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7. Managing your digital presence 

This section at a glance:

  • we look at what is different about the concept of identity in the virtual world;
  • we explain that students in particular (but employees as well) can have difficulty in identifying the long-term consequences of their digital actions;
  • we suggest that a digital presence is a resource to be managed and offer some good practice tips to help you do this.

Having a social media presence involves creating and managing a digital identity. This is about far more than the mechanics of creating a user ID and password: it is about defining your online persona. Few people would engage in any face to face social interaction without giving some thought as to whether their appearance, tone or language was appropriate to the social situation, and the same should go for online interactions. The issues are slightly different depending on whether you are creating an individual or corporate identity but basically it boils down to your purpose in having a social media presence and how you want to be perceived by those you engage with – laced with a good dose of common sense and respect for others.

A fundamental difference between face to face and online interactions is, however, that online you get to choose exactly how you portray yourself and what you decide to share with others. In a meeting other people will immediately register (and quite probably pass judgement upon) characteristics such as your height, weight, gender, hairstyle, or clothing and it would be considered most unusual not to reveal your name. In an online setting the ground rules can be very different: you choose whether to be known by your real name or a pseudonym and whether to be recognised by a photograph or some other form of avatar. This freedom can be liberating for people who may face conscious or unconscious discrimination in their everyday lives, for example due to a physical disability, but there are also risks in not being entirely sure whether someone you are interacting with is who they claim to be and in people hiding behind anonymous identities for nefarious purposes. Organisations can also suffer from being confused with fake accounts (either spoofs or with more malicious intent) that have similar names to their own.

Corporate accounts will generally always use the institution name (or a recognised abbreviation thereof) and logo, although they may set up a range of accounts for different purposes. Individuals on the other hand, whether they are using social media for professional advancement or purely social purposes, have considerably greater freedom to decide what best serves their purpose (although institutional policy may dictate whether an individual who was clearly representing their department or research project could operate under a pseudonym).

Do not assume that using a pseudonym guarantees anonymity. There is an example of a UK academic who has a widely-read blog, and presence on a number of other social media sites, under a pseudonym. His posts clearly reflect political views, as well as academic interests and have generated a lot of media attention resulting in the individual having had his name identified in the media on more than one occasion.

The BBC guide
 to netiquette (internet etiquette) offers succinct common sense advice for using social networks and there are similar examples aimed specifically at students. It may seem obvious that behaviours which are unacceptable in face to face situations are equally unacceptable online, yet people often exhibit fewer inhibitions about their online behaviour. We discuss this further in Section 10, When it goes wrong, but with ever younger people having access to publication media, the issue is often basic immaturity and a lack of understanding about the consequences of how they portray themselves.

In a world of instant communications, many people see social media interactions as being quite ephemeral without realising the implications of the digital footprint they are building up.

The increasing use of information from social networking sites in recruitment and selection decisions is a case in point. Research for Jisc (Ferrell 2013) found that the concept of digital influence is increasingly important to employers seeking to find people who are recognised as innovators, thought-leaders and influencers. The employment relations service ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) undertook some research into the use of social media for staff recruitment (Broughton et al 2013) and found that 55% of respondents did not have a policy covering the use of social media for recruitment, although there was recognition that the practice of checking up on candidates’ online profiles does occur in an unregulated fashion. One suggestion by Monmouthshire County Council, who did not see the need for a specific policy, was for interviewers to look at a candidate’s online profile with them during an interview.

We have found no explicit evidence that the UK higher education sector is using social media in selection decisions relating to the recruitment of staff, researchers, or indeed students, although anecdotal evidence and surveys  from the US would suggest that this is likely to be happening in practice. There is however evidence of social media being used in student disciplinary procedures

Research into the use of social media in learning and teaching contexts has often revealed that students feel there is a boundary between their personal lives and their contact with their college or university that is reflected in them preferring to use different tools for different types of content. These boundaries are however somewhat intangible in the sense that student indignation or disbelief that institutional authorities or future employers would check up on their online activity (some mistakenly believe that this is illegal) does not translate into managing their profile settings to ensure that this cannot occur.

