Social media and professional identity: Part 2 (blogs & microblogs)

Welcome to Part 2 of my series on using social media to create and develop an online professional identity. Here is the full list of topics that I’m going to cover:

  • Part 1: Introduction to the internet and social media
  • Part 2: Social media, online identity and engagement (blogs and microblogs)
  • Part 3: Academic social networks (Mendeley)
  • Part 4: Academic social networks (ResearchGate)
  • Part 5: Academic social networks (Academia.edu)
  • Part 6: Getting started with social media
  • Part 7: Privacy and sharing: social media policies in healthcare

Social media, online identity and engagement

You probably have a Facebook page that you use to share family pictures and catch up with old friends. You may even use it to connect with a group of like-minded professionals, sharing experiences, resources and challenges in your work. This section will hopefully introduce you to a range of other online, social services that you may find useful. The idea is that you explore these options and play around with establishing a profile in one area or another. In each of the following sections, I’ve tried to explain in general what the service or technology is, and then give a few examples of ways in which I’ve used them in a professional context.

While the main theme of this article is to share ideas for creating and maintaining an online professional presence, bear in mind that it’s not enough to simply “be” online. The main advantage of having an online professional presence is that it allows you to interact and engage with others in your professional field. Twenty years ago, academics could only rely on the (very slow) process of publication and subsequent citation to establish an academic reputation. Now, with the affordances that the web provides, crafting a professional online identity can happen relatively quickly. However, it’s the interaction and engagement through conversation and discussion that builds credibility, rather than just “being there”. This section will discuss two of the main ways that people are engaging with each other; blogs and microblogs.

Blogs

A blog is a personal online space in which entries (called “posts”) are published in reverse chronological order (i.e. newest posts appear first) and is a combination of the words “web” and “log”. WordPress is probably the biggest blogging platform at the moment, although Blogger is another commonly used service. Prior to blogging platforms, it was challenging for individuals to post content online, as it required a knowledge of HTML and basic coding skills. With the advent of blogging tools and free content hosting, it became possible for anyone with an internet connection to post information to the web, essentially allowing anyone to be a publisher. Most modern blogging platforms allow for integration with other online services. For example, sidebar widgets can be used to display your latest tweets (see Microblogging below), your shared images on Flickr or Picasa, your LinkedIn profile, or your most recent conference presentations via Slideshare or Prezi.

I started blogging a few years ago and after a few false starts (a normal part of trying to find your own voice) I created /usr/space, where I continue to blog today. My blog is where I share my experiences of and research into clinical education. In the past, it might have taken many years – sometimes decades – to build up a reputation through publication in international journals. Now, while that aspect of developing an academic reputation is still important, you can begin a conversation with others in your field almost immediately.

A blog is often the place that professionals use to establish a first online presence, which you can think of as a space to develop a digital representation of who you are (or who you would like to be). But, some people seem to think that they should share everything they are, or everything they want the world to think they are. When you first begin blogging try to do the following:

  • Write regularly. Google gives greater relevance to blogs that are updated more frequently.
  • Be yourself and write about what is important to you.
  • Include images or embed videos. Blogs are visual mediums and good use of images help grab readers’ attention.
  • Use links to external content so that your post could be a resource for someone else.
  • Respond to comments left on your blog.
  • Write comments on the blogs of others. Blogging is about engaging in a conversation with others.
  • Use an RSS reader, like Google Reader, to keep up to date with other bloggers in your field.

One of the things that might take some getting used to is the idea of being public. Sharing with the world can be intimidating (“What if I’m not funny / smart / clever / [whatever] enough?”). My advice is to keep your posts authentic. Be honest with yourself and your audience and you’ll find that there are others out there who are experiencing the same challenges that you are, and will respond to your writing. Write for yourself, but be mindful of the fact that others will be reading it.

Here are some of the blogs that I subscribe to. Most of these are about teaching and learning, but there are some by clinical educators as well. Have a look at the last few posts from each of these bloggers, and if it looks like they’re sharing ideas that you might enjoy reading about, subscribe to them. Even better, comment on what they’ve written and share your own ideas. Remember that the whole point of blogging is to engage in a conversation with colleagues who have similar interests, and that the list below is a tiny fraction of the full conversation that is happening.

Microblogs

Microblogging is about sharing content in a very limited format. The most famous example of a microblog is probably Twitter, although Tumblr is another good example. For the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to Twitter, just because it’s what I’m most comfortable with. Twitter allows users to post “tweets” of 140 characters, and was originally designed to be used as an alternative to SMS, hence the 140 character limit. When you first start tweeting you might find yourself trying to decide what to say. It’s OK to begin by watching to see what others are talking about, but know that if you’re not actively sharing, people will be hesitant to follow you.

Some of the things that you may want to share include your own experiences of “being” whatever it is that you are. Share the challenges you face in your professional context, or the things you see in the people around you. Tell your followers about a particular insight that just came to you, or a link to a really useful / interesting / engaging / thoughtful / inspiring online resource. Take a photo of something beautiful and share it with everyone. The whole point of being on Twitter is to engage in a public space, so be careful with what you tweet. A future employer might end up reading it.

There are several desktop and mobile Twitter clients that extend the functionality of the standard web-based experience (e.g. being able to send and receive tweets from multiple accounts), and you should play around with a few until you find one that you like. Some of the more popular clients include Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Echofon and the default Twitter client for most smartphones.

Conventions that you should be familiar with when using Twitter:

  • Stream – The feed of tweets that come from the people you follow.
  • Follow – When you “follow” someone, it means that their tweets show up in your stream. You should follow people who are interesting to you, otherwise your stream very quickly becomes polluted with content that has little value for you.
  • RT – “Retweeting” is when you see a post from someone you follow and share it with everyone who follows you.
  • DM – “Direct messages” are a bit like email. They’re private and can only be sent between people who follow each other.
  • @replies – When someone addresses you or mentions you in public. Everyone can see what’s been said and you get a notification that you’ve been mentioned. The message usually begins with “@yourusername”
  • # (hashtags) – Adding a hashtag allows others to perform a search on that word or phrase, which can be really useful during conferences. In addition, you can follow ongoing conversations like #phdchat, a collection of PhD researchers who share their experiences, stories, resources and tips for staying sane.

You can sign up for a Twitter account here, and here are a few users who I think are interesting to follow, just to get you started: @thesiswhisperer, @mashable, @courosa, @danariely, @opencontent, @pgsimoes, @presentationzen, @drtonybates, @sapinker, @coolcatteacher, @giustini, @bryanalexander, @amcunningham, @cameronneylon, @francesbell, @nlafferty, @gsiemens, @sebschmoller, @downes, @jamesclay, @ryantracey, @rachaellowe

The next part of the series on using social media to develop an online professional identity will review Mendeley, one of my favourite applications on the desktop, iPad, phone and web.