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Monday Musings: Social Media for Academics

Monday, June 20, 2011

Once upon a time, before facebook and twitter, we all had walls. I’m guessing my online strategy (if you could call it that) circa 2005  was pretty standard. I had a professional website with my resume and such, and used my email address from my school (and later that year when I got my first library gig, my work email) for all professional correspondence, blog replies, etc. Separate from that, often under pseudonyms, was my online life, as I’d had a fairly rich and nerdy one since the early ’90s. Neither contradicted the other, each was just irrelevant to the other. Work was work and life was life and never the twain would meet. But somewhere between being talked onto twitter by my friend Nicole, becoming a librarian in one of Second Life’s better-known Steampunk worlds (and co-presenting on that experience via Skype at Internet Librarian), and buying an iPhone, things got…blurry.  

The work/life binary, like most binaries, is at least partially an artificial construction. We constantly make decisions in each realm due to influences of other. And every time we share something personal woth a “work friend” or check our email on a sunday afternoon, that line blurs. Each of us needs to find a way to navigate that interplay in our online lives. For me, a lot of it goes back to the notion of friendships having ‘levels’, which most of us grasp intuitively but which I’ve seen outlined more succintly here and here. Like most earthlings, there are certain things I only share with certain people in certain contexts, and that’s as it should be. But at the same time, a little personality is helpful in networking, both in the F2F and online realms. Letting your hair down a bit can actually be good for your mental health and your career. It can also help others, in a way I’ll get to at the end of this post.

My new favorite blogger the Thesis Whisperer has been doing a series on using social media for networking, and I probably agree with 90% of what’s been said there. I have a similar approach to my blog, which is probably the most ‘professional’ of my personal online channels. My posts are almost exclusively library or higher ed focused, though they do generally tend more toward the practical than the theoretical (another binary that could use some questioning, but that’s another post that shall be written another time). My Twitter account, while a bit more personal early on, has evolved in a similar manner. This wasn’t any sort of professional decision so much as a simple matter of time: Twitter is possibly THE prime example of information overload, and even with a consciously restricted following list (<200) plus 3 or so hashtags, I struggle even to keep up with work-related content and shamelessly drop out for weeks at a stretch when life gets busy. Facebook, though, is a different animal, and my practices there are changing a bit.

When I first joined, I really just friended my closest online and offline friends, family, and such–not much over 50 people, really. Most of my updates were more along the lines of random musings on this and that from all areas of my life. And then more professional colleagues started sending friend requests. I worried for a bit, then accepted a few of the ones I saw as friends as well as colleagues. It turned out that they were posting the same random crap I was, and nobody cared! In fact, it was kind of neat to hear about their personal lives in much the same manner as we might catch up during lunch before a COIL meeting. Early on in my libblogging days I think I once posted something about social networking along the lines of “Never post anything online under your own name that you don’t want your mom or your boss to read.” Both my mom and my boss are on facebook and read this blog, and I am still both gainfully employed and invited to thanksgiving dinner. That quip still holds, but maybe it’s time we all gave our moms and our bosses a tad more credit and lightened up a little. 

All this, of course, is coming from a straight white middle-class female who deliberately chose a feminine noncompetitive and collaborative profession where the occasional bits of personal sharing aren’t just tolerated, they’re practically de rigeur. I am privileged to be able to make some personal disclosures without professional repercussions, though the rules are a bit different for ladies, as has been noted here and elsewhere recently. Only you know how much of yourself you can and should bring to your professional image. However, based on reading and experiences I’ve had in this summer’s diversity class, I’m going to close with two potential arguments for being more ‘out’ about your personal quirks in a professional space, particularly in the higher ed world.

First, while talking about oneself nonstop gets old fast, most professionals’ problems in this area lie in being too reserved rather than not reserved enough. Being open when you’re with trusted colleagues and when it’s appropriate to the conversation helps you strengthen connections and build an even tighter working and personal friendship. Taking the first step by asking for help or sharing a story pertinent to their own situation can even be a great help to your friend, who may also be interested in deepening your alliance but is timid about taking the risk.  While it’s neither practical or desireable to have too many of these tight connections, they are also the kinds of relationships that can lead to exciting projects and new opportunities.

More importantly, we all are helping to train a diverse population in the best ways to succeed personally and professionally in a diverse world. The best way for each of them to reach their goals is for them to become comfortable in their own differences, and the differences of others. If educators model the reality that they are human beings as well, while retaining appropriate distance and authority, it can have the pleasant side effect of calling the definition of “normality” into question for our students, assuming such a thing even exists. Our students and the society they live in will be the stronger for it, and continue to change in ways that enable more people to lead happier and more productive lives.

An earlier version of this post appeared at The Infoliterate University.
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