AHA Online

Managing Your Digital Self

Vanessa Varin, January 2014

Self- Portrait by Rick Doble (bit.ly/1d2M7Wv). Effects created with photography, shot under available light, not computer graphics. (bit.ly/1d2M7Wv).Googling yourself—­also known as egosurfing, vanity searching, and egogoogling—­may seem like an act of narcissism, as evidenced by its synonyms. It will, however, for better or worse, give you a sense of your digital footprint in the world, and tell you whether your privacy settings for some of your social media sites are sound.

Last month I discussed the many ways search engines are growing in intelligence and scope, but I skipped over one still-­experimental avenue. Search programmers for Google and Bing are actively looking at how to index and display Facebook status updates, tweets, and discussion threads in search results. If someone were to Google the phrase “Abraham Lincoln civil war,” for example, they would not only retrieve a number of websites, images, and videos, they would also retrieve a selection of discussion posts, tweets, and social posts related to the query. Programmers hope that presenting social media conversations in search results will offer a more complete overview of the topic. Given that most social media profiles are public by default (and privacy settings are subject to change), a large majority of social media matter is potentially available to be retrieved at any moment in a search, regardless of whether the user originally intended for it to be public.

In addition to these developments, Facebook recently announced (rather quietly) that it was discontinuing a user option that allowed people to hide their profiles in search queries. A number of people, both in the history discipline and in the wider world, do take advantage of this option in order to avoid having their students or work colleagues discover personal information. Users who originally signed up for and maintained Facebook accounts on the basis that they would remain virtually undetectable by strangers outside their network are no longer invisible.

What does all of this mean? It proves that it is necessary to Google yourself, and do it regularly, not for vanity’s sake but to manage and police your online footprint so you know what information about you is public. You can and should take advantage of the number of privacy options available for each media platform, but they change just as quickly as the technology supporting them does, and we receive little to no notice. Simply Googling yourself and setting up a Google alert for variations of your name are the first steps toward managing yourself digital self and ensuring that you are aware of what is being published about you online. Even if you grew up as a digital native, this habit does not come easily, but it is important.

The main reason to keep tabs on your digital self is to have some modicum of control over your search engine profile. Search engines, by and large, are predictable, and it’s relatively easy to figure out how and why they rank some of your personal social media sites over others. If you are serious about building a digital footprint that allows you to be visible in all the right ways, there are a number of strategies and tips that allow you to work with search engines, instead of working against them.

Creating a Digital Home Base

The best approach to pushing your online presence further up in search results is to make a home base that links to all of your social media profiles and online content. Even if you prefer to keep some of these social media properties private, you are actually helping tip off Google to which sites are associated to you specifically, so they show up higher in a Google search of your name. A blog or website that uses a web address with your name included in the URL (such as www.mynamehere.com) can help you appear at the top of the search results and makes it more likely for a user who has Googled your name to end up on a page you have curated and have complete control over.

Don’t want to go through the hassle of hosting a blog or website? AHA members have the option of creating an online profile, akin to a website with blogging functionality attached. Members should simply visit communities.historians.org, log in using their MyAHA log-­in credentials. Once they are logged in, members are directed to their profile, where they can link each of their social media properties (including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn), add a bio (which is particularly great for Google), upload a CV, and add information about their honors and awards, professional associations, and job history. The more information you add to your profile, the higher the page will likely rank in a search result of your name and associated keywords.

There are alternatives to AHA Communities. Google and Yahoo offer public profiles users can adopt for free and use. If your profession is related to the history discipline, however, it makes sense to host your digital hub among a network of like-­minded professionals, making it easier for them to find your profile and research interests in order to network, form panels, and share scholarship.

Don’t shy away from social media sites. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu have enormous clout with search engines, and maintaining profiles on those sites will guarantee that you will have at least some visibility online (and bolster your home base site if you add links between the two). The key with social media sites is to regularly update when appropriate, especially when the content directly relates to your professional life. If you have a CV posted on your home base, have a list of talks on Academia.edu, or a list of relevant skills on LinkedIn, be sure to update that content regularly so that visitors have an accurate understanding of your professional progress.

In the end, you may find that creating and maintaining a digital persona will open up new and different professional networks and inspire another creative outlet for your research and teaching interests, as many historians in our field have. So while we may yearn for simpler times when we had only one professional persona to worry about, we need to balance our multiple personae with practical strategies that acknowledge the vast and rapid ways that the web is changing our private and professional lives.

—Vanessa Varin is the AHA’s assistant editor, web and social media.