How to Curate Your Digital Identity as an Academic
January 05, 2015
searched my name on the web would first encounter the opinions of a
disgruntled Midwestern undergraduate who lambasted me for being an
unfair, unprofessional, and essentially ignorant professor.
Oddly enough, the student was angry because I had begun incorporating
Twitter into the classroom. I was among the early advocates of using
the social-media site in teaching, especially in large lecture-based
courses. While many of the 120 students in my introductory film course
embraced the Twitter assignments I devised, a handful revolted,
including this particular student. He took to the Internet to express
his belief that social media had no place in the college classroom, and
any professor who thought otherwise was not only oblivious to Twitter’s
intent (It’s for socializing, not learning!), but also graded her
students unreasonably. In his diatribe, he called out my name, school
affiliation, and the classes I taught.
Because I attended a graduate school focused on technology and
digital media (even for those of us in the humanities), I’ve had an
Internet presence since 1999. Teaching assistants in my Ph.D. program
were required to, at the very least, post their syllabi online. Our
advisers also encouraged us to have our own websites (or pages), which
we rudimentarily made via software like Microsoft FrontPage (1996) and
Netscape Composer (1997). So I’ve been aware of the need to shape one’s
digital identity or online persona for quite a while now.
But of course, the Internet changed significantly between when I left
graduate school in 1999 and my student’s public critique of me in
2009—see, for example: Google rankings, social media, sitemaps, shifts
in search algorithms, robots, crawlers, and search-engine optimization
in general. The Internet has changed even from 2009 to today. Suffice it
to say, that undergraduate’s tirade is now buried deep in the web.
Nowadays, the first item to appear when anyone plugs my name into a
search engine is my personal website, followed by my social-media
presence, and then direct links to the mainstream publications for which
So how might academics—particularly
those without tenure, published books, or established freelance
gigs—avoid having their digital identities taken over by the negative or
After all, no one wants to be associated almost exclusively with
blogs of disgruntled students, Tumblr and Twitter hashtags like
#IHateMyProfessor, Facebook hate groups such as "I No Longer Fear Hell, I Took a Course With Aruna Mitra,"
and other potentially contentious sites like Rate My Professors. As an
academic or would-be academic, you need to take control of your public
persona and then take steps to build and maintain it. With drag-and-drop
websites, automatic publishing tools like IFTTT (short for "If this, then that"), and social-media sharing, this task is not necessarily as time-consuming as it seems.
Take control. In a nutshell, if you do not have a
clear online presence, you are allowing Google, Yahoo, and Bing to
create your identity for you. As a Lifehacker post
on this topic once noted: "You want search engine queries to direct to
you and your accomplishments, not your virtual doppelgangers."
An online search for academics without strong digital identities
almost always yields two initial results: first, the name of their
institution or department, and, second, their webpage on Rate My
Professors. While the latter is not inherently bad news for all
academics, many will likely cringe at what’s written about them there,
whether justified or not.
The best advice: Search your own name, particularly if you’re going
on the job market and perhaps also if you’re going up for tenure. See
what committees will see when they engage with you digitally.
After that, buy a domain name ending in .com or .net. That purchase will run you about $15 a year, from companies like HostGator, Network Solutions, or Namecheap.
In building your website or landing page, you might include typical
sections like About Me, Courses, CV, Blog, and Contact. An About Me page
should feature your name, a bio, and a personal picture or your
universal avatar, which I’ll discuss below. This page or blurb should
offer visitors a quick glimpse of who you are—and whether or not they’ve
found the right "Professor Smith" or "Dr. Jackson." Keep in mind that
the About Me page is also usually one of the highest-ranked. For random
visitors, hiring committees, and potential students, it is also nice to
feature a list of your current and/or past courses. Links to PDF
versions of your syllabi work here as well. The same goes for the CV
page. Some scholars prefer having online versions of their CVs, with
links to their degree-granting institutions, books, publications, and
awards. But again, an up-to-date PDF version is just as acceptable.
Many scholars also include their own blog(s) on their websites. Some
of those blogs are academic in nature, an extension of a scholar’s
research and interests, while others are more personal. Either way, be
sure you’re comfortable with what you’re putting out there.
Finally, include a contact section. Most website builders have
embeddable forms for this so your actual email address won’t be floating
around the Internet.
Today virtually every professional person should have a website. With easy, drag-and-drop site-builders like Weebly, Squarespace, and Wix, there’s no excuse not to. Even WordPress and Tumblr
allow users to create sites relatively quickly. Moreover, each of those
sites has free plans, so graduate students and adjuncts on a tight
budget can still participate.
