Crafting an online identity


The prospect of laboriously crafting an online image is somewhat off-putting. It’s certainly a recurrent theme in critiques of social media and the digital narcissism it is said to engender. However, it doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process. Mark Carrigan (SRA Trustee and author of Social Media for Academics) suggests that reflecting on how to present yourself online is helpful because it’s the most immediate way of managing your online identity. 


While there’s more to online identity than what you happen to put in your social media profile, it’s nonetheless the case that this is the aspect of your online identity over which you have the most control. It’s certainly possible to find yourself wasting time cultivating a profile when you’re supposed to be doing something else. So be wary. Nonetheless, social media can be a powerful counterpoint to the alienated forms of self-writing found in publications lists and CVs. It can be a chance to tell your story and an otherwise tedious process can become an enriching one if you approach it in this spirit.
The choices available to you largely function within parameters defined by the services you’re using. In other words, there are only so many things you can customise. But the clearer you are about the story you’re trying to tell, the easier it will be to do something interesting within these limitations. For instance, consider Twitter. Obviously there’s a limit to how much information it’s possible to fit in a Twitter profile. That’s why it’s necessary to decide what information is most important for you to present. For instance, if you’re primarily concerned with meeting others working within your area then foregrounding your research interests makes sense, being much more specific about them than might otherwise be the case. For example ‘interested in sociological accounts of asexual identity’ as opposed to ‘interested in asexuality’. Furthermore, it’s hard to tell a story in 160 characters. But it is possible. 


My favourite example of this comes from Yanis Varoufakis, the economist who used to be Finance Minister of Greece’s SYRIZA government. As he describes himself to the world, ‘Economics professor, quietly writing obscure academic texts for years, until thrust onto the public scene by Europe’s inane handling of an inevitable crisis’. He literally tells a story with his Twitter bio, introducing himself as a thoughtful man happily toiling away in relative obscurity until circumstances conspired to draw him into the public sphere in order to deal with the self-evident failings of the political class. Many of his 981 thousand followers as of the time of writing will, no doubt, reject this analysis of the political scene in Europe. But he leaves them in no doubt about where he stands. 

Of course, it’s much easier to tell a vivid story if your work has carried you into the epicentre of the unfolding history of Europe. But this isn’t a reason not to try. The powerful thing about telling a story is that it gets beyond the level of simply listing facts about yourself. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; in a way it’s like a story because you choose which facts you present and the order in which you present them. But telling a story places them in a wider context, giving meaning and direction to things which people come to know about you.

Nonetheless, listing facts is important.Yet what sort of facts are likely to be relevant for these purposes? Here are some suggestions

  1. Your institutional affiliation
  2. Your research interests
  3.  Other accounts you’re involved with
  4.  Your personal interests
  5.  Hashtags you contribute to
  6.  An institutional disclaimer
  7.  An additional website 

Another way to approach this is to search the websites of social researchers you know or know of. How do they present themselves online? What do you like about this? What do you dislike? Are there things that surprise you? Are there things that you suspect may be misinterpreted? What do you think they’re trying to convey? These are all useful questions to develop a sense of what sort of self-presentation online feels. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions but simply more or less useful ways of asking them. 

Even if it might seem self-indulgent to spend time crafting your online identity, it’s increasingly necessary to tell a story about your online traces because otherwise people will tell a story about them without your input. But it doesn’t have to be a time consuming process. It can be as simple as deciding what facts about yourself you want to present to the world and finding a way to tell a compelling story about them within the constraints imposed by social media profiles.

Author Bio: Mark Carrigan is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His research explores how the proliferation of digital platforms is reshaping education systems, with a particular focus on knowledge production within universities. He is internationally recognised as a leading expert on the role of social media within higher education, giving over 100 invited talks internationally and consulting for universities, research centres and publishers.