interesting way to consider our identities with the core and then the add-ons. Makes you realize that it becomes increasingly difficult to have any kind of on-line interaction without somehow revealing yourself. Are we really thinking that it would be better to have a nation of lurkers instead of people who are creating? 


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When as a new teacher I looked at my colleagues, there was an older woman with a bouffant hairdo which even then seemed out of date. But of course, it was she who had the most wisdom and the kindness to share it with me, despite my initial expectations.

We have some control over our online identities, but we can't always control what others might conclude. The Gotcha Game seems awfully tired to me, but there's no question there's a bunch of players.

I don't have any insights really about this complicated issue of online identity, but I'm very glad you're posting about it. Mostly I'm a lurker, so let me say your blog is one of my must reads.

There was a recent article in the Boston Globe
that offers a good argument for institutional forgetting. I suspect that's as important as individuals trying to manage their online identities. I'm with Tucker in feeling it's just not possible to exert such fine-grained control.

Hi there, this is a very interesting question that I have been thinking about a lot recently, particularly in relation to my professional standing, and at a time when I am potentially looking for jobs. One example is this: I would really like to critique and comment on the state of the profession I work in which could be seen by some as being critical. This would probably be a very unwise thing to do as I am currently looking for jobs in that profession. So I am conscious all the time of how I present myself online. I think thats a bit of a shame, because I would really like to share the fun side of me, who can be quite silly at time.

I think there is something related to profession here also. Years ago when I was a professional activist, it was really important for me to be able to publicly declare my beliefs. I took strong, and not always popular stands on a wide range of topics.

Now that I am a facilitator and much of my work is in the diversity and inclusion arena, I find myself holding those beliefs much more privately. Not that I won't tell you if you ask, but my 'job' is to maintain neutrality. I think it is particularly important online, where someone is only seeing a small slice of who I am, and potentially making assessments about it.

Great questions. If I were in the market for a job today I would not want to work for a company that doesn't value transparency. Contrary to the woman you refer to in your post, some of the most desired attributes employers look for cannot be measured with typical markers and metrics. If we're going to create a brave new world (yup, still workin' on that) we need to stand up and say, yes, this is all of me; yes, I wrote that in 1992; yes, I have opinions about x controversy. In so many cases--Patagonia comes to mind--employers want boat rockers and rabble rousers, creative thinkers, dot connectors. Getting ahead no longer means sucking it up and making appearances. It means being utterly professional and authentic at the same time.

Well I don't think the key is to remove information but to educate our students in the appropriate use of the Internet. If it is not appropriate for others to view than don't put it on the Internet in the first place -- the problem is that our youth don't always realise that what they are sharing may be open to the public not just their friends. So if it is potentially embarrassing - don't post it online. And in forum behave and treat people with respect like you would in real life.

I totally disagree with her advice on deleting information -- if we want people to interact with us and we gain from social networking them -- people need to see us as real people -- no different from f2f interactions. People are always more willing to help you when they can connect with us as individuals not as a faceless unknown.



Just wanted to thank you, Michele and everyone else for your comments. I have been struggling for some time to get my head around my online identity. You have all made me see that I need to be reflective and courageous online. Thank you

Thanks to all of you for your great comments and thoughts on this topic. I think that the consensus for most of us is that we believe in transparency. I wonder f this is something that comes with being a blogger--like are people attracted to blogging in part because they already have a willingness to be transparent? I also wonder how this is all going to change the process of job searching.

I love the article that John referenced above--very interesting info on how we won't be able to "forget" anymore and maybe that's a bad thing. Definitely something to ponder even further.

As you know, I have struggled with this. However, I received some very wise advice from the members of BBB and I remain not as transparent as I would like. The bottom line for me is that I do not want my students to Google me and come to class with personal knowledge about my struggle with bipolar. A very timely post that poses some very good reflective questions!

Danielle, I think that you've made a good, thoughtful decision, which is many ways the real point of all of this. You need to be purposeful in thinking about the online reputation you want to have, rather than just letting it just sort of "happen." I think that you've carefully reflected on what it is you want to accomplish with your blog and how you want to present yourself to the world and then crafted a blogging strategy to support that. That's what we all need to do.

