Balancing personalization and professionalism on the web

I read two articles today which, taken together, point out some interesting inconsistencies in how we think of social media.  The first is Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project, put out by the MacArthur Foundation (Yes 611 people, I was supposed to have read this last week.)  The second was Ten Simple Steps to Create and Manage Your Professional Online Identity, by Susan Markgren, published in College and Research Libraries News. 

The MacArthur findings attempted to describe the variety of ways that youth are using social networking and the internet in general, including gaming, extension of offline friendships, and pursuit of personal interests.  Much of the article focused on the ways in which an internet presence is very literally a projection of personality.  People (especially teens) interact in real ways on the web, and to be absent from that scene is to be a virtual homebody.  The findings even went so far as to state that limitations on internet use such as filtering and time limits restrict teens’ ability to socialize with their peers. 

The article talks about this in a neutral, if not positive way.  The authors are pointing out that this is the way teens interact now, as well as how they develop needed skills for the future.  I found this notable, as most articles on the topic freak out over kids wasting time, losing touch with other people, doing worse in school blah blah blah. 

The second article basically suggests that to get a job, ever, you should pretty much wipe anything that isn’t squeaky clean off your web presence, and remove friends who might post anything unprofessional.  The author states that it is no longer possible to keep your personal life and professional life separate, so your representation of your personal life has to be censored.  This irritates me. 

Understand that I’m coming at this from the perspective of a straight A student who doesn’t party, doesn’t drink, and doesn’t break laws.  It’s not as if there are photos of myself doing anything I’m embarrassed of.  But (as the MacArthur findings would confirm) I do see my online presence as an extension of my personality.  There are pictures of me dressed as a shark.  I tweet about dinosaurs.  I use *gasp* curse words.  And I don’t feel like the fact that I am a professional means that I can’t have or express a side that is sassy, or silly.

What this tells me is that eventually something is going to have to give, not just for me, but for the internet as a whole.  Up until now, it has been possible to fragment your online presence, and that’s probably mostly a good thing.  But that is becoming less and less real, and the question will come down to, is the internet for life or for work? 

Teens use the web to expand and augment their social lives, and it’s a great space for exploring new interests and practicing social skills with minimal parental meddling.  It’s unrealistic to expect people to suddenly “become an adult” and for all intents and purposes discontinue using social networks for…social….networking…(?)

I don’t know what the answer is.  I think there are competing interests, and I’ll be watching to see how it shakes out.  I can’t promise that I won’t change my mind when it comes time for job hunting, but in general I believe that being true to yourself is the best policy.  And if my Self happens to be dressed as a shark, well, it’s because sharks are awesome.  I’ll fight anyone who tries to argue with that.

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