How to manage and maintain your electronic identity

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This is not a manual or even a how-to blog post, but rather, what I hope to be a few helpful suggestions that may or may not have already occurred to you. I was motivated to write this because of a series of recent events in which it became obvious that a lot of people, myself included in certain instances, were not managing some of the basic information linked to their on-line identity in the best way.

Let me give you a simple example, which happens to be the first one I came across in this recent series of encounters with eInefficiency. I was working with a group of people at a non-profit, and there was a rearrangement of personnel such that a new guy was in charge of interfacing with other members of the group as well as outsiders. We had a quick email exchange that included some important information, and a month later I needed to find those emails. Naturally, I searched on his name, but nothing came up. I eventually found the emails by searching on other terms, and when I did get a look at them I noticed that instead of having his name, Harry Smith, the person who was one of our main spokespeople with the public, had never written his name in any of the emails, his email handle was nothing like his name (instead of “Harry Smith” it was something like “Puppy-wuppy-dooddle-dooo”) and he had never properly filled in the information on whatever email account he was using so instead of looking like this:

“Harry Smith”

he was merely this:

… which is not helpful and, for that matter, does not provide a very good face for the organization.

More recently, I’ve been doing a fun little project involving ScienceOnline 2012. This is a conference to be held in North Carolina in January for bloggers, science communicators, and science writers. I’ve been going through the list of participants, and where they have provided a URL to the conference, I check the URL to see if it is a blog, and if there is a post on that blog written by that participant, and the post was fairly recent, etc. etc., I put a link to it on Google+ along with a sentence that might read something like “Mary Smith is a participant in Scienceonline 2012” where I use a plus sign before “Mary” and “Scienceonline” so those terms become links.

But there are several problems in doing this. Let me list a few of them:

1) I arrive at the web site and it is for a major corporation, university, or some other whopping big entity that the person is presumably associated with, but there is no reference to that person on the page I’ve arrived at, and no clear way to find one. In this case, the person has used a URL sort of like a business card. They work for ACME Industries Corporation Inc, and the line on their business card that says that is represented as the URL for ACME Industries Corporation Inc. Useful information, but a dead end. If a person who has an actual presence on the Internet (that they wish to share) uses a URL of their home institution this way, they are either messing up or, perhaps, are following some corporate rule that requires them to not be an individual person.

2) I arrive at a multi-authored blog that the person in question may be an author on, but there is no easy way to find that person’s posts. I may even find the person’s name on the “about” page, but unless there is a blog post by the person who supplied the URL on the top page of the multi-authored blog, there is no way to easily find their writing. If I enter their name in the search function, it turns up nothing. There is no link of author’s names that bring up their work.

3) I have a name associated with the URL, say, Professor Jane Ukumbe. I find a person on a multi-authored blog that is called “Doc Uki-Duki” and otherwise there is no one else indicated on that blog with a surname starting with “U” and an advanced degree. I could guess that Jane Ukumbe is Doc Uki-Duki. But it might be bad to get that wrong. My attempt to locate the written work of Professor Ukumbe has been thwarted.

4) I have a name, say, Mary Smith, associated with a URL that leads me to a blog written by “M.S.” with no easily located reference to said “Mary.” In this case, do I write the sentence I mentioned above? Do I say “This is a blog post by Mary Smith, who will be at ScienceOnline 2012”? If I do, I may have just given out the real name of “M.S.” who up until now has been using a pseudonym. Or is M.S. really a pseudonym, or was Mary simply being cute by using her initials? Or what? Having no way to tell, I must not use the person’s name, even though if it is an anonymous pseudonym, it is a rather thinly disguised one.

5) The person’s name really is “Mary Smith” or the equally ubiquitous equivalent, so when I try to use the “+” symbol to bring up a link to Mary on Google+ I get a hundred zillion Mary Smiths and I can’t tell which one is she.

6) Somewhat more subtle and a problem of only intermittent effect, the person’s name is something like “Joe Smith E. Hendrickson” or some other bunch of symbols with spaces between them that is not a simple first and last name, so things like the Facebook @ technology or the Google+ “+” symbol stumble and are unable to find a match, even though there is a match in there somewhere.

7) I click on the URL associated with a person’s name and either arrive at a site that has links out to all of that person’s Internet stuff including a blog, which I then go to, or I end up going straight to the person’s blog and right there is an interesting, recent post that I can snork. This outcome, the one I’m looking for, happens in far fewer than half the cases. If you think this seems like a low percentage, I agree with you. I was surprised at how few people provide URL’s that linked more or less directly to a current blog post. Remember, those links are provide by people in the blogging and interned communication industry. That’s a little like going to a Pharmaceutical Conference and searching everyone’s luggage and finding that only a third of them had free drug samples!

