Digital Identity Development in Higher Education

by Ed Cabellon on August 29, 2011 · 9 comments

Digital Fingerprint Graphic

As you develop workshops for your students this coming semester, consider leading a conversation about how to develop and manage one’s “Digital Identity.”  It does not surprise me when I bring up this topic with my own students that they have little idea on its personal and professional impact.  Today, I wanted to quickly share an outline of the conversation that I have with my students and hopes it inspires you to draft your own version for the students on your campus.

1.  Open with a “Social Media” Perspective Video
Since they already spend time watching online video content, opening with a clip usually puts them in a good frame of mind by looking at basic content.  The video I use most often with students is Social Media Revolution by Erik Qualman from  “Socialnomics” If this video doesn’t fit your needs, feel free to use another one from this list.

A follow up question after watching a video clip may be: “What piece of the video stood out the most for you and why?  Did anything surprise you?”

2. Start from a “Branding” Perspective
One thing students can appreciate is how this workshop & conversation could help them find a job, service opportunity, or graduate school. (Dan Schawbel, author of “Me 2.0: Building a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success“, has some great ideas on this topic if you are interested in digging deeper.)  The topic is rich with conversation opportunities, which is why I start by framing the content around building their own online professional brand.  Since their main point of entry into Social Media has been Facebook, to connect with friends and family, you need to shift their current paradigm and get them thinking more broadly.  Here are some of the points I cover:

  • Write up a 250 word bio: It is always important to have an “elevator speech” prepared, just in case you meet a perspective employer or have to write up a cover letter.  Have your students start here and if they are on Twitter, have them use their 160 character bio as a starting point. Include information such as what year they are in school, what they are studying, and any projects they are passionate about.
  • Their NEW Profile Picture: Encourage them evolve their profile picture and have someone take a high quality one of them.  They can be smiling, relaxed, and/or “in action.”  The picture should be a clear one of their face that they can put on all their online network profiles. Encourage them to use a service like Gravatar.
  • Purchase Their Name’s URL: This may be challenging for some who have common names, but an important part of claiming one’s online brand and identity is to purchase their URL.  The content of their URL may be a blog or an electronic portfolio, but in any case, it is better to own that piece of online real estate, instead of having some else own it.
  • Selecting Their Online Name: Some call it their “handle”, “username”,or “alias”, but in terms of online branding, choosing your online name is an important decision.  While my full name is “Edmund Cabellon”, most people know me as “Ed Cabellon.”  So it was a no brainer that I went with “EdCabellon” as my online name.  This way, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. all use the same online name for consistent branding.  Before making your final decision, you may want to check your online name against KnowEm to see if anyone else is already using it.
  • Create an About.Me Page: Now that you have the above all done, create an About.me page and centralize all of this content into one page.  About.me is a clean, slick look that you can personalize to reflect your professional brand in a way that you see fit.

Processing question: What piece of this is the hardest to think about and accomplish and why?

3.  Online Context and Content
Now that you have them thinking about and building their online professional brand, its time to move on to their online context and content.  The pieces above were about getting their online shells built, now its time to fill it with the digital version of their awesomeness.  Here are the things I would cover:

  • Perform a Thorough Online Search:  Ask one of your students to volunteer to be searched online.  If no one offers, then use YOU as an example.  Visit Google.com and type in the name of the person inside quotation marks (e.g. “Ed Cabellon”).  As you show them the results, ask them how many of them on the first and second pages directly relate to them.  Then, click on the “images” link on the left side of the google search page (or type in http://images.google.com) and see what images come up for that name.  Do the same thing on Bing.com as well.  It is absolutely amazing to watch their reactions, particularly if they have never used quotation marks around their name.
  • Create a Google Profile:  Encourage them to create a Google Profile and use the “Me On the Web” section to help manage the content Google provides those who search for their names.  While more companies are sprouting up trying to get you to pay for a service that will “clean up” their digital identity, Google already puts these tools in the users hands by helping them set up alerts when they are mentioned online, remove a page or site from a Google Search, and give you a direct link to report problems directly to Google.  It all starts with their Google Profile.
  • Check out MyWebCareer.com: Connecting your Facebook and/or LinkedIn profiles to MyWebCareer gives the user a basic look as to how their online identity looks and some tips on how to improve it.
  • Facilitation Questions: After doing all of this, ask them: “What community or audience are you trying to network and connect with?”; “Who are leaders in those online communities and have you reached out to make an initial connection?”; “Have they created a LinkedIn account yet? Why or why not?”; “How would they model/mirror their in-person networking conversations online?”

Processing question: “Have you ever Googled yourself before? Are you happy with the results?”

4.  Social Sharing Thoughts
After putting their brains on spin cycle, I wind them down with a few closing thoughts on “social sharing” with emphasis on moving beyond Facebook into other online networks like Twitter.  Specifically I ask about and go over:

  • Suppose a perspective employer/graduate school admissions board happened to get into your Facebook account and the read the last ten posts and looked through your tagged photos,  would you be OK with that? What does this information say about you and how could it be taken out of context?
  • Understand the role online media plays in your life.  If you are online all the time, make time to step away from it.  If you are not on it at all, find time to be on it and find its networking potential for you. Create a healthy balance.
  • As you build your online identity, take time to build your “whuffie” or online reputation/capital, otherwise known as trust.  How can people trust what you say to be true? Are you being helpful or harmful online?
  • Be authentically you.  What do I mean by that?  It means mirror your real self online.  Can it be fun to experiment and be anonymous online? Absolutely, and I encourage it from time to time to mirror your own development in real life.  However, as we continue to live more of our lives on the interwebs, it is important to maintain consistency in voice and personality in case you ever meet these people in person :-)
  • Finally, I encourage all of them to create a Twitter account for professional networking purposes.  I explain that Twitter is an “information network” that can be social, and that if used properly, could help land them opportunities they never even thought of.  I start them off with my Teaching Twitter posts and help them get connected along the way.

In closing, there is one question you must answer before you can initiate this conversation with your students: How does your own digital identity shape up?  If you have not given yourself the opportunity to go through the steps above, I recommend making the time so that you can have a richer, more meaningful conversation with your students. “Do as I say, not as I do”, does not apply here.

As more of our students live their lives online, we need to be intentional in our conversations, strengthen our own online identities, and help them think through their online decisions that have real world implications.

What else should we be teaching our students about online identity development? Should this start in college or in high school?  What are some creative programs or ideas around this topic that you have seen?
Teri Bump (@tbump) August 29, 2011 at 9:07 am

Outstanding post Ed! You always provide great information in a very user friendly format-thank you.
Re: your ?:This TEDTalk by Adam Ostrow (link below) serves as motivation/perspective for those who like to start with the end in mind.
http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_ostrow_after_your_final_status_update.html

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Niki Rudolph August 29, 2011 at 9:34 am

Ed – wonderful resources, as always. Shared them with my staff teaching first year seminars.

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Justin Camputaro September 5, 2011 at 10:19 pm

This is one of your best posts ever Ed. It is so user friendly. Folks I’ve shared this with at Virginia Tech are loving it and already planning to use it in some academic classes. A most thorough outline, totally excellent (sorry, had a Bill and Ted moment there).

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