Managing a professional digital identity: A challenge for connected professionals

Every interaction we have online leaves indelible traces which are often referred to as our digital footprint. It is the data created by

“what you’ve said, what others have said about you, where you’ve been, images you’re tagged in, personal information, social media profiles, and much more. ”
University of Edinburgh Digital Footprint resources

Because as a connected professional you probably interact online for both professional and personal purposes, managing your digital footprint goes beyond ensuring your privacy settings are up to date (although this of course is essential for everyone). Connected professionals must also manage their professional digital identity or their E-Professionalism.

Those who engage with professional learning through a PLN may face particular challenges with managing their professional identity, as their use of different social networking platforms may lead to context collapse.  Context collapse occurs when

some spheres of a network, mostly detached non-digitally, are combined to blur separation boundaries (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018)

What this means is that groups of people who normally wouldn’t come together in a face to face situation, find themselves sharing the same digital ‘space’ – often through social network interactions. An example of this could be if an individual uses the same Facebook account to engage with family and friends about personal matters as they do to converse with colleagues about their work. It is entirely possible in this situation that the person’s family members or friends might view (or even participate in) work conversations and vice versa. Thus the boundaries between the ‘work’ context and the ‘home’ context collapse – with positive, negative or neutral implications.

Managing your professional digital identity means being aware of context collapse, and making decisions about how much (or how little) you would like these boundaries to become blurred.

The participants in my recent research expressed various opinions on this topic. Some kept sharp boundaries, maintaining their online private life completely separately to their professional learning and interactions. Others were comfortable sharing their digital spaces across work and home, finding it easier to maintain “a particular level of decorum” in all exchanges rather than trying to create borders which are often easily breached. One participant reflected that if she had initiated her PLN more strategically, she would have taken measures to create separate work and home spaces, however as her interactions had developed organically over time, it had become impossible to go back and separate the intertwining purposes of her social media accounts.

So what strategies should you consider when managing your professional digital identity? Here are some ways I maintain a balance between personal and professional, as well as ideas suggested by my research participants:

1. Accept context collapse

One of the best things you can do when managing your professional digital identity is to be aware of, and accept some level of context collapse. It is almost impossible to keep your private and professional lives absolutely and completely separate. The strategies later in this post will definitely help you, however it is inevitable that somewhere along the line something will bleed through; so make sure ALL of your interactions online are of a standard that you would be happy for others to view.

You’ve all heard of examples of people making errors in judgement when they’ve shared a personal comment which they never intended to ‘go viral’. A brief search generates hundreds of ‘online reputation management’ services which have emerged in response to growing number of people regretting past online posts.

A great guideline often shared with students around this concept is if you wouldn’t want your Grandmother to read/view it, just don’t share it at all. Of course, most of the time it is just about acting with empathy and integrity, but this list gives a good coverage of the most common social media mistakes.

2. Use separate accounts or platforms for separate purposes

It is possible to create separate accounts on some social networks and keep one for personal interactions and one for professional exchange. On Twitter, for example, it is fairly straightforward to set up multiple accounts.

Facebook, however, has rules which intend to limit people to one single personal account, supposedly for the purpose of account authenticity. Their terms of service state:

When people stand behind their opinions and actions, our community is safer and more accountable. For this reason, you must:

  • Use the same name that you use in everyday life.
  • Provide accurate information about yourself.
  • Create only one account (your own) and use your timeline for personal purposes.

Of course you could set up a  business account, however keeping your home and professional life completely separate is much more challenging.

For this reason, many people manage their professional digital identity by using completely separate platforms for family and professional purposes. Many people prefer to use Twitter for professional learning and connecting purposes, while keeping their interactions on Facebook limited to friends and family. Another option is to use Pinterest for personal digital curation, and tools like Scoopit or ELink for professional collections. This is not a perfect solution, but definitely one to consider, especially if you are super keen to keep the different parts of your life separate.

3. Be aware of privacy settings

Managing your privacy online is important regardless of how you use these technologies, but even more so if you are wishing to maintain a professional online presence. As well as ensuring your own data and identity is secure, from a professional identity perspective, it is well known that many employers will conduct online searches to reveal additional information about their applicants during the recruitment process. Even though you may have nothing to hide, managing your privacy settings means that you will be in control of what others will be able to find. Just as you wear smart clothes to make the best first impression at a job interview, ensuring that your online profile is the first thing that is seen when others search for you is an important part of e-professionalism.

The best way to start this process is by checking what comes up when you conduct a search for yourself. Search using Google and another search engine – Duck Duck Go is a good one, as it  does not track your searches, and therefore will not give you results based on your previous search history. Here is an example of my search conducted today. You can see that even though the results are similar, they do not appear in the same order. Sometimes searching on a second search engine can reveal unexpected items that you did not realise would be accessible to the wider world.

Don’t forget to do an image search also using both tools! You don’t want last Saturday’s party revels to pop up for your boss!!

Once you have identified if any personal sites or images are available to the general public, you can then go ahead and investigate the privacy settings on the relevant platforms. It is also worth doing this search on a regular basis, and checking in with your privacy settings, as sometimes they can be changed without you noticing. Invariably there will have been an email alerting you to those changes, however as these are usually written at the complexity of an academic journal paper, most of us skim read them at best.

4. Be yourself

This strategy seems to contradict some of the other messages I have given in this post, but stick with me. Another observation that came through strongly in my research was that people who engage with PLNs place a high value on authenticity and honesty. A number of participants said that they really liked it when they could see that the person they were engaging with was human, and had a sense of humour and warmth. The likelihood of building stronger, reciprocal ties was greater when they felt this ‘human’ connection with the other person. The key here is that even though you should always remember to present yourself professionally online, don’t do this to the point of losing your own personality. Sharing a joke, offering support when someone is feeling frustrated or admitting that you sometimes watch cheesy TV while drinking wine (Masterchef is my current guilty secret…) is absolutely fine; as long as most of the time you are staying on topic.

Wrapping up

I hope that this series of posts has been useful, and given you some practical strategies to manage some of the more challenging aspects of professional learning online. The key takeaway from all of these posts is that balance is essential. Whether that is finding balance in how much information you take on before you choose a resource, balance in the amount of time you spend online, balance in what you share and how you evaluate what others share and balance in how you present yourself as a professional, finding the right path for you is what will make your PLN the most effective.

If you would like to contact me to discuss Personal Learning Networks further, feel free to drop a line in the comments. I am always happy to chat, and I am available for consultancy or conference presentations or workshops around these or any other of the topics I’ve addressed on this blog. It is my hope to encourage anyone who is considering using social technologies to further their learning to feel confident to take those first steps, and to help those who are already engaging to refine and continue to improve their experiences.


One thought on “Managing a professional digital identity: A challenge for connected professionals”

  1. Hi!
    I found these blog posts very helpful. I am the CEO of a company that is trying to address some of the problems listed above. I would love to hear your input on my idea. If you have any time to connect I would love to set up a call!

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