The personal, the political, and the public persona: My journey towards transparency and authenticity in the digital age

Sure the personal is political, but is the personal professional?

As a person who has been writing and networking on the internet since she was 14 — before anyone had any idea of what one should or shouldn’t say on the internet — my web footprint is broad and messy. Now that I am an online communications/social media professional (a “specialist” according to my job title), I need to have a public, professional online persona. But how do I create an authentic, professional public identity without hiding or erasing my not-so-professional internet history?

I started using Facebook as a college sophomore in 2004. At the time, Facebook was limited to college students and because the network felt so insular and protected, I wantonly posted photos from events like “The Less You Wear, the Less You Pay Dance” and steamy photos of my summer abroad, which I spent clubbing in Sevilla with hot Spanish boys.  I wrote highly inappropriate status updates with plenty of profanity. Because, why not? It’s not like parents, professors, or employers would ever be on Facebook, right? (D’oh!)

Today I use Twitter for professional networking, but my Facebook profile is another story. With photos and details of all my lurid undergraduate exploits, is not the most work-friendly. Two years ago I created a second “dummy” Facebook profile partly to use for professional networking and partly as a way to hide my real one. It’s a crappy solution; I hate maintaining two profiles, so I rarely check the dummy one. I do this even though I’m fully aware that it doesn’t make sense to be on Facebook for professional reasons if you never update your account. Not to mention the fact that it looks really bad when a so-called social media professional doesn’t appear to actually use Facebook.

I also feel guilty because my second Facebook profile feels like a betrayal of trust. Over the past two years I have accepted friend requests from people expecting to get something out of it. Implicit in the action of becoming “Facebook friends” is the mutual granting of access to our lives, our “real selves.” I have betrayed this trust; while I am privileged to the details of their lives, they get nothing from me besides a few outdated photos and a status update every few months.

I’ve thought about cleaning up my real Facebook profile and deleting and untagging everything that’s professionally “iffy.” But I can’t do it. I don’t want to delete photo albums from the Rocky Horror Picture Show or memorable college parties. I don’t want to stop posting inappropriate or silly things on my wall.  That stuff is an important part of my identity and my personal history, and I would feel like I had lost something without it.

There’s also the issue of my feminist writing and link-sharing, which happens daily on my “real” Facebook page. Talkin’ Reckless is a progressive, feminist, sex-positive, and argumentative blog — and  for that reason linking to it could be professionally problematic. These days I work at a progressive women’s organization, but in the next few years I’ll be switching careers and job hunting and potentially working for organizations or companies that may be uncomfortable hiring a *public* feminist, or an activist of any kind.

I have known for some time that I would eventually merge my two Facebook profiles and let colleagues and everyone else see the “real” me. But I have hesitated, because this is terrifying. The real me still gets drunk at parties where people drink beer out of red solo cups. The real me still attends fabulous/scandalous events in various states of undress. The real me uses the f-word. The real me has multiple identities that don’t always co-exist comfortably: feminist activist; aspiring writer; social media professional; grad student; blog editor; health communication professional; improv comedian; teacher. The real me is also an atheist Jew who’s highly ambivalent about being involved in the organized Jewish community. And sometimes, the real me makes mistakes.

But the real me is also just a person, with a family, friends, and hobbies who takes pleasure in cat videos and silly Tumblr memes just like everybody else. And I know that sharing those “humanizing” aspects of my real self are a critical part of making connections, networking, and building relationships online.

A part of me would love to just put it all out there — to create a professional homepage of sorts, maybe a public Google profile, where I could direct people to my Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, Picassa, Flickr, (dear god – are there more?) and various blogs. The idea appeals to my sense of organization and my ego. I like the idea of marketing myself. But if all of my web usage became part of a grand self-marketing scheme, would my online life still be authentic or would it turn into a performance?  I’m also not sure I want to be that findable. After all, how much information do I want the random Googler to know about me? Good social media networking requires an online presence, but I’m struggling to figure out how wide and how deep it should go.

I’m not going so far as to promote and advertise my entire web CV, but I’m making a big change today. I’m deleting my second Facebook profile (soon) and inviting you to come find me at my real Facebook page. From now on, I’m going to practice what I preach.  I’ll still use the “limited profile” and other privacy restrictions when appropriate; they are valid and useful tools. I also wont usually accept friend requests from people I don’t actually know, but I invite those folks to follow me on Twitter where they can reach out to me and start a conversation. You can also add me to your circles on Google+.

Today, I’m taking that giant leap towards transparency and authenticity. I’m also taking a leap of faith that society — and all of my future employers — will adjust and embrace this brave new world of public identity that is simultaneously personal, political, and professional.

3 thoughts on “The personal, the political, and the public persona: My journey towards transparency and authenticity in the digital age

  1. It’s interesting to see this from the perspective of someone a little younger than I am, who started on Facebook while they were actually still in school and thus before they had established separate personal and professional lives. Whereas for me I’ve had to consciously learn to be more comfortable with the fact that work and personal things will mix online after I though I’d grown up and separated them. The interesting part is that either way we end up at the same place, finding we want to have just one “holistic” profile that’s appropriate for everyone.

    My rule of thumb has always been to treat social media like it is a party. If I’d reveal something to someone I’d just met and hit it off with at a real-life party, I’ll post it. And if an employer is somehow uncomfortable with my having a personal life not only would I not want to work for them, but that is kind of creepy and weird. I’ve found that either you end up with closer connections to people (like finding out you and a colleague have something in common) or else people just don’t care.

    Plus a good company will want to focus on work-related things both to reduce liability against discrimination and more generally because they want to make good business decisions. Admittedly in this economy if someone is looking for a job they might feel they need to take one anywhere, but “let’s not (or even, let’s) hire her because going clubbing in college is in appropriate” is pretty much a red flag that a company doesn’t know how to make effective business decisions (well unless the business needs a club promoter, or the CIA needs to send you uncover to Spain, or something).

    • The generational element is really interesting. I think I fall in this very small category of people who started using Facebook before it was opened to everyone. Kids only a few years younger than me have always interacted with Facebook knowing that their teachers, parents, and potential employers would be on it.

  2. Good luck with your change! While I don’t have a particularly important or broad web-presence yet, I sort of wrestle with this as well. I’m just too lazy to take too many precautions. I’m sort of looking forward to the day when our social life online is so widespread, and so regular for everyone, that evidence of having a real life outside of a professional facade do not present problems for us anymore. Who knows if we’ll ever get there, but I think we will eventually.

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