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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