DH23: Personal Branding and Algorithmic Coherence

So apparently this is me… I am online (self evident I’d say), a sport, have great management, have some sort of family element, but not as much as the committees I’m on though more than the medication I take. I also have education, and legal issues. I am also more online than I am social, which is a rather damning indictment.

Ok so I’m running thoroughly behind on my DH23 Things course. I could make excuses; I could? Oh thanks! Ok well I’ve been writing an application to the British Academy, my publisher wants chapter abstracts yesterday, the contents of my house have imploded, and exploded simultaneously due to a serious lack of ‘tidy time’ and to top it all off, the family beach hut is damp. Damp I say! We should really move it further away from all that water. Also work. Have you ever read the guidelines for ERC grants? Seriously, go have a look, I’ll wait. Oh you’re back? Either it’s been three days or you didn’t read it.

So yes my commitment in time to DH23 has waned, but my spiritual commitment is still here and I’m catching up! The theme of this week’s (last week’s) DH23 Thing is ‘Building an Online Identity’. I have tinkered with this for many years, and am in fact part of the original Facebook generation; I had an account way back in the day when only University students were allowed on. It was fantastically elitist and then they let all the regular people in. Honestly you try and erect an ivory tower in virtual space and then they go and ruin it! I gave up on Facebook a while back, citing various reasons, which I still would agree with.

However having an online presence could be considered a useful marketing tool in terms of your career, and its quite likely you’ll end up with one whether you control it or not. The question then I suppose is, should you have to cultivate an online presence, just because you’ll end up with one anyway?

I have for many years run my own little springboard, http://www.jallenrobertson.com, and I am not proud of it. I made it from the ground up and updates and maintenance is not particularly simple. That’s why websites such as Flavors.me or About.me are fairly appealing. Even if you have the know how to create your own site from scratch, these services are very valuable from the convenience angle, and I plan on converting soon. These sites work as a useful springboard, consolidating all the bits that you want to present as ‘you’ in one place. I think they’re probably most useful for those of us that carry business cards, and when I say us, I mean you, because business cards would be an act indicating far more forethought and professionalism than I currently have.

An aspect of this ‘Thing’ that I’d like to take issue with however, is the focus on making yourself more ‘algorithmically coherent’. To cultivate an online presence suggests a way of ensuring that wherever you are found online, the correct ‘you’ is presented. However the difficulty here lies not in you being able to present a coherent identity, but in the algorithms behind these tools ‘correctly’ reading that coherent identity. The little graphic at the start of this post is from MIT’s ‘Personas’ project. It’s a nicely presented little tool that takes your name and hunts around to construct a summary overview of ‘you’ as the web presents you. To begin with the tool appears to be rather on the ball. It instantly found this blog and my old University of York profile and went to town mining all the information out. However the resulting graphic left a little bit to be desired, and lacked much coherence. As such the implication is that I myself lack an online coherence. I then went to Socialmention and plugged in my usual online handle, and then my full name. Little of relevance emerged, though I have discovered my handle (concocted by my 11 year old self as the character in a story I was writing) has now been appropriated into txtspk for certain urban African-American teenage subcultures. This confused the hell out of me and the result was a high level of association between myself, and basketball.

As for Google, well that fairs a little better. Plug my name in there and the first thing you get is my Linkedin profile, which wasn’t mentioned as a possible tool by DH23, but is valuable just from the sheer weight the site carries in Google’s PageRank algorithm. Then my Academia.edu page, still associated with York because if I become ‘independent, I may lose traffic because all the searches for me on Google that Academia.edu shows me include the word ‘York’. I retain it in this anachronistic state because it is still highly valuable as it holds my papers and a general overview of my research interests. Then there is a listing of everybody with my name on Ancestry.com except for me. Then it gets to this website, focusing primarily on my wacky ‘Dismantling a Remix video‘. Then there is something that is impossible to manage, people on Facebook with my name (or close enough). Neither of them are particularly bad press for me but Facebook holds such weight that it is almost (only almost) worth having a profile again just to combat the confusion. Then there’s a few pages related to videos I’ve made, a working paper on SSRN which is nice, and then finally we move to irrelevance after my Google+ account, which quite frankly, though I love Google dearly, is pretty irrelevant in itself.

So far none of these tools present me as the god of digital Sociology that I clearly (with fantastic levels of delusion) am.  So what am I going to do about this sorry state of affairs? Probably nothing, and I don’t think that’s a problem.

