Personal brand and digital identity. Which I am I? #msloc430 (Updated 12-Feb)

Note: This post was originally published on 25-Jan-2013. I will update it occasionally to reflect comments, themes, my thinking. And to share resources offered by others. Updates will be included at the end of this post.

One of the most active discussion threads in my course in the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change at Northwestern University started out when a student asked: “Does current Twitter use impact how I am able to ‘brand’ myself in the future?”

What followed was discussion covering:

  • The pro’s and con’s of having two (or more) Twitter accounts, each appropriate for a different “self”
  • The potential future risk of having a past (professional) self that you want to move away from. “I was an expert in this, but now I am moving on.”
  • The merit of one single authentic self.
  • Great Twitter profiles that combine both professional and personal interests.

I’ve seen this debate played out in the heads of many people I know – and in many cases it becomes a barrier for making the leap and creating a digital presence and network that brings all sorts of value. But I also know that there are very legitimate questions at play here for many who work in professions where having an authentic, personally identifiable digital face is problematic.

It’s clearly not a new issue. But I thought I would pause here and see if I can collect some insights about this topic and expand the dialogue from our private class discussion forum to this public one.

So where do we draw the lines? Are there legitimate situations that call for managing more than one identity? Or just one, obscured identity? Or is it possible – even facing what may seem like insurmountable odds — to have one authentic digital identity that continually fuels our professional and personal selves equally, with manageable risk?

Update 29-Jan-2013

Themes: “Brand” takes us down the wrong path

Effectively combining both your professional and personal identities is a theme repeated across commentary on this topic. But do it with your eyes open. Teresa Torres captured the sentiment well:

One of the blessings of my personal network is its diversity. Jason Seiden (6K Twitter followers) is co-founder of Ajax Marketing and comes at the question of digital identity from a marketing perspective. Jim Romenesko is a journalist and one of the most followed commentators on all-things-media (70K Twitter followers and probably as many readers of his blog JimRomenesko.com). Alison Seaman is one of the principle organizers of etmooc – a Massive Open Online Course focusing on educational technology – and author of Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy. Each brings a slightly different lens to their interest in the question of effective digital identity – but the theme of authenticity and consistency binds them all.

Jason fuses professional and personal into Profersonal™. “Activities are personal or professional, not people,” he says. And his digital presence lives up to that credo.

Romenesko carries on this idea that, well, he’s a real person. And his digital identity reflects that. He points out in his comment that “it can’t be disputed that I’m an Evanstonian who hangs out at coffee shops and works on his ROMENESKO brand. I do that by presenting myself as a veteran journalist (over 35 years) who is obsessed with media news and enjoys sharing it with others. I’m not considered an opinion journalist, but I try to throw some humor and light snark into my posts on occasion.”

Alison shifts the focus from people (names/individuals) to their digital activities and behaviors when quoting a tweet from Alec Couros, professor of social media and education at Canada’s University of Regina and the inspiration behind etmooc: “Do ppl get that online ID is not really about real name or not? Actions, creations, relationships speak ur reputation more than name.”

Which leads me to my insight. “Brand” simply leads us down the wrong path. Romenesko experienced the illogical extreme of this when he got into a legal dispute about the use of his name.

But even when some people speak about “brand,” I suspect it is simply that particular aspect of their digital presence that helps them earn a living. Their real digital identity is more completely tied up in their human-ness. Activities are personal or professional, not people. Actions, creations, relationships speak your reputation more than name. And it’s the authentic personality, the humor, generosity, maybe that little bit of vulnerability that makes us want to connect those identities with ours.

Updated 12-Feb-2013

And so now we go deeper…

Thanks to Bill Chamberlain (@horizonwatching) this conversation took another interesting turn with the commentary provided by Luis Suarez (@elsua). Bill reached out to his IBM colleague and asked that he weigh in.

Luis is amazing for a number of reasons (see for example “IBM Gives Birth to Amazing Email-less Man” which I suspect may be the least truly amazing aspect of Luis but probably the most catchy example). His blog has been a great read for many years and a staple of mine (ok..he’s part of my hand-crafted personal learning network). He’s consistently thoughtful; writes in an entertaining, approachable, unique conversational style; and he does stuff to test the limits and find the positive elements of digital social connection.

