Higher Education

On the Market II: Digital Footprints

In the course of my usual social media browsing I came across this article in the Chronicle, which encourages (nay, demands!) that academics take control of their online presence through the creation of a personal website that links to and integrates all of their social media accounts and professional activities. This, the author says, is to make sure that you are in control of what people out there will see when they google your name.

This is, of course, a topic of some relevance for early-career scholars–particularly those who are on the job market. It only seems rational for hiring committees to run applicants’ names through a search engine in the first round, if only to make sure there are no red flags that might (obviously) not be indicated in the carefully curated pack of materials submitted by the candidates.

But here’s the thing: I’m not really sure I want a comprehensive online identity that is thoroughly and inextricably linked to my professional persona. And it’s not because I’m a secret troll or anything like that. It’s just that I’d really rather not have to continuously consider in every sphere of online activity I engage in whether or not something I write is something I’d also say in the classroom or at a conference or job interview. It is, for example, professionally irrelevant that I am slightly obsessed with the Suikoden series or that I always thought Prince Zuko was an obvious closet case.

I held out for ages before finally relenting and deciding to accept Facebook friend requests from other scholars in my field: not because I dislike them, but because even with automated filters and privacy settings enabled I didn’t want to have to think about who might be reading every single little thing I happened to say and how this would reflect upon me professionally. And it’s precisely those times when you’re especially upset or discouraged and likely to say something impolitic that you’re also especially unlikely to make sure the button is set to “close friends” or whatever else it needs to be. And you know what? I’m no longer really candid on Facebook.

In a world like the one the author describes, where one’s entire online presence is consolidated and clearly linked to one’s professional identity, the only escape from the filter would be in complete pseudonymy. A different name, a different avatar, a careful avoidance of things that would trace back to the central information clearinghouse (or “landing page,” as she calls it), www.yourname.com, your own digital Rome to which all paths lead.

Now, it may just be me, but I absolutely hate these kinds of personal-professional websites, with their flattering headshots, (nearly always) clean and minimalist design, and about-mes written in that striving, enthusiastic, antiseptic tone usually associated with politicians’ bios and press releases from tech startups or small non-profits with vague mission statements. Even when they are well done they often carry a whiff of vanity (look here’s my Twitter feed!), and when they are not…well, let’s just say that a bad website is usually worse than none at all.

What’s the alternative?

In my case, I usually opt for pseudo-pseudonomy in most of my online activities. I rarely use my full name anywhere, but I also don’t usually conceal any details that would make it possible to determine my identity (with a little work). This tends to make the information stream flow one way: you could arrive at my name from something I wrote somewhere, but probably not find everything I’ve ever written just by knowing my name or occupation (in this case it helps to have a somewhat common name that I share with several other professionals and a minor historical figure).

Furthermore, this means my online presence doesn’t look managed in the same way it would if the top google results for me were all things I wrote myself. Rather, you get a smattering of traces and activities in various quarters that confirm what’s on my CV and offer a few other tidbits. Yes, this means that the student venting zone appears in my search results, but it’s not as if interested parties (like, say, students or potential employers) wouldn’t be able to find it even if the first six results were my own website and several other managed accounts.

Call me old fashioned, but I also think that a minimalist online presence can serve to subtly encourage alternate means of investigation. If I can read someone’s conference papers online, I am less likely to reach out to them or to inquire about them with a colleague more familiar with their work (and possibly even the larger context for their work). Even if the paper is good, a glowing (informal and un-curated) recommendation based on direct experience is better.

But what do I know? I am, after all, still new at this.


Featured image: Nevit Dilmen

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

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