Ultimately, because of the ways in which these algorithmic systems operate, I believe your online presence has much more to do with the sites you are on than what you say on them. I’m not going to cleverly intertwine meta-tags into my posts, or focus on maintaining a profile across every internet space there is, or will ever be. It’s not a useful way to spend my time. I have had more feedback and contacts from the papers I’ve written, and the things that I’ve made, than from any blog, social network profile, or Twitter account. It may seem odd coming from someone so entwined with contemporary technology but I don’t think trying to fit ourselves into the algorithmic framework of the tools that currently exist is particularly valuable. There are academics out there that cultivate their online presence with daily posts, minute-by-minute tweets and by splashing themselves on every site there is. Much of it appears to me to be brand management, the marketing of an image that is a placeholder for you. I’m going to go on the pejorative here and say that I find it dehumanising. Branding is ultimately the reduction of something highly complex, down to a message, a few key terms that sum something up. Perfect for algorithms, lousy for people.

Rather than focusing on your brand, maybe you should focus on what these platforms can do to share your passion for what you do, and share your work. The focus should be on what you can actually do, rather than the cultivation of a perfect, algorithmically honed illusion. Put your effort into the content, and let your persona build itself.

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DH23: Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

Last I left you I was off to OrgCon, to become relatively advantaged in my knowledge of OrgCon. It was a great little event: Corey Doctorow looks just as be-spectacled in real life as he does in his author photos, and Lawrence Lessig genuinely moved me with his top class oration on corruption and lobbying. I also got to talk shop with Prof. Eric Faden, creator of ‘A Fair(Y) Use Tale’. What do you do when you are concerned that a lot of your infographics contain other people’s brands and logos? According to Prof. Faden, Lawyer up. I have to admit I haven’t taken that advice just yet.

Since then much has occured. I got my PhD and immediately changed all bank cards to ensure the title ‘Dr.’ was highly prominent. Those book proposals I was knocking out in November managed to hit something and I got a contract with Palgrave Macmillan. Radio silence then ensued as I have spent the last 6 months plugging away to get it in by my deadline, which I did with much grace, aplomb, and the bare minimum of anxiety attacks. More info should follow in the coming months.

Also shortly after the book contract got signed I ended up with a tidy little position at Cambridge University. I am currently managing the Faculty of Economics’ research grants and am proud to say that, as of yet, we are not blacklisted by any of the major research councils, so clearly I’m doing ok.

With that background done and dusted we come to the point of this post. As a privilege of getting to knock about one of the UK’s greatest Universities I get to hear about and attend rather interesting events. As an ‘independent academic’ such as myself this kind of thing cannot be sniffed at. So today I took advantage and enrolled myself in a course run by Cambridge’s Digital Humanities Network called DH23Things. The course looks at the impact of digital technologies on academic life and how we can use them in digital research. Personally I just went along at first to find out how to make Redditors answer my darn survey questions, but I am highly suggestible and suddenly found myself filling in the sign up sheet.

DH23Things

So here I am, and this is my assignment for ‘Thing One’ of the six ‘Thing’ programme. Incidentally I greatly enjoy a course structure that refers to its parts as ‘Things’. Especially as whenever Thing One or Thing Two is mentioned my mind drifts to the world of Dr. Seuss, which can only enhance the experience.

Part A of this task was to set up a blog, which I was quite relieved to find I had already done and been contributing to erratically for many years. Check.

Part B is to reflect on the value and role of the blog to an early career academic. Well perhaps the interesting element of it all for me is that I am *not* an early career academic. As a Temporarily inconvenienced academic I currently reside on the other side of the glass, nose smooshed up looking at all the people doing cool academic things. However my blog allows me to cultivate an academic identity, a beacon to loudly (and politely) declare ‘I am not quite done yet!’. My blog operates to present – a variant of – my academic self.

If you look around you’ll find the various resources I made during my PhD. The infographics, the diagrams of internet network structures, the frankly quite barmy deconstruction of a Girl Talk mashup that I made because at York, PhD students have far too much time on their hands. You’ll also find my research profile, where I list my academic interests, perhaps more as an affirmation to myself than as a source of information for others. Finally my virtual bookshelf is just a smorgasborg of identity statements. Just like people present their physical media as a statement of self, mine gets represented here for much the same reason: and of course morally I couldn’t display them on my virtual shelves if I hadn’t read all of them.