In his comments here, Luis recounts his disappointment with Twitter first expressed in his blog post Twitter is Where Conversations Go to Die. But as usual, he quickly moves on to get to a couple of key points:

But then again it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. I remember the time when we used to have fabulous conversations in our networks in Twitter on whatever the topic helping people build their own little sandcastles of personal branding developing into a much much larger network of fellow individuals with a whole lot more in common than just a bunch of tweets. Somehow, I think we would need to go through that retrospection exercise where we would need to bring back the conversation piece into Twitter, once again.

It’s about building that authenticity, that trust, that honesty, that passionate, purposeful, focused self, aiming for a higher goal than just shouting out loud whatever the message. If you look into it that’s exactly where blogging shines at this point and why Twitter needs to keep being challenged to evolve into that kind of branding exercise we are no longer doing: nurturing a conversation.

And he concludes with this:

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s up to us to use the Social Web to build healthy, insightful and relevant personal brands, but it’s up to us to show that purpose, instead of heading elsewhere. There is time to revert back the trend, in my opinion. Up to us.

You will see in the comments below — between Luis’ initial post, my response and his reply — a comment from Alison Seaman. Our connection evolved from a random Twitter exchange during the #change11 MOOC. We now routinely share resources, questions we’re thinking about, and leads to potential answers. It is really a cherished learning relationship. And the energy behind it – we both believe – evolved from the kind of conversation that Luis refers to.

So how did this happen? Neither Alison nor I were focused on architecting “brand” and simply broadcasting. It was more along the lines of “being” that “passionate, purposeful, focused self, aiming for a higher goal than just shouting out loud whatever the message.”

Still, how does this happen? This connection?

Enter Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) and her recent piece, “Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities.”

Two parts of her post strike me. First is one slide from the presentation she writes about. The slide describes “Openness as a Practice” (emphasis mine):

  • No techno-utopia or determinism
  • Long-term immersion and work
  • Not just broadcasting but engagement
  • Vulnerability
  • Context collapse
  • Blurring of public and private

I did not attend the presentation so this is only conjecture. But I see some themes building here between Luis and Bonnie.

The second part of interest is when Stewart begins to explore some ideas behind how the reading of “codes and signals” may offer a path to unlocking how and why networked learning connections happen. I am still trying to wrap my head around this – it’s leading me down a learning path. But it’s an interesting one, and well worth traveling.

Resources

Several great resources were noted in discussions related to this post.

allmytweets.net – See all of your Tweets on one page. Thanks to Romenesko.

Leveraging Social Media: 12 Steps to Develop Your Personal Online Brand via IBMer and blogger Bill Chamberlain.

Build Your Brand Online Before You Need It. From blogger Janet Fouts via Jackie English (MSLOC student).

The Importance of Building Your Own Brand – WSJ piece. Thanks to Romenesko again.

photo credit: Frederic Poirot via photopin cc

24 Comments

  1. These are great questions, Jeff. The deciding factor for me would be the purpose of the Twitter account. Under the assumption that it’s to advance a professional brand, my preference would be to have separate personal and professional identities. The branding mantra “Be impeccable with your brand” comes to mind. Given that the brand represents you, its reasonable to assume that some personal information is included to show its authenticity. As I write this, it occurs to me that I am guilty of “do as I say” as I have a blended account. Think I should add to the list to go fix this.

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    1. Thanks Susan! As always.

      Here is what I notice from my own experience. I have people follow me who – when I look at their Twitter stream – are ALL about the book they’ve written or the service they offer. It’s like a stream of 140-character commercials. I never follow them back. Too much “brand” and too little personality.

      I seem to be more intrigued by people who clearly have found a way to integrate their personality and their professional interests.

      Maybe it’s the word “brand” that gets in the way of this discussion. Because that can go wacky. A friend of mine – a very well known blogger in the journalism space – blogs and tweets under his own name – Jim Romenesko. He’s famous by his last name. Everyone in the media biz knows him. When he left an employer whose site was home to his blogging activity for awhile, there was actually a legal dispute over who could use HIS NAME.

