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BW Businessworld

Brand You, Online

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We all know a certain someone who had no end of Twitter trouble recently. The matter, as decreed, is over with, and would not be worth raking up were it not for the lessons we can learn from the unfortunate episode.

The first and biggest of these is that the online world is not as separate from real life, as we would like to believe. Although you can feel anonymous enough to don an avatar, and be someone else online, it is still you. And the whole of the internet knows it.

Because, for the most part, wherever you go online, you leave a footprint. Make a comment on a forum, write a message to someone, make a blog entry, fill a form, put up a picture — it is all possible to track, record and aggregate, and it all adds up to become your online presence.

And as millions more people become connected to the internet through their computers or mobile phones, the separation between the online you and the real-life you becomes nonexistent.

For anyone who is, or wants to be a public figure, the realisation that there is no separation, is very important. It is the reason why those who want to be known for something — their work, interests or activities — have to deliberately craft an image or online personality — and stick to it.

A few months ago, I invited a friend to join a harmless fun photography group I created on social networking website Facebook. Politely, but very firmly, he refused. I could not but help ask him why he thought joining this group would be such a problem (he is a photographer, and I know he was interested in the pictures). He told me that he and everyone else in his company had a policy of not joining any group of any kind online.

Their argument was that an online group would invariably have members one had never heard of. You did not know those people, and you did not know who would do what. If the group or a rogue member did something offensive, illegal or otherwise unacceptable, my friend did not want to be even vaguely associated with the group.

While my friend's standpoint may sound a little extreme to some, I think we have seen how little it takes to create a complete fiasco. Which brings me to that short sharp lesson: if you are a public person or representative, you cannot have one persona in real life and another between-you-and-me persona online. Just as the CEO of a company would not want to saunter into office and cheerily tell everyone how his parrot just learnt five new words, one would not want to say the online equivalent either.

On the internet, everyone has a chance to stand out. So, some argue that even if you are not representing a company, institution or group of people, it is still a good idea to craft your brand because you may want to be in the running when opportunities interesting to you come up sometime later.
Social networking has made it both easier and more confusing to create brand ‘You'. On the one hand, it generates limitless opportunities to be visible. On the other, it makes managing those opportunities a challenge. Each platform — from Twitter to YouTube, from a photo portal to a special interest forum — its own positioning and atmosphere. When you choose to use them, you contribute to your overall online personality.

Give whatsmyonlinefootprint.com a whirl to see some of the bigger elements of your own online footprint. You may find you need to separate and manage chunks separately, as I do. I manage my hobbyist blog quite separately from my Twitter account, for example. My wary friend manages his company site, a music blog, a photography site and a website with his work in the media, all carefully separated from one another.

If, on the other hand, you particularly want to stand for one thing (a company, a product, your area of work, a cause, a network of people, etc.), you need to keep the pieces together and fitting in well. You cannot, for example, wish to uphold your image as a tough above-it-all manager demanding that your employees live by exalted company values, but forget to pull down the photos of you and your bikini-clad employee-girlfriend from the photo sharing website, Flickr.

You cannot be the tough-talking journalist on-air, and wail that you cannot think of any sensible questions for your next interview on Twitter. You cannot hope to come across as warm and always available and yet never say a word on the social networking, or other, sites. And if you are a politician, you cannot speak and tweet a different note.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.
mala at pobox dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-10-2009)