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I have betrayed this trust; while I am privileged to the details of their lives, they get nothing from me besides a few outdated photos and a status update every few months.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.

Dreams do come true

Just over a month ago, I took a workshop with the Op-Ed Project and it changed my life.

The Op-Ed Project is an initiative to encourage and support women’s voices in the op-ed pages, a place where they are significantly underrepresented. Today, around 80-85 percent of op-eds are written by men, but men are also writing and submitting op-eds at a much higher frequency than women. The Project trains, encourages, and supports women, connecting them with mentor-editors and helping them make their voices heard.

The seminar itself was engaging and inspiring, even though I still wasn’t quite confident I had what it takes at the end. We learned to recognize and tout our expertise in different subjects, even if our credentials weren’t the kind you might expect.

Then, a week later, the FBI captured Whitey Bulger. Now, I had studied Bulger in graduate school while researching Irish American identity in South Boston. I instantly thought, “I am an expert.” So I wrote an op-ed draft and submitted it to the Project’s mentor-editor program. I was matched with a wonderful mentor-editor who helped me spruce up my piece and pitch it to newspapers and online publications. It was published on AlterNet.org.

With my taste of success, I immediately started on a second piece about abortion rhetoric and the use of the slavery analogy – a hot topic considering the racially-based anti-abortion propaganda cropping up all over the place. I submitted my draft to the mentor-editor program and was matched with… drum roll please… a senior editor at Ms. Magazine.

Yes. Ms. Fucking Magazine. 

My piece was published on the Ms. blog.

Then I was inspired to write about the teen domestic violence case and murder of Lauren Astley and submitted it to Ms., hoping that lighting would strike twice.

It did.

Then I came across the most sexist and offensive ad campaign (for MILK of all things) I have seen in a long time and wrote about that. Ms. created a Change.org petition to end the campaign and attached it to my post. And things just sort of exploded. Like, Boston.com linked to my post in their article about the dubious health claims behind the campaign. And my post got shared on Facebook 316 TIMES and got OVER ONE THOUSAND Stumbleupons or whatever you call them. And reactions and praise and positive feedback from friends, family, classmates, and professors has all felt pretty damn good.

(Be on the lookout for my follow-up post this weekend.)

In two short weeks, I became a regular blogger for Ms. Magazine, the holy grail of feminist publications. As some of you may or may not know, blogging for a reputable and recognized publication has been a dream of mine for a long time. And somehow, it seems to have come true.

I didn’t win an Academy Award, but I would still like to thank the Op-Ed Project, Ms., and everyone here who read Not a Dirty Word (now Talkin’ Reckless) and gave me so much feedback and encouragement in the past couple years. I’m still not exactly sure where I’m headed with my writing or my career, but I feel like I’m finally on the path that will get me there. I can’t wait to see what happens next.