In the past few weeks I've been thinking/writing about online identity. A few days ago, I posted on transparency and an excellent article in WIRED magazine on The See-Through CEO. In comments on that post, Christy Tucker shared an experience she had in a networking forum recently that I think deserves further discussion. She said:
I quoted both you and the Wired article in a discussion in an online networking group I'm in, and got some fairly nasty responses from the moderator. The moderator mentioned how she's advising college students doing job searches to not just clean up their Facebook profiles but to delete discussion board posts and contact Google to remove cached copies of unflattering content. I'd previously posted about the Wayback Machine and the fact that even if you can have something removed from the Google cache, it's potentially still out there somewhere. Besides the fact that I think trying to remove all unflattering content is a losing battle, I don't think it's really the right way to go. So you made mistakes--you're human. If you have enough good out there, the good outweighs the bad. It also gives people a chance to see you as a whole, complex person.
I was frankly shocked by the negative response, especially from someone who's all about online networking. Besides saying I was dogmatic for disagreeing with her approach, she argued that no one has an obligation to have an online identity. She says transparency is just a "goofy" philosophy based on "no data, but an ethereal presumption that people will like you more if they know more of your foibles -- and certainly no application of those free-floating impressions to the very specific and often brutal world of job-search." I think she really believes that transparency hurts people's chances in business.
Christy's question to me was have I experienced anything like this level of negativity and what do I make of it?
What I'm thinking is that it opens up a large and interesting can of worms. I see two issues here:
Do you have an obligation to have an online identity?
To what lengths should you go to maintain that identity? How transparent should you really be?
I think the answers to these questions may differ depending on whether you're talking about individuals or organizations. For example, I think organizations, particularly nonprofits, do have an obligation to be online as part of being visible in the community.
Individuals, on the other hand, may not have an obligation to be online, but I do think that, as Christy points out, they should seriously consider the overall benefit of having an online identity. It's the first place many employers are going and in Christy's organization they've discussed having a preference for applicants who blog. How quickly might that start to happen in other organizations?
The issue of transparency is also different for individuals vs. organizations. Again, I think that organizations do have the obligation to be as transparent as possible. It's the way to build trust and loyalty with your various constituents and is increasingly becoming the way a lot of places are doing business. In the case of nonprofits, I think that it's particularly important as part of the stewardship of donor and grant dollars coming into your organization.
For individuals, I think the issue is a difference between personal and professional transparency. I think it's very good to have an online professional presence in which you are authentic and present yourself as a multi-faceted human with strengths and weaknesses. I don't think it's a good idea to post on how wasted you were last weekend.
So getting back to Christy's example, it makes sense to be cleaning up your Facebook profile if all that you have are references to all the partying you're doing. But should you be trying to erase all digital traces of yourself as the woman in Christy's story seems to be suggesting?
There's a lot to digest here--I'd be curious to get your ideas on the issue:
- Should we be crafting an online identity? Is it necessary? Do we have obligations to do it?
- What should we do to maintain that identity?
- Are our responsibilities different depending on whether or not we're talking about an individual vs. an organization?
- What, exactly, should we be sharing and what should we be keeping to ourselves?
- Does transparency hurt or help us?
BTW--the graphic is from a flickr photo I found by Marc Fonteijn and I think it's a kind of interesting way to consider our identities with the core and then the add-ons. Makes you realize that it becomes increasingly difficult to have any kind of on-line interaction without somehow revealing yourself. Are we really thinking that it would be better to have a nation of lurkers instead of people who are creating?