How to Overcome What Scares Us About Our Online Identities

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

April 21, 2014

"If you were thinking about hiring a new faculty member in your department, how would you learn more about her?"

That is the question I’ve found most helpful whenever I begin one of the workshops I lead on my campus to help academics create and manage their digital identities. Faculty members, graduate students, and others typically respond by saying they would read the candidate’s work and talk with others in the field, but eventually someone will say, "Google her." Indeed, it’s often the first thing someone says. I then ask attendees what someone might learn if he or she were to Google them. Would they be happy with what a search-committee member, journalist, or conference organizer looking for a keynote speaker learned about their work? Would it tell the whole story?

People who attend the workshops know that a strong digital identity is important for their careers, or they wouldn’t be there. This, it turns out, is the difference between faculty members and undergraduates: Students tend to think they already know how to manage an online presence, especially their Facebook privacy. (They don’t. They really don’t.) Academics, on the other hand, know they have a lot to learn. But they do have some very specific worries about what it means to put themselves "out there" on the Internet and on social media. Among the most common fears I have heard in the years I have been giving these workshops:

"It feels like marketing." When I begin showing scholars how to raise their profiles on a Google search-results page or get attention for a recent presentation, it’s not unusual for some to frown and suggest that it feels more like "branding" than scholarship. I can empathize. When I started graduate school, I resembled John Cusack’s character, Lloyd Dobler, in Cameron Crowe’s film Say Anything. When pressed about his plans following graduation, Lloyd can say only that he doesn’t want to "sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career." I imagined that my scholarship would be both my product and my identity, and that people would judge the merit of my published ideas alone—no marketing necessary.

Despite academics' concerns about digital technology, the most motivating fear turns out to be that of becoming irrelevant.

Increasingly, however, our peers lack the time to read our work. Before the Internet, it was hard to get published, and scholars correspondingly paid close attention to academic journals and presses in their fields. But publishing is no longer a scarcity; now it is attention that is a scarce commodity, as we are bombarded with more and more information. There’s even an abundance of scholarship, from conferences, academic blogging, and social media. In this environment, we cannot trust that our work will find an audience on its own.

To this end, I suggest that scholars create their own websites, where they can share research, presentations, teaching materials, and more. Rather than wait for a busy departmental administrative assistant to update your profile on the department’s website, you can take charge of your online presence on your own schedule. Having your own site allows you to share your latest work with colleagues much more quickly than a typical journal article.

"I’m not very technical." As soon as I suggest building a website, I almost certainly trigger another concern: the "I’m not very technical" fear. When faculty and graduate students worry that they won’t be able to make a website, I’ve found that they probably attended a workshop about creating an online syllabus circa 2004. Those early experiences often involved hand-coded web pages that took weeks to produce and still looked terrible.

Fortunately, Internet publishing is much less painful this decade. Content-management systems like WordPress, Drupal, and Tumblr make it easy for academics to share their work without getting bogged down in the more infuriating details of HTML and CSS. Indeed, someone can build an entire website on in under half an hour, and even less time on Tumblr. You’ll work with tools that most closely resemble word-processing software. Many scholars find that they already have all the materials they’d want on a site: a short bio, a CV, a description of current research projects, and a list of classes and syllabi. If you don’t like how your site looks, it takes only a single click to get a new design. Many people find they actually like choosing how they will represent themselves online. And while these platforms were developed for blogging, it’s again one-click-simple to present only static pages of information. I still recommend that scholars blog every once in a while, however, as sharing current work is a great way to solidify scholarly identity.

"Someone will steal my ideas." Once I’ve alleviated concerns about the skills required to manage one’s digital identity, a more urgent fear typically arises. "But," workshop attendees ask, "if I’m sharing recent conference talks or in-process work, won’t people steal my ideas?" The protective feeling that scholars have about their research is understandable; it’s not only tightly connected to your identity but often is an important expectation of your employment. Surprisingly, it turns out that sharing work online can be a proactive way to prevent it from being stolen. By publicizing what you are engaged in, you stake a claim on your scholarship. If someone tried to reproduce your work, having a record of it online clearly establishes that it belongs to you by right and by copyright.

However, if sharing a talk or an article in progress still feels too risky, a scholar could report on the conference that she recently attended, mention that she gave a presentation, and offer a quick summary of her argument. Sharing your work is an excellent way to help others understand how your identity as a scholar is evolving in between your print publications.

"This will take up too much time." The last fear I encounter tends to be the most rational: "This sounds like it’s going to take a lot of time." And to a certain extent, that’s the truth. While it’s easy to create a website these days, maintaining your digital identity requires regular effort. Scholars need not blog daily, but they could make a goal of posting to their blogs once per month. If you include presentations, announcements of publications, and syllabi and assignments, you almost certainly have something to share every four weeks.

Even before updating their websites, though, faculty members and graduate students should take time to participate in online conversations related to their work. You should learn where your field converses—blogs, Twitter, email lists, Facebook—and join in. The Internet, it turns out, is a gift economy, and when you spend your attention on the work of others, attention eventually makes its way to your own work. Spending a few minutes on a conversation connected to your research can affect your career in positive ways, as your peers get to know you and your work better.

It is this relationship with one’s peers that brings people to the workshops I have offered for the past several years. Despite the concerns about the technology and time it takes to create a digital identity, the most motivating fear of all turns out to be that of becoming irrelevant. And in this age of rapidly shifting scholarly communication, one of the most effective ways to be a scholar is to be one online.

Brian Croxall is digital-humanities strategist at Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship and a lecturer in English. He is a frequent contributor to ProfHacker, on