However as you may have already noted, professionalism is not something I like to encourage here, thus the blog being a ‘variant’ of my academic self. As well as cultivating my academic identity during my professional academic abscense, this blog is also a liberating experience. Writing a blog, when the majority of my writing time is otherwise spent on academic texts, allows me to exercise my writing ‘voice’. Unlike ‘proper’ academic articles and books where precision rather than tone and style is key, here I can be less restrained in my approach. In an earlier post I mentioned a couple of books that I like to refer to as ‘Academic Therapy’; Writing for Social Scientists by Becker and From Dissertation to Book by Germano. Both these writers urge you to drop the affectless dry tone of academic authority, and to find your own writing voice. It is here where I let that voice out to see what it sounds(?) like. It is so easy to let the editor on your shoulder second guess every sentence you type in an article. The freedom to write in a less authoriative, less structured space allows you the opportunity to write both without constraint, yet also for an audience. This forces me to consider what I write; to re-draft, restructure and re-phrase, but allows me the freedom to be informal. I may well be admonished for my rather flippant approach to my writing online. Indeed potentially millions (it’s not millions) of people could read this, and form an opinion of me that was not one of great esteem and educated authority. However studious research has been done and all signs do point to academics also being real people. I am of the opinion that we should not attempt to quash this discovery.

I have pondered the idea of using this space professionally to publish my work outside of the official streams of journal publication. However it is a sad state of affairs that have conspired to make me not Lev Manovich. I can’t put my ideas and articles online for free, because as much as I’d love to, the REF directs my hand. Publish or perish means that even though I am a paid up member of the Creative Commons movement, I cannot, for the sake of my academic career, give up such things for free; at least not until after the publishers have got their hands on them and let them out of embargo. Regardless there are sites such as SSRN which do a much better job of promoting my rather shaky working papers.

Whereas before I have been disgruntled at such a restriction on my freedom to self publish, now I question why I would want to. This space has morphed away from being a place for the professional academic in me. Of course when I started this blog (and in fact I ported over a lot of my articles from an even older one) I had dreams of cultivating a great reputation for my insight and prowess in my fields of study. If you look at my earliest posts, I wrote with a tone that was intended to have (though failed to achieve) great authority. However as I’ve become more comfortable with my writing, and less concerned with the medium as a substiute for the academic paper, I consider it a more playful space where I can relax with my own style. In the past I have noticed many colleagues who start blogs begin with a similar cautious, self-protective tone that implies a person uncomfortable and concerned with the image they may be portraying. Many of them lost interest because for them the experience wasn’t fun. Perhaps they would have lasted longer if they had injected some silliness into their work.

The medium itself leans well to this playful attitude. It allows the inclusion of other media and the interspersal of links out into the rest of the net. As a big fan of using media to present my research, it’s a great place to house all those videos, animations, diagrams and presentations I produce. Sometimes you can even force these upon readers by slipping them into the text so surrepttiously

that no-one even notices. These multimedia interjections may be informational at times, but they can also enhance a reader’s insight into the world of the writer themelves. In the case of this post, links and images have been used to pepper the assignment with childish pop culture references. A perhaps misguided act considering this post is meant to be submitted to a group of Cambridge based humanities researchers who, if they are even still reading, are still wondering when the insightful part of this post is going to happen.

I can’t promise anything of that magnitude, but what I can provide is the observations of someone who has struggled with the question of what to do with his academic ‘professional’ blog. These are the things I would tell myself back when I first began.

  1. Perhaps counter-intuitively make the blog about what you want it to be, not about what you believe the audience wants. It’s easier to write in your own framework than one constructed from a haphazard perception of who your readers should be.
  2. Links! Lots of links. Make them useful of course. Include links to papers, books, other insightful posts or well written news stories. But also don’t forget to maybe drop in the irreverent and the silly every now and again. It encourages people to explore.
  3. Write the first draft like no-one is going to read it: Then edit it because you just did.
  4. Ultimately the blog should be your space, your ideas, your voice, your comfort zone. It is the space where your academic identity can be defined and presented to the world. It should be cultivated of course, show the side that you want to show, but don’t be concerned if that side is not all professional.

And so ends my contribution to ‘Thing One’ of DH23Things. I sincerely hope that you enjoyed my contribution, and that I have not been kicked off of your wonderful course.