Upon recent reflection, I find myself to be a natural consumer rather than producer of online material. My Facebook updates and photos slowly trickle in, and my appreciation for Twitter extends mostly to shared articles and op-ed pieces. The reason for my social sharing hesitancy is two-fold: (1) I have no urge to post banal personal information publically; (2) my constant analysis of others’ online profiles is undoubtedly reciprocal, and I want my web presence to pass the test of any curious Googling. Over the past few years, I have been retreating from a maintained network of profiles for my personal life, but as I transition into my career there’s new motivation to be active professionally. As a teacher, being aware of my web presence is a necessity, and it also gives me a voice in the online conversations surrounding education.
My knee-jerk reaction to a curated web presence was skepticism; there are so many online personas that are unlike their real-life counterparts. I feel like Holden Caulfield looking for “phonies” around every corner. And just as that character projected a fear of his own artificiality onto others, I also dread creating a web presence that feels false or forced. Yes, I want to come across as smart and capable, but also genuine. How do I express myself on multiple platforms in a way that creates a picture of my professional life and reflects my personality?
The issue of web presence becomes increasingly important as people become voracious users of the web and mobile apps. Not only are individuals avidly exploring and sharing, but so are the people who will use the web to get to know them better: future schools, bosses, and even romantic partners. Cohn (2014) succinctly defines web presence as “… the collective existence online of a company or individual.” The key word in this definition is “collective.” While you may have designed the perfect LinkedIn profile, you may feel less sure about the photos or comments found on other pages. Your web presence should account for anything that would come up in a quick Google search.
What I would add to Cohn’s definition is the concept of control. By taking the initiative to develop your web presence, the ball is in your court, “You … gain control over how you’re perceived online, and thus what employers find out about you when they conduct their search” (Schawbel, 2011). It is critical to speak for yourself and lead the creation of your online persona instead of relying on materials produced by others. While getting something embarrassing removed can be a challenge, one can at least try to drown out a search result with positive self-promotion elsewhere.
Those lurking online embarrassments may be found in your web presence, but more likely in your digital footprint. Every mouse click on the Internet is a decision that will be logged and stored. With recent corporate database hacks leaving many shame-faced clients in its wake, web users are becoming slowly more aware of how vulnerable their digital footprint is to those who know how to mine for information. Much like the quote attributed to basketball coach John Wooden (1997), “A true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching,” your digital footprint reveals who you are online when you are not posting, liking, or sharing. I see the primary distinction between web presence and a digital footprint as curation. One is created for public consumption, highlighting your best qualities and accomplishments, while the other is a shakily semi-private account of your online activity.
Teaching Web Presence
“I actually think we should make it an expressed outcome from high school that all of our students are Googled well, under their full name, on graduation day”
Digital citizenship is a popular and ongoing lesson as more tech is brought into the classroom. From what I have seen, much of the discussion around web presence is contained within the concept of digital citizenship as we teach students how to better self-monitor their online behavior. What we lack is the explicit question “If you Google your name, what will be in the search results?” While there may not be a fruitful list right now (especially for a younger class), students need to develop the forethought to regulate their actions now. In a 2013 article, Kelly Schryver suggests, “As a final project, you might create mock “search results” pages about your future self, as found, say, in the year 2025. What articles, images, videos or other kinds of results would appear? What would they say about you? Why?” Framing online activity this way gives students an opportunity to take control over their experience and start to grasp the future implications of their current actions on the web. Often, it seems the conversation for teens focuses on what not to post, which is only a small part of building a positive web presence.
Though I see the incredible need for teaching the topic, I do have concerns about approaching web presence heavy-handedly in the classroom. It is tempting to walk students through five steps to build a positive web presence with accounts and blogs, but it would be obsolete by the time they finish setting it up. Teachers should recognize that the students’ web experience is different from their own, and that instruction on web presence must account for “where” and “how” students are active online. In a 2012 Forbes article, Eric Jackson discusses the impending mortality of sites like Google and Facebook; they will be “[n]ot bankrupt gone, but MySpace gone.” To explain this, Jackson (2012) breaks down generations of the Internet into Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and Mobile, where most Millennials are active now. While I develop a Web 2.0 web presence my sights still need to be on the future, as my students, who are primarily mobile, will need to learn how to create a web presence that may not be on the web at all. As it is with anything tech related, we need to remain flexible with our definitions and chosen platforms because the landscape develops so quickly. What should remain constant is the motivation behind developing a web presence, controlling your online reputation, in whatever forms it takes.
Cohn, M. (2014, May 6). What is an online presence? Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140506135535-1862984-what-is-an-online-presence
Jackson, E. (2012, April 30). Here’s why Google and Facebook might completely disappear in the next 5 years. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericjackson/2012/04/30/heres-why-google-and-facebook-might-completely-disappear-in-the-next-5-years/
Richardson, W. (2012, Oct 25). Guest post: Three starting points for thinking differently about learning. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/guest-post-three-starting-points-for-thinking-differently-about-learning/
Schawbel, D. (2011, Feb 21). 5 reasons why your online presence will replace your resume in 10 years. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2011/02/21/5-reasons-why-your-online-presence-will-replace-your-resume-in-10-years/
Schryver, K. (2013, Feb 5). Guest post: Who are you online? Considering issues of web identity. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/guest-post-who-are-you-online-considering-issues-of-web-identity/
Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (1997). Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.