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FYI: No place to hide your true identity on the Web

Susan B. Barnes

Susan B. Barnes is a professor in the Department of Communication and
associate director for the Lab for Social Computing at RIT. She is the author of Online Connections (2001, Hampton Press) and Computer-Mediated- Communication (2003, Allyn & Bacon).  

By Susan B. Barnes
A famous New Yorker cartoon has a picture of a dog working at a computer with the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon is both funny and very true. It is difficult to tell who people are online. But, there are ways to present a credible image of yourself on the Internet.

For example, I often have to remind students that using an e-mail address like SweetSusieQ@Hotmail.com does not create a good first impression for a future employer. A screen name that is great with friends may not be the impression you want to make in a business context. Following are some points to consider when presenting yourself in online correspondence.

• E-mail addresses provide information about a person. For instance, an RIT e-mail address indicates that a person is associated with the institute. Using a signature line at the end of your e-mail messages can clarify your position at the university.

• In professional settings, people always should represent themselves as their actual identity because misrepresentations about yourself can lead to a loss of credibility and possible work problems. For instance, things you say about your company and products on the Internet can be used against the company in lawsuits.

• In business blogs and professional social networking sites, such as Likedin, people should represent themselves in a professional manner because these sites lead to job connections and future work. Social networking builds social capital or connections for personal and professional success.

• Commercial social network sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, present different challenges for self-presentation. On the surface, these sites are a fun and entertaining way to meet others. But, future employers and college administrators are also reading these sites. A fun prank played on MySpace may not be funny when a future employer brings it up in a job interview.

So, be aware of how you present yourself every time that you go online. Even sloppy spelling and grammar used in an e-mail message is an indication of who you are.

Finally, “net presence” is the frequency in which you appear on the Internet. The idea of presence refers to the number of times people come across your name on the Internet. You build net presence by creating a blog or Web site and connecting to others; reading and responding to discussion lists; and appearing on Web pages. All of the many different ways in which you interact on the Internet create a net presence.

Although some people may think it is egotistical to Google your name, for me it is an issue of managing your presence on the Internet. When I last Googled my name, another Susan B. Barnes was the number one hit. The next 25 hits were related to me. The other Susan’s site is a business one and my hits relate to publishing and academic credentials. I’m convinced that she used some search-engine tricks to get to the number one spot – and you can do the same to manage your online presence.

Although I could pretend to be a dog on the Internet, my e-mail address, signature line, Facebook profile, Likedin listing, and Web hits all indicate that I am actually a professor at RIT. While I am teaching on campus, my net presence is building social capital on and off the Internet.