I think there is some room for individual difference, even within the realm of being generally transparent. As I recall, mental health discrimination is the second-most common area for ADA discrimination complaints in the US; transparency about mental health issues carries a very real possibility of discrimination. Religious and political views can be problematic in the workplace too. I want to be transparent, but I admit that I use a pseudonym on Beliefnet and have been fairly conscientious about keeping that part of my life separate from my work life. That's a strategic decision for me based on having previously been in a work environment where it was made clear to me that I was the "wrong kind" of Christian. Anything where discrimination is possible is something to think about before posting. Of course, what is someone who's black supposed to do--not post a picture? I can avoid talking about my religion and therefore "hide," but race is much harder to hide.

Then again, I wonder what would happen if I was more open about my religious or political views; not necessarily on my professional blog where it wouldn't fit the topic, but separately and under my real name. I suppose I could be eliminated from some job possibilities in the future, but those are probably work environments where I wouldn't be happy anyway.

Right now, I think I'm happy keeping some separation between my personal and professional lives and being intentional and reflective about what I share. I might change what I'm comfortable sharing in the future, but at the moment I think focusing on transparency in my professional learning is sufficient.

Interesting post. Thought provoking.

*Big Sigh* I have SO much to say about this. I just don't know where to begin. I have started a draft post but I'm afraid it is all over the map and will take me days to complete. By then the conversation will have moved on, but I really need some time to think about this.

I have a branding problem and I have a personal vs. professional problem.

My online identity needs MAJOR help. When you Google "Angela White" the number one hit is a porn star on Facebook. Number 2 is a musician. There are other artists with my same name (which can be confusing because of my photography sites). Then there are references to various unrelated sites of mine, including my blog. So, yes I have a branding issue.

Then there's the attempt to keep certain subject separate from this new "professional" presence I have online. I have entrapped myself in a logistical nightmare of maintaining two accounts for, at least three accounts for Wordpress, and now I'm considering a second avatar in Second Life! See, I'm very open in all of these places, but they seem disconnected and although I know all of this can be found and connected by someone doing the research, I'm not sure I want to prodcast it.

It's not that I have shame about anything I do socially on the web - I'm in lesbian social networking groups, I chat about gender discrimination in the workplace and on the streets, I belong to a butch-support group, I like erotic art, I go dancing in nightclubs in Second Life. In most cases I have used my real name or at least always told the truth about my (real) self. I don't have a problem with the people who I'm engaged with in these areas knowing a lot about (the real) me, but do I really want it all out there, visible and connected? Is that what it would mean to be transparent? I don't want to have to limit any part of me - I am all of those things. I have many interests and many of them are online. But I do think that before I started really blogging I never thought about these things, I have never consciously branded myself - and therefore I think it has, as you say, "just happened." And it's messy and all over the place.

Now I'm not sure what to do about it. More to come on this on my blog. I just had to get something out there. Composing a post about this has become a very difficult project. Thanks for listening.

I loved your comment, Angela--it shows me how messy all of this is and how much we all struggle with maintaining a balance between being honest about who we are and not freaking people out. I understand all of your concerns and confusions about this as I'm struggling with them myself. In some ways I feel like I'm a lot less transparent than I'd really like to be, but I also realize that people just can't handle all that we are sometimes. I think that this whole issue forces us to really think about all of our different faces and how we present them to the world in ways that are really difficult to grasp--it all seems so slipper, doesn't it? I'll look forward to reading your post. And I really appreciate your honesty and sharing here. Thank you.

In my professional experience, having an "online identity" is not only insignifcant but counterproductive for those who get significant positions. those positions are always--I emphasize, ALWAYS--filled by *personal* reputation and referral. and I don't mean "online" reputation.

This means that while those on the outside debate the use of the Web to promote themselves, the real world functions separately and largely ignores such stuff as "personal web identities." They're viewed as being for teens and narcissists.

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