Online Personal Branding

Many of you will be looking for a job soon. What happens when your potential employers “google” you? What will they find? Is it what you might hope they would find? How have you constructed your public persona?

As communication students, many with business minors or interests in PR and advertising, you have no doubt run across the idea of “brand management.” I have, in the past, suggested that individuals will increasingly have to be concerned with their online reputation. Central to this is the idea that your “Google number” actually acts as some kind of a rough guide to how often your name is used, at least for those of us who have relatively unique names. But that raw number is less important than how your name appears on the Web, and what it means.

The image of you on the web is a strange one. Like any sort of gossip, certain traces take on a greater importance than they might in your “real” world. A forgotten event or conference, or a snapshot taken at a party, might not be that important to your self-image, but to your online image, it becomes pivotal. Gossip shapes a message, highlighting certain parts and diminishing others. New online technologies (as well as mobile technologies) provide the perfect channel to allow for the creation and transmission of gossip. It is likely that an image of you is already emerging on the internet, it’s a good idea if you know what that image looks like. Google is a mirror.

Sometimes, when you look into that mirror, you can be surprised by what is looking back. Especially if you are not the only person in the world with your name, it may be difficult to tell which pieces of information belong to you, and which belong, as Naomi Baron suggests, to your doppelganger. What happens when you share the name of someone in a very different profession or part of the world? If someone who shares your name is also a gay porn star don’t you think that would be something you want to know before going into a job interview?

Of course, this narrow concern — what will a potential employer or date think of you — feeds into much larger questions. We imagine that we have true selves, or if not, that we are able to construct an image of ourselves to be “broadcast” to those near to us and those whom we are meeting for the first time. Mead, for one, suggested that we probably had that backward. Whatever image we have of ourselves is reflected back to us from those with whom we have some interaction. That is, who we are is largely determined by who we know and what they think of us. Many have suggested that online worlds allow us to multiply our personalities and make them even more multiple than they have been in the past.

Of course, we already do that to a certain extent. When I run into a student in the “real world,” at a bar or the airport, for example, I often do not recognize them. We really seem to become different people in different contexts. How we behave in a classroom is obviously going to be very different from how we behave at a family gathering or at a club. This seems to be tied somewhat to the move from rural to urban environments. In a rural setting, it is likely that the people with whom you work also go to the same church as you do, and engage in the same recreational activities. On the other hand, in a city you might have very seperate spheres of social interaction: one group whom you know from work, another that you volunteer with, and yet another that are your close friends.

The view of many who looked at early identity online tended to see the internet as yet another sphere in which you could form friendships and identity. So, for example, when Sherry Turkle famously looked at online community in Life on the Screen she not surprisingly found that people had created multi-faceted identities, and were able to “try on” new identities and ways of presenting themselves. Google (and increasingly blogs) seem to be a retrenchment of the singular identity. Your public identity, as it appears on Google or on your blogs, are now much more transparent. We already are running into cases where the online world collides with the offline in interesting ways. A person might publish something in their blog that is “public” in a way that such a comment would never have been before.

Or perhaps, people are becoming more aware of the ways in which a public, online identity is being constructed, and are careful to make sure that this doesn’t reflect certain private elements of their lives and themselves. Perhaps people have been able to somehow separate out their online personae from those that they present in specific venues.

One of the things that struck me when I met many bloggers for the first time in Brighton last month was that they were not their blogs. Of course, this is to be expected. Why would one think that a weblog accurately or completely reflected someone’s true self? What was vexing is that after meeting someone my view of their identity shifted in such a way that it was difficult to know what had changed. Our view of people is always “this is how it ever was.” Even when we have a falling out with a friend, and some new information comes to light, it seems that it is not hard to think of them as ever that way, despite the fact that our view has changed.

Right now, publicists and public relations people are already hired to manage the public identities of mega-stars. Your image of Michael Jackson, Matt Damon, and John Kerry is one that has been massaged and crafted by professionals (and probably in all three cases, also assailed by professionals). I suspect that the need for such consultants will increasingly be extended to a broader group of individuals. We will all have to become more aware of our public image, and be willing to work on how we are perceived publicly. We already do that in a very informal way. Most of us want to be seen to the world as honorable and dependable, charming and beautiful. But the degree to which our public image is now found online will result in small changes in how we approach this.

How? Predicting the future is always a sticky business, but…

Headshots begin to matter. This is a scary thing for me, since I don’t like any pictures of me. Up until now, people who present public images of themselves often have these taken because they are in a particular position, say the president of a university or an actor or public speaker. Those who keep blogs often have headshots on them (it increases the credibility of a site in many cases), but I don’t think these are usually taken for the blog. Rather, they are taken as part of the person’s profession, and then transferred to the blog. Among academics, it’s fairly common for the image presented on the blog to be one that was either taken for the dust jacket of their book, or for a university department. As more and more people put themselves out on the web, there will be more attention paid not only to the quality of a photograph, but to the elements that make it unique and interesting.

Editors and ghostwriters return. When I worked in a marketing department, it was common to assume that only copywriters could write copy. The idea that any mere mortal would be able to write something grammatically correct, let alone compelling, was not widely held. Now that we have CEOs blogging, I suspect we increasingly also will have ghost-bloggers presenting their ideas in a legible and compelling form. For many bloggers, the thought of having a professional writer for your weblog seems pretty strange. For writers, the thought of millions of pages of new text every day is hard to resist.

Friends for hire. It seems that anything that happens informally tends to be codified into formal processes, and that someone eventually charges for that formal process. There is only so much I can personally do to make my presence known in cyberspace. I can publish things to the web at every chance, and comment on other sites all over the web. But ultimately, the most important items about me will not be written by me. What happens when people begin to want to see others writing about them, and presenting it in a certain way. Of course, publicists traditionally provide a way to do this: they package a message in such a way that others easily make use of it. But already you see a strange hierarchy that allows more read websites to broker relationships and visibility. Already they garner some benefit from this. How long will it be before this benefit is explicitly financial, before we see “people placement” in weblogs as an important part of shaping identity?

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By Smurfs' Garden » Blogging Eval ? on 11/10/2004 at 3:45 pm

    […] al knowledge as well as understandng many of the issues involved (i.e. what not to blog and personal branding.) I recognize that this format is not conducive to those who are not discipl […]

  2. By Smurfs' Garden » Blogging Eval ? on 11/10/2004 at 3:45 pm

    […] al knowledge as well as understandng many of the issues involved (i.e. what not to blog and personal branding.) I recognize that this format is not conducive to those who are not discipl […]

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