      So is Romenesko a brand? A name? Or this great guy who hangs out in Evanston coffee shops writing the behind-the-scenes history of contemporary journalism?

      (See http://jimromenesko.com/2011/11/18/my-bizarre-departure-from-poynter/)

      But it does beg the question. How do we think about our digital identities, then?

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  2. Susan’s comment about the purpose of a Twitter account is a very important one that I think very few people (and brands) think about. For me, I’m active in a few social spaces, and use them each differently. I rarely post the same information on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (and as a digital marketer advise clients to have distinct strategies for each space as well).

    While my Twitter persona is fairly work/school focused, I do tweet about non-work things of interest that fall into my other realms. I’m a whole person with diverse interests, not just a job or a program, and I think that sharing of different kinds of ideas can lead to interesting conversations and connections. I am of course always aware that anyone can access these posts, and never post anything (even on Facebook where I use very tight privacy controls) that could be damaging.

    As for the question of having a documented past self that you want to move away from, I think that’s going to become a big issue in the future, as the past becomes so documented and shared. Again, I think it’s about ensuring that you’re not doing anything damaging that becomes a part of your permanent record, and hopefully finding ways to build connections from where you’ve been to where you want to go, emphasizing how what you did can make you better at what you want to do, even if they’re totally different fields.

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    1. Thanks Claudia! I really like this sentiment: “I’m a whole person with diverse interests, not just a job or a program, and I think that sharing of different kinds of ideas can lead to interesting conversations and connections.” Especially from someone who works in the digital marketing world.

      But definitely an interesting question. I’ve been getting a bit of feedback, as well, on Twitter and will gather this soon to add to this dialogue. A lot of agreement so far along the balance you set: Be a whole person, but be civil.

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      1. I think Claudia provided some really sage advice here. I know that I’ve also encountered the argument that if you flood the web with all the good stuff you’re doing, the better (long tail?).

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  3. I *hope* I’m a “great guy” — but it can’t be disputed that I’m an Evanstonian who hangs out at coffee shops and works on his ROMENESKO brand. I do that by presenting myself as a veteran journalist (over 35 years) who is obsessed with media news and enjoys sharing it with others. I’m not considered an opinion journalist, but I try to throw some humor and light snark into my posts on occasion. I try to keep the ROMENESKO brand consistent on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and JimRomenesko.com.

    Regarding the question about current Twitter use impacting future branding attempts, I remind people that you can’t erase your Twitter history. I’m a regular visitor to allmytweets.net, a site that archives tweets, and have found it valuable when writing posts about journalists’ thoughts and previously published comments.

    In case this hasn’t been pointed out yet, the WSJ recently did a piece on the importance of building your own brand. It is here: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/01/23/the-importance-of-building-your-own-brand/?Mod=WSJ_blogs_mostpop_read

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    1. Thanks, Jim. (Owe you a coffee or nine). Really appreciate you weighing in on this, given your history and long experience in the blogosphere. I suspect anyone who does not know your work but then takes a look at it will pick up that consistency in how you present yourself.

      +1 on the great guy. Taking time out on a Sunday morning to comment here is hard evidence.

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    1. “What you do and what you leave behind as a footprint on the web” – As usual, Alison, you bring a whole new way to frame the conversation. To Courosa’s point in the Tweet you reference – maybe focusing on using your name or not is unproductive. It’s the “actions, creations, relationships” that matter foremost. Going back to some of our conversations about leading-with-generosity etc. More to explore there.

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  4. Great discussion and insights. After searching the web for tips from experts, I come back to the concept to just be authentic. So I agree with Claudia that we have diverse interests and they will change in the future. I’m OK with that – for me that means sometimes I’m a fan, a parent, a student and a leader. Someday hopefully I will be a grandparent, a volunteer, and still a student.

    I am convinced that at least getting out there is important. Article I enjoyed with just basics on branding now that MSLOC430 might find of interest.
    http://janetfouts.com/build-your-brand-online-before-you-need-it/

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    1. Thanks, Jackie. I do realize that it’s very easy to paint a picture that seem pretty clear – just be authentic! – but that, in reality, we are all still exploring new things here. It’s just fun to go along on the adventure with a bunch of people who want to discover the positive aspects rather than being held back by fear.