Peluchette and Karl (2009) undertook research into student perceptions of their own image (Examining Students’ Intended Image on Facebook: “What Were They Thinking?!” ). This followed a 2007 study in which they looked at 200 student Facebook profiles and found considerable evidence of postings that would be inappropriate in a professional context (involving alcohol, sexual activity, profanity and derogatory comments about others). The researchers' conclusion was that the students' desire to be viewed in a particular way by their peers outweighed their perception of future risk from such postings and that many students who were aware of the availability of privacy settings nonetheless left material open in order to extend their network.

    “It appears that many students make a conscious attempt to portray a particular image, and those who post problematic information do so to impress a particular audience, their peers.” Peluchette and Karl (2009)

Some useful guidance from Cornell University (Mitrano 2006) includes a section on invincibility when it suggests that students need to think not only about appearing cool now but about who they want to be in five or ten years’ time. It also highlights just how painful and tortuous the process of getting inappropriate posts removed from social networks can be.

    “What might seem fun or spontaneous at 18, given caching technologies, might prove to be a liability to an on-going sense of your identity over the longer course of history. Have fun and make productive use of these new, exciting technologies, but remember that technology does not absolve one of responsibility. Behind every device, behind every new program, behind every technology is a law, a social norm, a business practice that warrants thoughtful consideration.” (Mitrano 2006)

The issues are not confined to young people: a report for ACAS (Broughton et al 2011) cited a 2010 survey which found that 58% of employees questioned would change what they wrote on their social media profiles if they knew that their employer was viewing them. This indicates that many people do not think through the potential consequences of what they post on social networks when the remarks are transferred into a different context.

Institutions should therefore encourage staff and students to review and think about their digital presence. Whilst on the one hand, this might seem to be a personal issue, there are benefits for the institution in knowing that its students present themselves in the best light to potential employers and similarly in staff presenting themselves well to potential students, potential research partners, the media seeking experts in particular topics or event planners seeking speakers. The hints and tips below thus apply in varying measure to students, early career researchers and to more established staff.

Good practice tips:

  • See yourself as others see you – conduct an audit of your own digital footprint by Internet searching and take the opportunity to delete items that, with hindsight, seem ill-advised (but bear in mind that they could well have been replicated elsewhere).
  • Define your boundaries – establish private and professional boundaries. You can do this in various ways:
    - by checking and amending your privacy settings in each tool;
    - by having different identities in different tools or even in the same tool for different purposes;
    - by using the most appropriate tool for each purpose. For example, for professional use a range of different circles in Google+ might be more appropriate than your Facebook account.
  • Choose design over default – do not just accept that you create a digital footprint by default. Design your own digital roadmap by thinking about what kind of connections and publicity can help you in furthering your research interests and your future career.
  • Provide key information – remember that the best way to control what others see about you online is by providing high-quality information yourself.  Think about the kind of things you might want people to find easily:
    - your CV (but being cautious of risks of identity theft – see section 10, When it goes wrong);
    - examples of your work;
    - research abstracts;
    - a speaker profile to help event planners find you;
    - mentions of your work in the news;
    - presentations you have given (either slides only or with accompanying recording).
  • Use the right medium for the message – think about the best way to present these types of information via social media.  You might want to think about:
    - using keywords and hashtags;
    - breaking your achievements into bite-sized chunks and finding stories in your research data;
    - using visual tools and infographics to get your message across.
  • Be social – build networks through reciprocity.  Share and comment on other people's work and show your expertise through giving constructive advice and useful suggestions.

  • Follow UCISA (2014a) identity guidance  – “Do not allow anyone else to use your IT credentials, do not disguise your online identity and do not attempt to obtain or use anyone else’s”.  

    Social media platforms also have rules on identity, for example: “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe”.


Additional resources

Institutions should think about supporting both students and staff in the management of digital identity as part of a wider digital literacies agenda. There are many examples of good practice in this area including:



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