If an entire website is not your game, then at least create a landing page at (the also free) About.me, which, again, is better than doing nothing at all to shape your online persona.
Build a network. Now that you have created a webpage
about your professional persona, link to it everywhere you can,
especially in the bio sections of your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr,
LinkedIn, Vitae, and/or Google accounts. Those social-media sites rank
highly in online searches, so create an account with them, whether or
not you plan to use it consistently. Even a social-media site like
Academia.edu, which I rarely visit and don’t find helpful in connecting
with others, is the sixth result in my name search.
As a New York Times blogger advised:
"Piggyback off websites whose pages rank high in Google.
Social-networking sites are great for this. … Simply park your profile,
add the necessary amount of content, and make sure to adjust the
settings to public view where appropriate so that your profile can be
crawled and indexed by Google."
Google’s and Bing’s Webmaster Tools, and Yahoo’s Search and Directory
Submissions allow website creators to submit their new site’s URL to
major search engines.
Because of my digital identity—specifically, my presence on social media, and certain blog posts
I’ve written—opportunities have come my way that probably would not
have otherwise. I’ve been contacted to do radio gigs, interviews,
commissioned publications, podcasts, guest-speaker talks, and local TV
spots. I’ll use a word of advice from Forbes
to reiterate: "Most websites give you the option of linking to other
social-media sites. Do this. It will make your online presence
Practice uniformity. You want your digital identity
to be consistent. To that end, choose a picture of yourself—an actual
photograph, an avatar, or perhaps an image that conveys your field
(e.g., the symbol for pi, tap shoes, Freud’s face)—and upload it
everywhere you’ve linked to your website. Note to those who use
WordPress and/or comment on WordPress blogs: Visit Gravatar for a "Globally Recognized Avatar" that will appear across your posts, sites, and blogs.
The same thing goes for your name and biographical information. Be
sure they are mostly consistent from site to site. If you have an extra
two minutes between grading papers, tailor the information to each site.
For example, on my homepage, my bio reads: "PhD. Film, Shakespeare, TV. Child of pop culture. Advocate of social media. Gene Kelly junkie. Co-editor of Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. Buy now!"
There, "Gene Kelly junkie" links to a blog post
that explains why I am a fan of the song-and-dance man, and "Buy now!"
takes visitors to Amazon so they may view (and purchase!) my anthology.
But on Twitter my bio
reads slightly differently, with internalized Twitter links to both my
book and Seinfeld: "PhD. Film, Shakespeare, TV. Child of pop culture.
Advocate of social media. Gene Kelly junkie. Co-editor of
@LocatingShak. Teacher of @SeinfeldTV & @WalkingDead_AMC."
As with your CV, you should keep your online persona up to date.
Speaking of remaining current, for those concerned with the
aesthetics of their digital identity, don’t forget to change with the
times. At present, websites and blogs have gone minimalist. In vogue are
sites using a great deal of white space as well as huge images as seen
on Tumblr themes Big Guy and Huge, and WordPress’s Harmonic. Also popular now are one-page websites, which you can create free via Strikingly.
Having a responsive (i.e., mobile-ready) online presence is important, too, since more than half of digital traffic
now comes from mobile devices and through mobile apps. Most of the
site creators and social- media platforms I’ve listed above have
responsive options, if they’re not automatically responsive themselves.
Monitor yourself. To monitor your digital identity, it’s wise to create a Google Alert and a Google Scholar Alert
for your name and website. For Google Scholar, you might also include
searches for some of your specific writings and studies. That way,
you’ll be made aware of anything published online—well, anything Google
crawls—that includes your name, website, and/or publications. (One Forbes contributor has argued that IFTTT surpasses Google Alerts, although I’ve not tried the service in that way.)
Writing for Moveable Type’s blog,
Robert Minton asks us to think about the possibilities that a personal
website and self-created digital identity bring. Again, as a graduate
student in 1999, with the software I had, I was able to upload to the
Internet mostly text-based information: simple handouts, directions, a
CV. Now, of course, we can share photos, videos, testimonials,
downloadable newsletters, PowerPoint or Keynote presentations—in short,
anything we’ve created and are proud of.
Don’t forget this as well: Creating and maintaining an online
presence "demonstrates your proficiency in navigating and understanding
the modern web," Minton writes. "It’s one thing to flaunt your technical
savvy in a bulleted list of skills. It’s another to be able to show off
a website you’ve created and managed on your own."
How to Curate Your Digital Identity as an Academic - The Chronicle of Higher Education