In many cases, I assume that the difficulty that I encounter is simply my problem, and not a tactical mistake on the part of the person whose identity I am engaging. A person wishes to be simply linked to Megacorp Inc, or MRU, and that’s what they’ve done and my effort to find a blog post they’ve written is thwarted because they haven’t written one, or at least, don’t want their blog which is out there somewhere linked to them for the present purposes. This is why, when doing this ScienceOnline 2012 link fest, when I hit the MRU or the Acme Inc web site, I stop looking. I don’t want to barge into someone’s Live Journal or MySpace site and point to photos of that trip to the Yucatan five years ago that they would rather forget but don’t know how to erase from the world wide web. When I encounter ambiguities in name use that might indicate that someone is using either multiple identities or trying to be anonymous, I also cease and desist in linking a name to the item I’m posting because, again, I don’t want to screw up. But in both cases, it is quite possible that the person in question is simply represented on the Internet in a way that is suboptimal.

There are several things you can do if you want to make yourself easier to find, see, link to, and otherwise engage with. Here are a few suggestions. If you look at my online identity, you’ll see right away that I am suggesting here that you do what I say not what I do. I’ve got a few flaws in my identity management. Also, I’m probably missing some important points here, so please chime in; Tell us in the comments about your ideas for identity management.

1) If your name really is Mary Smith, change it immediately to something like Lady Gaga. Only not Lady Gag, there already is one of those. OK, so, in fact, you may not be able to change your name if it is a fairly common one, but have a look at some of the suggestions below to help make your identity more easily engaged by others.

2) Try to make your on line identity two names, if at all possible. First name, last name. If you are E. Howard Hunt, or T.E. Lawrence, or George H.W. bush, the Internet is not ready for you. This is probably only a small problem, and it will probably go away as these technologies improve, so this may not be a big deal. Also, if you are Mary Jane Smith, being something like M. J. Smith or Mary Ja Smith may be a good thing (see number 1 above).

3) Wherever you can, list all of your standard docking points on the Internet, so that no matter where someone encounters you, they have a roadmap to all the other places you are. There is a place for links on your Google + profile, there are places to put these things on facebook. You can have an email signature with these links on it. If you have a blog or two or three, they should be listed. An email address people can use to contact you should be handily available. Your YouTube account, your facebook link and your G+ about page URL, and whatever else you have should be listed somewhere at each of those very locations, in the appropriate place. This is what About pages are all about. Make sure your name (pseudo or otherwise) is on the about pages.

4) Make all those names the same. Don’t be Doc Holiday in one place and Henry Holiday somewhere else and Hank Holiday somewhere else, unless you really are trying to confuse people and keep your identity obscure. If you want people to know “Oh, this person did this AND that, and I met her at this conference, and they gave THAT talk and wrote THIS book and blogged over HERE until moving THERE …” then provide the necessary information.

5) If your presence on the Internet is complex, maybe you should have a domain based on your name at which you have easily identified links out to your other stuff. Many of the individuals I encountered had this sort of thing and I was readily able to find their blog and thus post a link to their latest blog post. One person had a central hub page for their identity but forgot to put the main blog on it! (I’ll have to send that person, a friend and colleague, an email!)

6) Try to have a recognizable consistent icon. In these moments of uncertainty, when someone is trying to link to you in Google+ or on Facebook, and they have typed in your name but several different ones come up and maybe they are not exactly sure if you are Michelle Bachman or Michele Bachmann, and both forms are visible in the list of choices, that little icon sitting there that looks like the icons linked to your identity elsewhere … your avatar … will reduce the uncertainty.

7) Last and maybe least, but still important: Check your email software. When someone gets an email from you, can they tell it is form you?

What am I missing? What do you do to make the process of engagement with colleagues and community work more smoothly?

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3 thoughts on “How to manage and maintain your electronic identity

  1. One tip for if you have a zillion Jane Smiths and want to link a specific one on Google Plus is to link to the number on their profile — eg. +107636453884287985173 links to (and comes up formatted as the usual “Jane Smith” with blue writing). Of course, if you can’t find their damn profile in the first place this point is moot 🙂

  2. Guilty as charged.

    Re #4 :
    Sometimes I used the full first name “Stuart” (7580 hits in Google),
    and sometimes shortened it to “Stu” (9940). Turns out my publisher just uses my initials “SE” (1370), so if you need to find someone by their books, it might help to use just their initials.

  3. What am I missing? What do you do to make the process of engagement with colleagues and community work more smoothly?

    Carrier pigeons, that and face to face meetings >;^)

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