A TALE OF PERSONAL BRANDING
A friend and developing businessman wrote a post a while ago on his blog questioning the purpose of social networks and it got me wondering too – are we going to so much effort purely in the hope it will help employers pick us? We’ve all heard the story of the employee that got their personal and professional life all wrong with the interface on social media, posting a complaint or drunken picture and losing their job and/or reputation, and we’ve been learning to censor our posts and internet presence but to what extent? Is our priority in social media social or professional any more?
I know that there are many articles out there about the division between your personal and professional presence on the internet. I am no professional in these matters and do not pretend to be, I am just an engineering undergraduate working on lots of different projects that have made me perhaps a little more aware of my personal branding than other students.
However I always finish reading these things believing that the lesson of the story is that we must always prioritise the professional image and branding of ourselves. Everyone else is doing it so we should all keep up if we want a fighting chance of anything.
This is the result of a shift in emphasis from the earlier days of social networking when the internet was for the personal presence, it was all about the forums and silly names and flashy icons and emoticons. No, now it is for obsessively trying to please the mysterious omnipotent anonymous ’employer’ somewhere – according to the media at least.
I have been seeing the change amongst friends, going through Facebook timelines showing the changes intone and content of their posts. One friend recently made a second Twitter account for professional appearances – with vague plans to have one for personal branding and networking and the other for grumbling and joking with friends and retweeting the observational or surreal humour that fill our timelines.
I have seen the change in myself. This time last year the only social network I had an account with was LinkedIn and only because a colleague on my Year In Industry had very helpfully advised that I better get it while I was working with people. I had never really bothered with any other social networking as it appeared like a lot of addictive unneccessary time and effort.
Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly no introvert. I have always been able to make lots of good friends and keep in touch with people on the fringes of that – I pride myself on the fact that even if I forget birthdays or consistently regular communication, I know I will always eventually remember a card or a text just to see how people are getting along. It’s just I didn’t really care about the continuous stream of meaningless information about people’s dinners and how cute their dogs are and that was all I thought social networks entailed.
This began to change when I went to the Intel ISEF competition in May. There were 1600 or so students from all around the world at this event, all amazing at science and engineering and all competing for prizes and to take advantage of all the opportunities this was presenting to us. I had worked really hard on my project that I was presenting there but progressively throughout the week I realised I felt somewhat inadequate.
It wasn’t the problem of the ‘big fish from a small pond’ experience as I was particularly confident that the shear work I had done on my project would be enough to carry me through and when I was there. Additionally the immense diversity of projects and prizes there meant that I wasn’t actually in direct competition with most of them anyway. I’m glad that my engineering abilities weren’t insignificant although I was still over-awed by the projects that some of the other people there had worked on and delighted by meeting others who were as over enthusiastic as myself!
What made feel left behind was initially the business cards. Not everyone had them but with so many people in circulation I started to remember those who had given me cards over others I had just really enjoyed talking to. Then it was looking at the social media and websites that were linked to on the card.
I began to realise that as long as I was non-existent on the internet then I was simply one of millions of cool school-age projects out there with virtually no evidence of all the cool things I was doing except my word which was only really likely to be believed by those who already knew me well. I didn’t think it was going to affect my chances of winning prizes at the fair but it was going to impact the usefulness of the fair in the longer term.
So within days of returning I had set up a Twitter account and this blog that you are currently reading. Although of course they didn’t look like they do now. It took me a few days to get used to the technicalities of both platforms, some experimenting with random pictures for backgrounds and templates. More importantly however has been the change in aims.
I began to make them both with the aim of making them purely for professional purposes. I wanted people to google me and see the vague notion of someone professional, to be taken seriously, and hard working and achieving.
This wasn’t sustainable for several reasons. Firstly I had no clear notion of what it was I was trying to brand myself as and secondly I was finding it immensely dull both trying to maintain or design this image and looking at others to learn how they do it. Yet I knew that there was nothing more irritating than finding an account or website that hadn’t been updated for a very long time but it was so time-consuming and much effort forcing myself into this work-related posting regularly. So I decided to write more personal, but professionally harmless posts.
Not only did I soon start to find this really enjoyable and found myself writing posts just because I wanted to but I also began to become very wary of those I encountered that were not actually personal. Because of my involvement with so many business things my Twitter account started to attract followers who had thousands of followers and a personal name and bio but appeared to tweet nothing but dry dull links or statements. Navigating the internet I would encounter blogs or websites of people’s portfolios or opinions that were immensely shallow and empty but very ‘professional’.
I couldn’t trust, nor had any desire to get involved with these things any more than I wanted to actively choose to follow companies that were just posting advertisements. For one thing, I knew how boring I had found it trying to write those things so what kind of people could maintain it? Did they have so much spare time to devote all the necessary effort towards just looking professional? Did they just find that kind of monotonous thing fun? Then why was there no real hint of enthusiasm in those links or statements?
I have recently started to develop plans for a startup business and this has once again brought my attention towards my personal branding. I suddenly became conscious that all the photos people had tagged me in or I had found when I joined Facebook under peer pressure to get event details from societies at university in September might not be wise because I looked a little drunk. Or the slightly grumpy tweets about a very dry structural mechanics lecture might get me into trouble.
And then I thought no. No actually I should keep them. I have never done anything particularly bad that I would really care if an employer or a party potentially interested in my startup saw. Yes I drink alcohol but only socially and never to real extremes, and never done anything stupid I really regret when under the influence. I did fall asleep in one of my lectures about structural mechanics but although I enjoyed that course less than others I have done this year, I certainly never hated it and so never said I did. I have really enjoyed all my other courses and engineering in general despite occasionally grumbling about the stress of deadlines or writing up lab reports. I am human and therefore not perfect and therefore allowed to have faults and preferences and enjoy a few drinks even if it is not going to further my career.
If I was to delete all the slightly negative things about me from the internet then I would become one of those purely professional pieces on the internet that I had become so tired of so quickly. Although these magical employers and investors looking me up on the internet have the power to make or break my career at any given time, that power doesn’t change that they are human too. They must become suspicious or bored of looking at empty, lifeless profiles supposedly of people as well.
If I was promoting the less useful or relevant sides of myself than I appreciate it could cause concern, but if they are clearly placed under personal contexts than people should clearly be able to see the distinction.
So maybe some people are doing stupid things they really regret and that would be devastating if an employer found out. Maybe they really hate their jobs and their angry rants about it on the internet would severely damage their promotional prospects. Taking them off the internet isn’t going to change the fact that you have done those things and hate your job. Change your life not just your internet presence.
So my recent reflections on personal branding and our use of social media have made me very aware of all the pressure that people are putting on us to create Jekyll and Hyde professional and personal lives on the internet. However I have also come to the conclusion that I am me and anyone that is going to do anything with me in either a professional or personal context should know that.
I reserve the right to be a real person on the internet as much as I am in real life. I’ll shift the emphasis on my traits and features from personal to professional contexts but I don’t try and pretend to be this idea of perfection that I am not.