Dr Shijia Yu, Digital Training Coordinator, Centre for Doctoral Studies, King's College London
With the exponential growth of web-based technology, the online world has become an essential aspect of academic and professional life. Whether you use your online presence to increase opportunities for career progression, disseminate research through public engagement, or improve personal development, it needs to be carefully managed. This blog will first discuss digital identity concepts that can help you develop a strategy for your online presence. We will then look at the various platforms you can use before ending with some general tips.
Your Digital Identity
It is well known that when we go online, we are likely to present just a version of ourselves, which can differ from what we show offline and vary according to the platforms used. However, we don't always have a clear sense of exactly what kind of online persona we'd like to develop. It can be helpful to approach this problem by considering two factors: boundaries and motives.
Researchers have developed four types of online personas by using these two parameters (Ollier-Malaterre, Rothbard, and Berg, 2013). As this LinkedIn article summarises, depending on the preferences for the boundary between professional and personal lives, we can be an integrator who feels comfortable mixing these two worlds, or a segmentor who strives to establish clear boundaries between them. Our self-evaluation motives also play a crucial role in shaping our digital identities. Those who seek self-enhancement – or impressors – go online to present themselves in a positive manner. On the contrary, expressors, motivated by self-verification, treat the online world as a space to show their true selves by behaving 'in a manner that confirms their own positive or negative self-views’ (Ollier-Malaterre, Rothbard, and Berg, 2013, 650).
Needless to say, the borders between integrator/segmentor and impressor/expressor are not clear-cut, and you might as well find yourself switching between these roles in different situations. Nonetheless, reflecting on these digital identities can help you systematically evaluate where you are currently at with your online presence, and perhaps more importantly, where you want to be.
Once you have a clearer idea about the digital persona you want to develop, it might be easier to decide which platforms you will use and how you will use them. For instance, if you're more of an integrator and want to use your online presence to show off your achievements, Twitter can be a perfect place (although, increasingly, genuine and critical reflections are becoming more visible on academic Twitter). Alternatively, using LinkedIn to build your professional profile and a website for personal thoughts is probably a more suitable approach if you're a separator and don't mind showing both positive and negative sides.
With a better understanding of your (ideal) online identity, you'll also be able to approach another crucial element of your online presence, your personal brand, more confidently. While marketing-born, the concept of a personal brand doesn't need to be associated with self-commodification. One definition of a personal brand is 'a set of characteristics of an individual (attributes, values, beliefs, etc.) rendered into the differentiated narrative and imagery with the intent of establishing a competitive advantage in the minds of the target audience' (Gorbatoy, Khapova, and Lysova, 2018, 6). Your personal brand is, therefore, simply your tool to help others – who might be a specific group of people that you want to target - understand who you are and what you do, and it is closely linked with your position on the integrator/segmentor and impressor/expressor axis. As you will see, while with different online platforms, you might not always have the same level of freedom to build your personal brand, this notion remains a helpful tool for deciding what and how you present yourself online.
The huge potential of social media in helping researchers develop their online presence is no longer a secret. It is nearly impossible to give a comprehensive overview of even the most popular social media platforms, so we need to be selective here. In last year's programme, we talked about Instagram. I will focus on Twitter and YouTube here, and we will have a separate Thing on LinkedIn.
Even after the recent upheavals with Twitter, it is still one of the most popular social media platforms with researchers. There have even been studies that demonstrate the positive effect tweeting has on publication citations. Twitter makes it very easy for anyone to join discussions on the latest topic – in fact, you can even argue that because of the centrality of topics on Twitter, unknown individuals who have expert knowledge have a better chance of making themselves stand out on this platform. On the other side, this feature also makes it easier for you to be drawn into discussions that have little to do with your research. It is also worth noting that Twitter doesn't always offer much space for you to give detailed information, so adding to your profile links to your other platforms, such as your personal website or portfolio, is a great way to provide more depth to your presence on Twitter.
Compared to Twitter, YouTube is not yet as popular, but it is an up-and-coming platform for researchers to disseminate their work and build their personal brands. Recent studies have pointed out that one reason for the increasing popularity of YouTube is the growing number of casual learners who seek out specific knowledge or skills through informal learning opportunities, often online. In a way, YouTube is thus more suitable for researchers who are interested in public engagement and communicating their expertise to the non-academic audience. Of course, it is by no means limited to this function, and because of the various ways a YouTube channel can be used, and the significant time and effort required for its maintenance, it is best to decide how you want to use this platform before getting started.
Last year, we published two Things on building a website, where we discussed the different purposes your site can have – from presenting your professional activities to hosting valuable resources for fellow researchers. These two Things provide lots of helpful advice to get you started, and I would like to share some ideas on maximising the reach of your website:
You can make use of search engine optimisation (SEO) to increase the number of visitors to your page. Google Analytics is a free tool that you can use to find out which keywords are best to use if you want to attract visitors interested in your field of expertise. Including these keywords just a few times on your page will make a difference.
If you want to better understand your visitors' behaviour, Google Analytics can help too. You can see information such as the location of visitors, the most popular pages of your site, and much more. Tailoring your content according to its audience will help increase traffic to your website.
If you're not yet ready to create a shiny-looking personal website, which will take a lot of work, your institutional profile is also a good place to highlight what you want the internet world knows about you. ResearchGate and Academia.edu are good alternatives for researchers without institutional affiliations. Additionally, professional bodies in your field often have members' directories or profiles. While some directories are visible to members only (for example, the Society for Radiological Protection), some are visible to all (for example, the British Art Network). Many researchers use these sites to find their potential collaborators, so keeping your profile up to date is crucial.
While managing your online presence is a vast topic, and there can be an endless list of suggestions of best practices, I think two of the most important tips are the ones below:
Consistency: Being consistent across platforms is key to establishing an effective online presence. Even for separators, presenting identities that vary too much from each other is not recommendable, as you will risk giving a disingenuous impression.
Maintenance: After you've generated more followers or established more connections through your online presence, you will need to maintain this digital community by regularly curating the content you publish and keeping your online presence up to date. Considering the time commitment this task demands, it is perhaps helpful to allocate designated time to it so that it doesn't interfere with your other priorities.
Search for yourself online and review your online presence. Are you satisfied with how you look online? If not, what might you do to change it?
Reflect on where you fit on the integrator/segmentor/expresser/impresser spectrum. Can you think of a few strategies for managing your online presence based on your digital identity? You’re more than welcome to discuss with colleagues on 23 Things in the forum.
Take a look at one of the YouTube channels below and discuss what makes it successful with colleagues in your pod. You might also want to consider what kind of personal brand the channels communicate.
Dr Andrew Maynard (Professor of Advanced Technology Transitions)
Read the Online Visibility Guidelines by the University of Cape Town for a more in-depth discussion of managing your online presence.
Listen to the King's College London podcast 'A Journey into Academia and Using Social Media with Dr Ifesinachi Okafor Yarwood' to hear some personal reflections on using Twitter to boost academic career.
Read 'When Worlds Collide in Cyberspace: How Boundary Work in Online Social Networks Impacts Professional Relationships' to learn more about different digital identities.
Read 'How to Succeed as an Academic on YouTube' to explore the research on academic YouTube and learn advice on running your own channel. The article 'How to start an academic YouTube channel: tips from a psychology YouTuber' provides additional tips.