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