When I first started using the nascent Internet back in 1992 (How many of you were even alive – or at least out of Legos – by then? Raise ’em up!), there was little I could do to interact with it. Most content was static and commenting barely existed. There were very few “publishers”, and they were sharply skewed toward academics and others with access to University computer networks.
There were, however, some content islands. I was a member of Prodigy and later CompuServe, and each had some places where one could express one’s self. As I remember, other than the early forms of chat rooms, there were discussions about stocks and some other investments, at least.
These content islands absolutely couldn’t support any crossover. Anything I posted in one was never going to be seen in another, and all of us thought that anonymity or identity walling was the way it would just be forever. (Sure, smarter people than I and pundits knew it would change, perhaps, but I’m a member of the unclean masses.)
Forward to the late 1990s, and there was an explosion of content islands as part of the Internet bubble. I worked for a company at the time called ArsDigita, and one of the things we did was help companies build their content islands, either by using our open source ArsDigita Community System (ACS) toolkit (a descendant of which is still available as OpenACS) or by hiring us to build them for them. One of the main goals for Internet sites was to make them “sticky”, meaning to increase the time someone would spend on them. A great lever to pull to make that happen was to create a community aspect for the site, and that’s exactly what ACS and those of us on the consulting staff tried to achieve. Make it interactive, and the eyeballs would stick around.
However many of these content islands there were during those days, they were still islands. It was like the manmade island structures off the shore of Dubai as opposed to the remoteness of the South Seas, perhaps, but they remained islands all the same.
Fast forward to the late oughts, and we started building bridges from island to island. Some outfits like Gravatar and the OpenID Foundation even built transportation hubs to move us easily from island to island. It started to feel like the teleporter from Star Trek; we barely felt the effects of the travel and we were able to interact with new cultures almost instantaneously. No longer was our persona isolated to a single island, where I might choose to have one “handle” on one island and another handle elsewhere. We’ve all gotten very used to linking up our island personas into one super-ego of self.
So what? Well, what this all amounts to is that it is no longer reasonable to assume that we can have unique, separate personas from Internet island to Internet island. For better or worse, we have all become citizens of the Internet world, passport in hand. There are many implications of all this, and some have profound implications for our current and future selves.
First, as opposed to the early days, content may as well be forever. Sure, islands occasionally submerge or become part of larger islands, but in general, the content we create – our Internet footprints on the beach – are going to be there for a good long time. What we may post as an angry comment on someone’s blog or as a cute photo with our virtual pants down isn’t going away anytime soon.
Second, we can’t realistically expect that we can manage separate personas as we often do in the meat world. I may act one way with my family, another with my mates in the pub, and another with my work colleagues, but on the Internet that is possible less and less. Someone in any of those groups is likely to follow me on Twitter, link with me on LinkedIn, read my blog, *and* friend me on Facebook. Suddenly my separate personas must meld together, or at least they will in the minds of the consumer.
The ginormous caveat in all of this is that a few assaholic moves on one island are going to follow you around the Internet world. In my [scarily almost 50 years] of experience, it works much like it does in consumerism. People remember your mistakes over your triumphs (unless they are *really* big triumphs) and carry the “lowest common denominator” opinion of you around with them.
This may all sound sort of interesting, at least if you’ve managed to read this far. In practical terms, the way it has changed my thinking over the last year or two as I have tried to build some sort of personal brand for myself in the archipelago is that I must be my best self as much as possible.
I’ve chosen to use the Social Web professionally. As a solo practitioner, it sure beats advertising. That means that my every social move gets tacked onto my professional persona. When I tweet about my love for bacon, does it cloud a Muslim’s view of my capabilities as a SharePointilist? Does complaining about Microsoft’s sometimes abysmal documentation put me at risk in the technical community in which I’ve decided to be a member? Does tagging myself in a friend’s silly photo from college in 1981 put my possibilities for the next great consulting gig in jeopardy?
Lest you think I’ve become obsessively self-centered and sit in a darkened room contemplating my every move, rest assured that is not the case! I simply try to be cognizant from time to time that my every action may have an equal or *larger* reaction on the Social Web.
So what can you take away from this post? Well, just as every woman who has thought it would be funny to bare their chest for Girls Gone Wild and then wondered later “What the %#?$& was I thinking?”, pause once in a while and think about the persona you want to present to the world. If something is nagging at the back of your mind that maybe that little post isn’t such a great idea, hold off clicking on the Send button and read it over again, maybe a little later.
Think from time to time what your Social Media strategy is. Is it connected to your professional persona? Is it just for your silly side? Would you kiss your momma with that mouth? The Social Web is an amazingly rich and rewarding experience. Be sure to try the poi at the luau!