Friday, July 03, 2020

Advice for Millennials and Gen Zers on Crafting an Online Identity: Let Your "Somebodiness" Shine!


Angela Valenzuela, Ph.D.

July 3, 2020

I write this as the mother of two Millennials, as well as a professor of many Millennials over the years that have expressed anxiety to me about their online voices and image. I totally get this, as this is also of concern to many Boomer faculty that I have come across over the years, the majority of whom have far less to lose by being "out there" with what they think and believe. These very concerns came alive in a recent workshop I attended with junior and senior university faculty on "brand management." Perhaps you'll find these resources helpful, especially given the current COVID moment characterized by so much online time that may be magnifying the salience of our online identities.

I know it all sounds neoliberal and individualistic but parsing those aspects out so that you can demonstrate how your voice is authentic, your work, valuable, and your ethics, principled, makes for a better life. In a world of social media where virtually everybody can be found within a few clicks, my sense is that it's better to be in front of defining who you are rather than either taking this for granted or getting this done by others for you.

The first is a book on how we can or should showcase our work "without blowing it." I would think this to be of similar importance to Millennials and Gen Zers in a world of social media that simultaneously broadcasts and shapes their tastes, priorities, preferences, political views, and values.

Many women and men of color, generally speaking, are not very good at "tooting their own horns," so that others can learn about 1) what they value; and 2) how their values are also of value to their workplaces and organizations. More often than not, these need to be spelled out, rather than assumed. Knowing these things can help you to not only be valued and relevant to your organization's values, but in so doing, to remain employed and employable. The second book, "Composing a Life," speaks to the creative aspects of being as we forge new identities.

With nearly everybody's identities online now, it's worthwhile to ponder such things as how one's reputation and "brand visibility," can have real-world consequences—both positive and negative. I dislike binaries so I'll amend this say, "the good, bad, and the ugly."
Seriously, do give some thought to your "brand." This could take intentional forms like a blog, an online portfolio, a Youtube channel and the like. If done well, this will take time, as this ideally involves a fair amount of reflection and getting feedback from people you trust throughout the process regarding the "self" that you're putting out there.

My main advice to you — and to myself —is that via the use of social media like blogs, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, Youtube, and so on, be aware that wittingly or unwittingly, we are always crafting an identity that can make us more or less attractive (read: "employable") to others. I am not at all saying to be false, rather the opposite: To be authentic and responsible with your words, opinions, and language. For better or for worse, we are always crafting a life with our identities that will likely shift over the years as we discover new interests, passions, opportunities, and perspectives.

You do not have to know all the answers or be perfect. You just have to know that who you are today is going to be different from who you are going to be in 10 years, or less, and, as you know, that identities—together with the language, tone, and words that we use—"follow us" and will do so for a lifetime. Accordingly, think twice before throwing the "F-bomb" and cursing online, in general. I am not at all prudish about such things offline as my close friends and family know. Rather it's unpleasant, unprofessional, and could inadvertently thwart your goals and pursuits.

I hope you take this as good advice on how not to inadvertently sabotage yourself with your own words, speech, images, or flip expressions and views. Consider following someone you admire who shows consistency in their identities across platforms, indicating a sense of integrity—and make them your role model. Friend them. They'd probably be flattered that you reached out to them for this purpose of making them a guiding light. Also, do make it a practice to be open to criticism, particularly from our friends and family that love and care for us. Nearly always, they mean to help, rather than hurt, us when they offer helpful criticism.

It's a sign of the times when there are businesses that exist solely to help people to improve their online image by burying negative content, on the one hand, and promoting positive content, on the other. Consider taking the easiest route here by simply deleting content you posted that, upon reflection, you sense may come back to bite you. We've all done this. It's not a big deal. Pay attention to your gut instincts on such decisions.

My generation didn't have to worry as much about such things, but the current ones do. For example, a common practice I've observed among colleagues in my own world is to readily look up faculty that we might hire or students that we might admit on Google or Facebook. It's almost automatic these days. For example, I learned a few years ago of a renowned scholar from another institution who didn't get hired because a quick, online search revealed allegations of sexual misconduct. I don't know the intricacies of this case, but I can tell you that I was not at all surprised to hear that he didn't get hired by the University of Texas at Austin.

Accordingly, we also need to be aware of potential pitfalls of the memes and images we put out in our regular lives, and the wrong people we may inadvertently draw into our space, in the process. Our circles of friends and the events we attend say so much about who we are—and who people perceive us to be. As a consequence of all these micro decisions, your name—or your "brand"—will conjure up a lot of associations referred to as "semantic relationships" in brand theory. Hopefully, these semantic relationships, combined with your awareness of these, will help, rather than impede, your goals and desires.

In short, in this brave new world of social media, particularly for young people seeking employment, positive evaluations, and promotion opportunities we are well served by 1) being authentic; 2) maintaining a good brand reputation; and 3) maintaining high brand visibility. This means finding multiple ways to message your values and commitments so that people will minimally know where you're coming from and respect you for that.

So conceived, evaluation is not something that happens at the conclusion of a task—even if that is an occurrence—but is rather an everyday affair as we go about our personal and professional lives. Accordingly, we also need to be aware of potential pitfalls of the image or images we put out in our regular lives.

Finally, if the neoliberal overtones to what I'm sharing are off-putting, then listen to the advice that the Reverend Martin Luther King gave to a group of Junior High School students in Philadelphia titled, "What is Your Life's Blueprint (October 26, 1967)?"

"Number one in your life’s blueprint, should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance."
Having grown up as "digital natives"—as addressed in my earlier post this morning—Millennials and Gen Zs are very much poised to continue making a positive difference in the world. So don't at all obsess with your online identity to the exclusion of other important things in your life. That would be over-reach and ultimately not healthy.

My purpose is rather to remind you that you are, in all instances, in ways big and small, crafting an identity that is itself a lifetime endeavor. This should therefore be done thoughtfully and with an everyday awareness of the self that you are continually crafting so that you can enjoy rewarding relationships and an abiding sense of peace and meaningfulness in your lives. Let your "somebodiness" shine!

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