Intentionally creating a professional digital identity may seem like a daunting task but in reality it is just a process of being explicit about the things you already say, think, and do. You made decisions about what to study, settled on a writing style, pursued jobs, taught courses, published in journals. You have probably supplied a bio to a publisher, journal, or conference. The purpose of taking ownership of your digital identity is to provide specific locations to pull together that information as well as provide you an avenue for sharing what you are doing now.
Professional Identity and Research
At least part of your identity will be that of an academic researcher (although you may have additional roles as a consultant, professional employee, business owner, performer, etc.). As such, it is important to know the conventions for academic digital identity. Here are some sources you can look at for good advice on the topic:
Specific fields may have their own considerations. For example:
Even if you choose to be present and engaged online in a limited way, being present at all is beneficial. It tells colleagues and potential students that you are aware of the digital aspects of academia. No longer does everything happen in hardcopy or face-to-face. Online classes, streamed conferences, Twitter backchannels, online collaboration, open access publications, open textbooks, electronic submission, are just some of the ways academia is flourishing.
More than that, controlling your digital presence professionally lets you focus on the things that are important to you. Has your research area shifted over the years? Do you have publications you want to gain more attention? Are there other researchers with a similar name? These would all be great reasons to work on actively creating a professional digital identity. The issue of identity confusion can, at times, go even further. Establishing who you are yourself can help protect you from someone else from doing it, or support you if it happens, even as a parody.
There is fascinating scholarship taking place online all the time. Being present in a digital way, even if minimally, allows you to see what and how others share. There are massive amounts of information being shared at any moment so it is not possible to keep up with it all but even short bursts of checking in can help you stay connected with others in your field or share things that you find worthwhile. You may want to go beyond that and get involved. Maybe you start participating in hashtags on Twitter. You might read and comment on articles online. You could choose to share your research either through blogging or through engaging in social networks like Academia.edu (although keep in mind that most social media sites are businesses). Although blogging and social media participation have been considered to be service in the past, there are academics pushing for the recognition of social media work of all kinds as scholarship, blogging as publication, even to consideration in promotion and tenure evaluations.
Having a digital identity as a researcher can also help you engage with the wider community. Much of the language used online is somewhat less formal than that used in academic papers, making it more accessible to average people. Moreover, the use of social media and digital spaces can allow the sharing of work that is not locked behind a pay wall.
Professional Identity and Teaching
The advice about crafting a digital identity is presented to students all the time. Digital citizenship units are being introduced to the primary and secondary systems of education. Parents are pushed to think about their children’s digital usage. Teens and those entering the job market are cautioned about what they choose to do online. It is easy to see why students should be concerned about what they post to social media (they will want a job some day, after all). They might even be told that having a(n e)portfolio is useful. If you were on a hiring committee, you would likely do a little searching to find out more about the candidates for a new position, especially if they are not someone you know, even more likely if they are newly minted Ph.Ds or current doctoral candidates.
If that is the case, should you not be modelling what you would like to find? How else are students to know what is appropriate? Being engaged yourself is also a way to introduce students to a network of others in a similar field to show them others who could be their future colleagues. It shows them a wider community of practice than can easily be demonstrated just in the classroom.
Your digital identity is also a place to talk about being an educator. Research is being done into the creation of “teacher identity” on social media and it can apply as much to those in higher education as to those in primary and secondary institutions. For your students, whether you even identify as a teacher or not can be telling. Students come to universities to learn, to engage with subject matter experts who will help them gain knowledge, experience, and skills. If they suspect that you have no interest in them or their development, they may seek their education elsewhere. In contrast, if you have put work into crafting an identity that includes teaching and can show students some demonstration of your teaching (syllabi, video lessons, artefacts created by students), you could attract students who expect to have a positive experience learning with you.
More and more academics are finding themselves using social media, some to connect with students, others to connect with colleagues, community members, and others who share their interests. When thinking in professional terms, it is important to keep a few things in mind, however:
- Decide whether any account is personal, professional, or a mixture. In general, you probably want to share a little bit of personal in with the professional just to help connect with others. But would people who are looking for you professionally need to see all the photos of your crafts, pets, kids, vacations? Some accounts may be more mixed, especially if you decide who sees it, but with public accounts you probably want to choose a purpose and then stick with that. If you suddenly start sharing more and more personal things, this will confuse the people who are interested in you professionally. Even if you use it for one professional purpose and then suddenly change the majority of the content to something else, that will make people wonder if you are who they thought you were. A shift like that needs to be intentional or a slow, organic change. But you should be aware of it happening.
- Is it consistent? You want to make sure that if someone finds you on Tumblr and previously found you on Twitter or Snapchat that they can be sure they found the same person. This means your name where possible (e.g. if you use a middle initial, keep using it if you can, unless that option is already taken), information you provide (e.g. one account should not list you as a bat expert and another only reference your love of knitting if you want people to see them both as professional you), your images (e.g. don’t use a 20 year old photo and a picture of a computer on another without a good reason), your location if you give it (e.g. don’t leave a mention of a former institution on one account but update another).
- Be real. This links to the first point about using a mix of professional and personal. Keep in mind that your social media will be viewed by actual people. Unless you are engaging in an experiment or are intentionally creating a persona, you probably want to stick with being yourself. You may very well meet someone some day who has encountered you online and you want to be consistent. For example, if you apply for a position at a university, you would want them to get an accurate idea of who you are if they found your public social media accounts rather than being confused upon meeting you to find out that no, you are not a vocal vegetarian, you prefer J. Z. Smith to Mircea Eliade, and you obviously identify as female rather than male. This is also a consistency issue as you could easily create the belief that there are two different people who are both in the same field but definitely not the same actual person.
It is also important to know what information anywhere you work may provide. Many universities have social media policies and guidelines now, although those may not apply to instructors (often they are more about staff and official department/faculty/unit accounts). It is good to find out, however, to be sure that you are not presenting yourself in a way that would be deemed a problem.
You may also want to consider connecting with others at your institution. This includes official accounts for units, faculties, departments, etc as well as websites/blogs of individuals at U of R.