      And you can call me on that when someday I get slammed here on my blog or on Twitter.

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  5. Well Jeff as you say, this is not a new discussion. But it is nice to revisit it and you raise some very good questions. Like you, I am a big proponent of finding a way to integrate personality and professional interests. People like it that way. It’s easy to have the personality shine through on a blog (such as yours!!), so I highly recommend people wanting to focus on a topic area or two set up their own blog.

    However, on Twitter, it is very hard to have personality come through. You really do have to work hard at it. One way to do this is to commit yourself to tweeting 30% of the time with a tweet where you do not post a URL or a Hashtag in the tweet. Just make it a tweet with comment, observation, insight, or other thought that you have. If you are serious about reducing the number of times you push URLs or RTs on your followers, there are several tweet analytic tools out there that you can use to check to see how you are doing.

    As far as personal branding, I often get asked about personal branding and I point people to a blog post I made three years ago on the topic “Leveraging Social Media: 12 Steps To Develop Your Personal Online Brand” http://www.billchamberlin.com/leveraging-social-media-12-steps-to-develop-your-personal-online-brand/

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    1. Thanks Bill! Appreciate the link back to your thinking on this issue as well. We’re gathering a good bit of insight from multiple perspectives (and many of the people who will be on the panel discussion).

      Interesting about the personality showing-through bit. I keep chatting (on Twitter actually) with a few people who I know who do that well. What is it we pick up? I think it is something different when you see a comment or commentary without a link or RT. Thinking out loud almost.

      More to come. Thanks again –

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  6. Thanks for the additional resources. I didn’t know about allmytweets.net. It provides a great overview to see how what you have been tweeting aligns with your personal brand and digital identity.

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  7. This post is so interesting. I’m enjoying being a lurker on it. The only other idea that it brings up is that some people have written a “online usage statement” or something called something like that. It’s usually a blog post that explains to everyone in the virtual world how they use each different type of technology. I might do this, as I use FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, and my blog very differently. Not really the same question, but this post makes me think about things in new ways

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    1. Thanks, Juliette! I could see one of the side benefits of going through that “online usage statement” is that you need to be very clear yourself about how you do those things. Making your mental model explicit. Cool idea.

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  8. Hi Jeff, fascinating blog post and some pretty helpful and relevant insights around the subject of personal branding and nurturing a digital footprint in the Social Web landscape. Loved it! I truly appreciate your conclusion to the article, which I think is rather worth while quoting again: “Their real digital identity is more completely tied up in their human-ness. Activities are personal or professional, not people. Actions, creations, relationships speak your reputation more than name. And it’s the authentic personality, the humor, generosity, maybe that little bit of vulnerability that makes us want to connect those identities with ours“. That final reflection certainly matches pretty close one I shared myself a while ago around Twitter on “Twitter is where conversations go to die“, highlighting how plenty of the great things that Twitter used to be are no longer there. The conversation is gone, it’s just a broadcasting mechanism that hardly anyone gets to see or read or comment about anymore, never mind for how cumbersome it may well be, but because we hardly stop to think, reflect, and decide how we would want to add value into the overall conversation. We don’t seem to care much about it anymore. It’s just another marketing machine where we have reached the point of scheduling tweets or sharing canned tweets. A shame, really.

    But then again it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. I remember the time when we used to have fabulous conversations in our networks in Twitter on whatever the topic helping people build their own little sandcastles of personal branding developing into a much much larger network of fellow individuals with a whole lot more in common than just a bunch of tweets. Somehow, I think we would need to go through that retrospection exercise where we would need to bring back the conversation piece into Twitter, once again.

    It’s about building that authenticity, that trust, that honesty, that passionate, purposeful, focused self, aiming for a higher goal than just shouting out loud whatever the message. If you look into it that’s exactly where blogging shines at this point and why Twitter needs to keep being challenged to evolve into that kind of branding exercise we are no longer doing: nurturing a conversation.

