Creating and Developing a Professional Online Identity
It is virtually impossible for academics and scientists to remain offline in today’s intellectual, professional and publishing climate, even if they may wish to do so. Universities, research institutes and publishers have online presences that usually include information about their instructors, researchers and authors. If you are fortunate enough to be a published author, your books will likely also appear on a number of online marketplaces and reader sites, and for some of these it is better to take control of the identity your work presents than to let customers and readers define your professional image without your active involvement. Besides, online venues can open up such a myriad of productive ways in which to disseminate your writing and research – academic websites, scientific blogs and social platforms designed for scholars are good examples – that it is a shame not to exploit them as effectively as possible.
However, it is essential to keep in mind that everything (the unscholarly as well as the scholarly) you do online under your own name will affect the identify you present, and even the use of a pseudonym may not be a foolproof means of preventing the association of unprofessional online activities with your professional identity. For instance, contributions to social media that are primarily personal in purpose and theoretically accessible only to select friends or contacts are often accessible more widely as well and can pop up in searches associated with topics and people you might never have connected with yourself. Online venues are not the places for posting pictures of questionable activities at teenage parties, for confessing how you once went skinny-dipping with your charges while you were a camp counsellor or for proclaiming strong personal views that might be considered biassed or inappropriate in an intellectual and professional context that is inherently international and inclusive.
Imagining exactly who might search for you, your institution, your research, your publications, information on topics you investigate or instructional material associated with the courses you teach can help when faced with decisions about what might be appropriate for online consumption, and what might not.
• Universities and hiring committees might search for you and your work when considering you for employment, promotion, course allocations, special projects and funding opportunities.
• Publishers and acquisitions editors to whom you submit your writing for consideration might want to find out more about you and do so by looking you up online. Selling the author in order to sell the writing is among their goals, after all.
• Colleagues, mentors and department heads (and perhaps potential colleagues, mentors) and department heads) might search for you online before casting a vote in your favour, accepting you in an educational programme, choosing you for a committee or perhaps contacting you for collaborative work.
• Fellow researchers gathering resources for investigations in your area of specialisation will hopefully find your published work, but they may also discover a great deal more about you if it is out there to be found.
• Students might look online for course proposals and other instructional material, and many of them will also be eager to learn as much as they can about you – the personal and scandalous stuff perhaps even more eagerly than the professional and authoritative. Students may also emulate you, or the you they find online.
Not everyone will be hypercritical, of course, or be actively assessing your behaviour or suitability for a professional reason, so paranoia is not the answer. Care and reflection are, however. It is wise to remember that even when an online lapse in propriety does not materially harm your professional image, it will most likely not help it, so if you are in doubt, ask for a second opinion from someone you respect and trust – ideally someone with an online identity of the kind you would like to establish for yourself.