(part of my reflections on week 4 #el30 The E-Learning 3.0 MOOC from Stephen Downes)
How are we perceived by the search engines? No matter who i “really (think i) am”, search engines’ efforts -doing their “best” to find us out on the Internet- will have an output: they will form one or more presentations of us. Especially since the advent of web2.0, with a clear trend of representing oneself with real names and actual selfies, search engines are hard at work accumulating as much information as they can and building their graph of who we are. The output of that work is a multi-faceted representation of our participation on the Internet.
We can find one when we search for our own names while being logged with our user, we might find another with an “incognito” window open, our friends might get another series of answers… and then there’s language: searching in different languages might very well show varying results. Search engines, therefore, produce a kaleidoscope-style representation of who we are and make it available to anyone willing to conduct a perfunctory search.
And then, of course, if we’ve made it far enough into the limelight, people might find other people’s opinions’ of us. Most of the time, when i’m searching for a person/product/service (which i’ll call “brand” from here on), i tend to look up the official accounts of said brand. But some of the time, i’m looking for opinions on that brand. And those opinions will play a role in my perception and my decisions regarding that brand.
And then, if you’re famous enough, or have been designated an enemy of whichever organized group, you might be faced+bombarded with malicious intents of distorting your representation. This is not just critique, the intent is to create a negative perception among an audience. This is, of course, not an online exclusive issue: slander, backbiting, and so on have been human activities that have been in use for probably as long as humankind has had a language.
Discussing online identity with students
Now, when i talk to students, i like to tell them about their future job searches. And i like to help them carry out a thought experiment (or the actual experiment if the conditions allow) about what their would-be employer will find when they search for their names. For many students, this is a sobering experience. They realize that posting party pictures, artistic shots of the imported beers they’ve acquired a taste for and so on might not necessarily be the best path to conveying the gravitas of the knowledge and competencies they have been developing during their college years.
I use this exercise to help them think about what a deliberate online brand strategy would look like for them, as aspiring professionals: How do you want to be perceived by potential employers? What does that mean for your various online profiles? What should you be talking about? Of course, as a Wikipedia volunteer, i usually also bring up the point that contributing to Wikipedia might be a solid way to position themselves as experts on the topics of their choice.