Sunday, September 5, 2010

Keeping the peas away from the mashed potatoes

Photo of peas by Jo Richards
If you live online, as I do, it's not easy to keep your personal life (i.e.,  Facebook postings) from contaminating your professional persona.

Or, as Amber Naslund, Director of Community at Radian6 quoted by Zachary Sniderman on Mashable in his useful article '5 Ways to Clean Up Your Social Media Identity' puts it,
"You can’t keep the peas from touching the mashed potatoes."
Does it matter?

I have been worried for some time that when it comes to social media I might not be taking sufficient care to separate the personal from the professional (or the peas from the potatoes). I don't draw a sharp line between work and play in real life either but I respect those who do and think I owe it to my colleagues to make my online writing and resources available to them without requiring them to sacrifice their privacy.

I eat my peas with honey; I've done so all my life

My use of Facebook, and later that of Twitter, started out as a a work-related experiment and only later on took on a social dimension as friends and family members found my Facebook account and joined in the game. Being something of a solitary wasp, I suspect I wouldn't have felt the need to sign up with Facebook just for the social contact. In that respect, I wouldn't miss Facebook if it disappeared tomorrow but I would miss the professional contacts I maintain through social media including Facebook, Twitter, blogging and microblogging.

So there we were at ALT-C 2007 in Nottingham. I was enjoying spending time with colleagues from the my department (the School of Physics and Astronomy @ Edinburgh) and in much the same line of work but with whom I had little contact in the ordinary run of things because I worked by myself on a project that was largely outwith the department. Could Facebook allow me to keep in contact with these colleagues whose input and support I valued?

I can now report that the experiment had a positive outcome, at least for me. Not only have I shared information of professional interest and kept in touch with people but, more importantly, I know my colleagues much better than I would otherwise have done and I have received a level of personal support that has, at times, saved my sanity.

Three years on, the project on which I was originally employed is winding down, I've been redeployed to mainstream activites and, in one of those strange quirks of fate, I now share an office with some of the people who were there at Nottingham at the start of the Facebook experiment. From my point of view at least, it's been a painless transition and I think that's largely due to the Facebook relationships I developed and maintained with my 'new' coworkers during the experiment.

It makes the peas taste funny but it keeps them on the knife

Three years is sufficient for a trial phase and my approach to the use of social media has matured. I sense a sea change in the academic use of social media and an emerging realisation of the dangers of not having an online presence - it looks downright suspicious these days if you google someone and find nothing. In addition, I contend that a professional presence is not enough - people want and expect to be able to see something of the person behind the persona.

Facebook worked for me in the days of innocence, when few of my colleagues were online, but it isn't the right tool for me now and I wouldn't recommend it to others. The big problem with Facebook is its reciprocal nature. You're welcome to look at mine but you have to accept that I get to look at yours in return. Some of my colleagues created dummy accounts to avoid giving offence by refusing to be my 'friend' on Facebook and this is a shame because I really didn't want to pry or judge but I did hope for something more personal than a waxwork stand-in.

I need a professional presence online. It's no longer an experiment, it's a requirement and I think I have to accept that some cross-contamination between the peas and the potatoes is inevitable and might even improve the palatability of both. Indeed, having very little personal information about you out there on the web may be more dangerous than having a lot. For example, if this blog post was the only piece of writing by me online, a prospective employer might be concerned about my 'solitary wasp' comment. Perhaps I wouldn't play nicely with others? As it is, there's plenty of evidence out there about my sociable and collaborative nature.

Yes, it's possible that a someone might look at my Ping profile and wonder if someone who likes everything from Bach to Boogie might lack focus (probably true). And what I would like to call a quirky sense of humour might be seen as a tendency towards flippancy (also true). But what counts is that you understand the peas and potatoes problem and are seen to be addressing it in an informed and systematic way.

Improving my table manners

I'm working my way through '5 Ways to Clean Up Your Social Media Identity'. I'm paying attention to developing my personal brand and  I've started to divide my accounts into those that are personal and those that are professional. Where the purpose of accounts has become muddled, I'll either abandon them or divide them into two.

To facilitate stealth followers (those who wish to follow without reciprocating), I pledge to add RSS feeds to my blogs and microblogs. In October I'll jump ship from Facebook to Diaspora in the hope that it will give me more options and better levels of control.

Above all, I've decided that, within reason, I'm not too worried about the peas touching the tatties. I blame the gravy.

Professional links
My LinkedIn profile
My professional Twitter account

Personal links
My personal Twitter account