    A conversation where we can learn, reflect, augment, improve what we know, helping knowledge evolve and move further along as part of the flow. That’s where that quote you shared above from that wonderful conclusion piece, along with demonstrating that subject matter expertise, that passion, in building your own personal brand would be essential. We should just re-focus again on the paramount role Twitter has been playing all along and let those distractions of blasting out messages go away. Twitter can be, indeed, a powerful tool to build further on into that transparency, and authenticity, but then again it’s got to start within ourselves, not with the tool. Otherwise, we are back to square one, right?

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s up to us to use the Social Web to build healthy, insightful and relevant personal brands, but it’s down to us to show that purpose, instead of heading elsewhere. There is time to revert back the trend, in my opinion. Up to us 🙂

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    1. Luis – Let me just say it’s always such a pleasure to read your stuff. And thank you so much for taking the time to respond to this stream. I really appreciate it – make @mmartin1 buy you a beer or coffee sometime. On me. 🙂

      I believe you are correct – your final thoughts really get at it. It’s up to us. And I’ve been fortunate enough to continue finding people who think that way. Alison Seaman (commenting above also) is among those. As I move a tiny bit away from my E2.0 wanderings in the past couple of years and play in the MOOC space (especially the connectivist MOOCs) there is a lot of overlap of the mindset you share here in your comment. For example: I’ve recently been in conversations with Alison and others about the phenomenon of “clustering” – in which people who start a MOOC begin to connect with a smaller group of folks, build a relationship, cross-comment, etc. – and something longer lasting comes out of the whole experience. At the core of that is real conversation and open-ness to learning. Not just brand building.

      Doesn’t happen to everyone. But I am seeing it happen routinely as part of the pattern of people engaging in MOOCs. I’ll certainly be exploring that phenomenon more. But boy – it really springs out of a lot of what you’ve been writing about for years. Kudos.

      And seriously. Make Mike Martin pick up the tab.

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      1. Yes, what Jeff said! In #etmooc we’ve been doing our best to create the conditions necessary to foster connections. The clustering of groups has been fascinating to watch (participants have set up Facebook groups, wikis and separate G+ Hangouts, etc. with others they’ve connected with re: common interests).

        Luis, your comment“It’s about building that authenticity, that trust, that honesty, that passionate, purposeful, focused self, aiming for a higher goal than just shouting out loud whatever the message.” YES. 100x yes!. It’s about sharing, collaborating and building upon knowledge (while avoiding echo chambers) to innovate. And we need authentic conversations to do it.

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  9. Hi Jeff, awww, you are most welcome and much appreciated all of that kind feedback! Glad the blog posts are proving to be of some value 🙂 Actually, it wasn’t Mike the one who pointed me into this discussion after I have just returned from a business trip, but another fellow colleague and good friend who has also commented on this thread: Bill Chamberlin (@horizonwatching), but I can surely get Mike to take me for that treat at some point! heh

    Glad you agree with my last statement on the initial comment where I mentioned it’s down to us. That’s exactly what I did with Twitter, for instance, where when I wrote that post I really had a rather bitter relationship with it, because I felt I was not getting enough value out of it through the numerous conversations, so instead of giving up and move on, decided to go through a massive cleaning up exercise and eventually brought it to a state where it’s now part of my social conversations out there. So it really is us shaping it up to match our needs, and not those of others or the technology per se. I think that’s where the magic is, think of how you would want to benefit the most for your own personal brand building efforts and that eventually is going to help impact the rest of the ecosystem and in a positive flavour.

    And about going away a bit from those E2.0 wanderings, that’s a healthy thing, too! I am doing that myself moving into the space of Open Business. I think it’s healthy from the perspective that it gives us new ways of looking into things and find other interesting things out there, so that if we decide to come up it’ll be back in full force with all of the other experiences and skills we may have acquired. I guess that’s what building your personal brand is all about: a lifetime learning experience, or, as Harold Jarche mentions more accurately… Living life in perpetual beta 😀

    Thanks again for the lovely conversation and keep inspiring us, please. It’s greatly appreciated 🙂

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