In 2009, anyone who searched my name on the web would first encounter the opinions of a disgruntled Midwestern undergraduate who lambasted me for being an unfair, unprofessional, and essentially ignorant professor.
Oddly enough, the student was angry because I had begun incorporating Twitter into the classroom. I was among the early advocates of using the social-media site in teaching, especially in large lecture-based courses. While many of the 120 students in my introductory film course embraced the Twitter assignments I devised, a handful revolted, including this particular student. He took to the Internet to express his belief that social media had no place in the college classroom, and any professor who thought otherwise was not only oblivious to Twitter’s intent (It’s for socializing, not learning!), but also graded her students unreasonably. In his diatribe, he called out my name, school affiliation, and the classes I taught.
Because I attended a graduate school focused on technology and digital media (even for those of us in the humanities), I’ve had an Internet presence since 1999. Teaching assistants in my Ph.D. program were required to, at the very least, post their syllabi online. Our advisers also encouraged us to have our own websites (or pages), which we rudimentarily made via software like Microsoft FrontPage (1996) and Netscape Composer (1997). So I’ve been aware of the need to shape one’s digital identity or online persona for quite a while now.
But of course, the Internet changed significantly between when I left graduate school in 1999 and my student’s public critique of me in 2009—see, for example: Google rankings, social media, sitemaps, shifts in search algorithms, robots, crawlers, and search-engine optimization in general. The Internet has changed even from 2009 to today. Suffice it to say, that undergraduate’s tirade is now buried deep in the web. Nowadays, the first item to appear when anyone plugs my name into a search engine is my personal website, followed by my social-media presence, and then direct links to the mainstream publications for which I’ve written.
So how might academics—particularly those without tenure, published books, or established freelance gigs—avoid having their digital identities taken over by the negative or the uncharacteristic?
After all, no one wants to be associated almost exclusively with blogs of disgruntled students, Tumblr and Twitter hashtags like #IHateMyProfessor, Facebook hate groups such as "I No Longer Fear Hell, I Took a Course With Aruna Mitra," and other potentially contentious sites like Rate My Professors. As an academic or would-be academic, you need to take control of your public persona and then take steps to build and maintain it. With drag-and-drop websites, automatic publishing tools like IFTTT (short for "If this, then that"), and social-media sharing, this task is not necessarily as time-consuming as it seems.
Take control. In a nutshell, if you do not have a clear online presence, you are allowing Google, Yahoo, and Bing to create your identity for you. As a Lifehacker post on this topic once noted: "You want search engine queries to direct to you and your accomplishments, not your virtual doppelgangers."
An online search for academics without strong digital identities almost always yields two initial results: first, the name of their institution or department, and, second, their webpage on Rate My Professors. While the latter is not inherently bad news for all academics, many will likely cringe at what’s written about them there, whether justified or not.
The best advice: Search your own name, particularly if you’re going on the job market and perhaps also if you’re going up for tenure. See what committees will see when they engage with you digitally.
In building your website or landing page, you might include typical sections like About Me, Courses, CV, Blog, and Contact. An About Me page should feature your name, a bio, and a personal picture or your universal avatar, which I’ll discuss below. This page or blurb should offer visitors a quick glimpse of who you are—and whether or not they’ve found the right "Professor Smith" or "Dr. Jackson." Keep in mind that the About Me page is also usually one of the highest-ranked. For random visitors, hiring committees, and potential students, it is also nice to feature a list of your current and/or past courses. Links to PDF versions of your syllabi work here as well. The same goes for the CV page. Some scholars prefer having online versions of their CVs, with links to their degree-granting institutions, books, publications, and awards. But again, an up-to-date PDF version is just as acceptable.
Many scholars also include their own blog(s) on their websites. Some of those blogs are academic in nature, an extension of a scholar’s research and interests, while others are more personal. Either way, be sure you’re comfortable with what you’re putting out there.
Finally, include a contact section. Most website builders have embeddable forms for this so your actual email address won’t be floating around the Internet.
Today virtually every professional person should have a website. With easy, drag-and-drop site-builders like Weebly, Squarespace, and Wix, there’s no excuse not to. Even WordPress and Tumblr allow users to create sites relatively quickly. Moreover, each of those sites has free plans, so graduate students and adjuncts on a tight budget can still participate.
