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What does an online identity REALLY need? (Or, Growing Up Online)

 

Yesterday I wrote this post about stepping back from the conflict in librarianship, and making a new website. There was also a part about changing my online usernames, and the difference between playing at having an online identity and actually having one. It was the last bit people particularly responded to, and I said in the original post that I might write a-whole-nother blog post about it, so here it is.

The background is, I've changed both my blog name and URL (from thewikiman.org to ned-potter.com) and my Twitter username (from @theREALwikiman to @ned_potter).

Creative Commons Image by Jack Dorsey - click the pic to view the original on Flickr

Creative Commons Image by Jack Dorsey - click the pic to view the original on Flickr

Playing at having an online identity versus actually having one

I began life online in 2009. As I've written about before, I saw Jo Alcock's presentation about blogs and twitter at the New Professionals Conference we both presented at, and was completely convinced by her argument that getting online was A Good Thing To Do.

At the time I thought I really needed an angle for an online presence - a specific driver and purpose - and I thought I really needed a sort of 'nom-de-web'. I wasn't thinking in terms of online branding because I didn't know anything about that, I was just looking for somewhere to slot in.

Over time, my feelings about how important that stuff is have changed somewhat. My angle was writing about a wiki I was setting up - I grew tired of that after about 3 posts, unlike the audience, because there WASN'T an audience (it took me 2 years to get 100 subscribers to this blog, then less than a year to get to 1000 after that - the life a new blog is a lonely one). So I quickly learned you don't NEED a special hook for your writing, you can just write in librarianship and will eventually find an audience (and even writing without an audience can have benefits). My nom-de-2.0 I was pleased with because it was distinct and easy to remember, and it did have value in that way. But it was playing at 'having a brand'. I used to sign posts -thewikiman at the end until quite recently, not sure why, but which I look back at with embarrassment.

Now, five years after first getting online, I have an actual online identity and I want to use my own name for it - hence the recent changes. I'm not saying that having a tag or online name is a bad thing, by the way - just that the way I did it was naive, and based on not understanding the world I was getting into. When I began blogging, blogs were the centre of the online universe in librarianship. Now Twitter is the centre. And Twitter is a personal medium - it's about being you. Not 'developing a brand' - for individuals anyway. My favourite quote about the ever-controversial subject of building a brand is this one (read the post this came from):

It’s a mistake to think of personal branding as an end itself. A successful personal brand is a by-product of the successful pursuit of one’s own interest, contribution, and networking in librarianship.
— Bohyun Kim

This is spot-on. In fact sometimes you see people doing the opposite of this, and focusing first and foremost on 'developing their brand' and it simply doesn't work. It turns people off. They position themselves outside the dialogue, which is the opposite of what we should aspire to do with social media.

Anyway, to the point of this post!

What does an online identity really need?

I'd be interested in your views on this in the comments, as it's not immediately obvious to me what an online identity really needs, and in what order of priority.

One thing thewikiman was good for was consistency - it was my username across several platforms. This made it easy for people to find me, and easy for me to monitor links to my stuff (when I typed 'thewikiman' into Twitter, I saw all the links people had posted to my blog, my slideshare account, my Netvibes page - none - in one easy step). So even though I'd recommend the same username across loads of platforms, I've messed that up by changing mine on here and on twitter to two subtly different variants on a theme, which now don't match my YouTube or Slideshare accounts. So for me it turns out not be THAT important after all.

Professional focus is another useful thing from an online identity. If, for example, you're on Facebook for social things, a separate identity for the more work-focused Twitter and LinkedIn could be useful. But if you agree with me that doing things under your own name is a good idea, then that makes focus an all or nothing sort of deal. (I'm not on Facebook so this is less of an issue for me personally.)

Findability is important. As individuals we don't want to be worrying too much about SEO and that sort of thing, but the fact is if someone sees me at a conference and googles me, I want them to find me and not other Ned Potters (like the used car salesman from Essex where I grew up). A distinct online identity helps findability - 'thewikiman' is the search term which over 800 people used to find my old wordpress blog, according to the stats, versus just 81 for 'ned potter'. But findability at the expense of using your own name? For me it was probably worth it back then, but less so now that I have a decent network.

Visual branding I think is not important. It feels like it probably should be, but it isn't. The purpose of branding... actually I'm not going to go into that here, this post is already too long! I'll come back to it at some later date. But basically, having the same shade of green for your website, your twitter background and your business card isn't actually going to have a meaningful impact on your life. There is an argument that the same logo / avatar across several platforms would increase how easily people recognise you from one online zone to another, but again, Twitter is the most important medium and that demands a picture of you as it's a personal medium. So logos are sort of out. Or at best, hard to weave in.

A consistent voice is probably much more important than the rest of the things I've listed put together. If you say things people want to hear in a style that's recognisably yours, THAT'S your online identity - the rest of it is so much window dressing. But for me, the gain of having a larger network on twitter or reaching more people with this blog (like those powerhouse bloggers you see with insane audience sizes) is not worth the loss of posting random nonsense 90% of the time on Twitter, or only posting on this blog when I feel like it rather than on a consistent following-building schedule.

I don't want to be at the behest of my online identity, essentially - which means I reach a smaller group of people than I otherwise might. That's fine, though - for me. Everyone has different needs, and everyone is in different places with what they're doing professionally.

Not adjusting who you are for other people is the final one I can think of. For short-term gain, by all means shape yourself to suit an audience. But ultimately, you're better off attracting the RIGHT audience, as hopelessly cliched and optimistic as that sounds. It's better to let a smaller group of the right people come to you for YOU, than it is to build an online identity on compromise, at the expense of your soul... The kinds of opportunities you may lose probably weren't worth having anyway. (I'm writing this assuming you're a perfectly nice person, not some psychopath with hateful views on everything, by the way. If you fit in the category then censoring yourself is definitely the way to go...)

So, growing up online, having a meaningful online identity - what are your thoughts?