If an entire website is not your game, then at least create a landing page at (the also free) About.me, which, again, is better than doing nothing at all to shape your online persona.
Build a network. Now that you have created a webpage about your professional persona, link to it everywhere you can, especially in the bio sections of your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Vitae, and/or Google accounts. Those social-media sites rank highly in online searches, so create an account with them, whether or not you plan to use it consistently. Even a social-media site like Academia.edu, which I rarely visit and don’t find helpful in connecting with others, is the sixth result in my name search.
As a New York Times blogger advised: "Piggyback off websites whose pages rank high in Google. Social-networking sites are great for this. … Simply park your profile, add the necessary amount of content, and make sure to adjust the settings to public view where appropriate so that your profile can be crawled and indexed by Google."
Google’s and Bing’s Webmaster Tools, and Yahoo’s Search and Directory Submissions allow website creators to submit their new site’s URL to major search engines.
Because of my digital identity—specifically, my presence on social media, and certain blog posts I’ve written—opportunities have come my way that probably would not have otherwise. I’ve been contacted to do radio gigs, interviews, commissioned publications, podcasts, guest-speaker talks, and local TV spots. I’ll use a word of advice from Forbes to reiterate: "Most websites give you the option of linking to other social-media sites. Do this. It will make your online presence stronger."
Practice uniformity. You want your digital identity to be consistent. To that end, choose a picture of yourself—an actual photograph, an avatar, or perhaps an image that conveys your field (e.g., the symbol for pi, tap shoes, Freud’s face)—and upload it everywhere you’ve linked to your website. Note to those who use WordPress and/or comment on WordPress blogs: Visit Gravatar for a "Globally Recognized Avatar" that will appear across your posts, sites, and blogs.
The same thing goes for your name and biographical information. Be sure they are mostly consistent from site to site. If you have an extra two minutes between grading papers, tailor the information to each site. For example, on my homepage, my bio reads: "PhD. Film, Shakespeare, TV. Child of pop culture. Advocate of social media. Gene Kelly junkie. Co-editor of Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. Buy now!"
There, "Gene Kelly junkie" links to a blog post that explains why I am a fan of the song-and-dance man, and "Buy now!" takes visitors to Amazon so they may view (and purchase!) my anthology.
But on Twitter my bio reads slightly differently, with internalized Twitter links to both my book and Seinfeld: "PhD. Film, Shakespeare, TV. Child of pop culture. Advocate of social media. Gene Kelly junkie. Co-editor of @LocatingShak. Teacher of @SeinfeldTV & @WalkingDead_AMC."
As with your CV, you should keep your online persona up to date.
Speaking of remaining current, for those concerned with the aesthetics of their digital identity, don’t forget to change with the times. At present, websites and blogs have gone minimalist. In vogue are sites using a great deal of white space as well as huge images as seen on Tumblr themes Big Guy and Huge, and WordPress’s Harmonic. Also popular now are one-page websites, which you can create free via Strikingly.
Having a responsive (i.e., mobile-ready) online presence is important, too, since more than half of digital traffic now comes from mobile devices and through mobile apps. Most of the site creators and social- media platforms I’ve listed above have responsive options, if they’re not automatically responsive themselves.
Monitor yourself. To monitor your digital identity, it’s wise to create a Google Alert and a Google Scholar Alert for your name and website. For Google Scholar, you might also include searches for some of your specific writings and studies. That way, you’ll be made aware of anything published online—well, anything Google crawls—that includes your name, website, and/or publications. (One Forbes contributor has argued that IFTTT surpasses Google Alerts, although I’ve not tried the service in that way.)
Writing for Moveable Type’s blog, Robert Minton asks us to think about the possibilities that a personal website and self-created digital identity bring. Again, as a graduate student in 1999, with the software I had, I was able to upload to the Internet mostly text-based information: simple handouts, directions, a CV. Now, of course, we can share photos, videos, testimonials, downloadable newsletters, PowerPoint or Keynote presentations—in short, anything we’ve created and are proud of.
Don’t forget this as well: Creating and maintaining an online presence "demonstrates your proficiency in navigating and understanding the modern web," Minton writes. "It’s one thing to flaunt your technical savvy in a bulleted list of skills. It’s another to be able to show off a website you’ve created and managed on your own."