Identity, Social Media & Business: Multiple Personas for a Web 2.0 World

Your worst web 2.0 nightmare. You've just sent that Twitter post about how much your feet smell after your 5k run to 1,265 of your business followers instead of your close personal friends and family. Ouch. Several months of cultivating social media up in smoke in an instant. Just why is it so easy to do this? What is it about the web 2.0 world that makes it so easy to mess up in this way - and more importantly, what do we do about it? The answer is simple - we need to start acting virtually like we act physically, and actively take a hand in managing the different personas we use online.

A Bit of Background - Just how do you start the day?

For most of us our home lives and our work lives are two different things. We have colleagues at work, friends at home, clothes for the workplace, clothes for relaxing in, an office computer at work, and a home PC. Whilst there are often cross-overs between the two - colleagues might also be friends perhaps, or you might wear some of the same clothes both in the office and at home - typically there are more differences than similarities.

It's perhaps easier to think about this issue in terms of identities. When you wake up on a work day and get ready for the office, you might put on a suit, prepare a few things to take into the office like a laptop or some paperwork. Once you're in the office you'll sit down at your work desk, surrounded by items that assist you in your job such as in-trays, telephones, notepads and reminders. All these things form part of your work identity - whilst you're still you, you're now focused on some specific aspects of your life which need specific thoughts and actions.

Virtual tools do present something of a challenge here though. In the above example everything is very physical, so it's relatively easy to assume the work identity simply by wearing different clothes and moving physically to another location. However virtual tools cannot identify you based on what you look like or where you are. Virtual tools need you to make an explicit choice when you log in to them, effectively saying 'this is me' to both the tool, and the rest of the virtual world that is connected to it. But here's the big question - just who should choose to be when you login to these virtual tools?

The Need for Multiple Identities

For many of the more techy amongst us, this has so far not really been an issue. The truth is that our work lives and home lives are so tied together when it comes to virtual tools that we tend to exist in both using the same identity. But that is changing as more and more virtual tools are created, and even the very technical start to have trouble managing the vast flows of information that starts to accumulate. So what's the answer? Replicate the same physical difference that we use to identify us as in "work mode" or "home mode" when we're online - i.e. create multiple identities. Simple as that.

By multiple identities, I'm not suggesting that we need to attend counselling lessons, merely that we take advantage of our existing different email accounts to base different personas around. Your email address is, after all, the prime means of distinguishing the work you from any other you's.

Take me for example. I have a Gmail email account, as well as various student email accounts and other email accounts, plus my 'official' University of Exeter email account where I normally work. Personally I blog about food at home (insert shameless link to The Sunday Roaster :-)), but I also blog about Web Innovation at work. For both of these blogs I also have accounts with Google Analytics. I need to login to all of these virtual spaces, but I don't really want to be logging into work on a Sunday morning to write about food, nor do I want to see my statistics for my food blog when I'm trying to analyse how our project blog is being read. The answer is to create different accounts for these services using the different personal or work email addresses as the main identity in each case.

So far this technique for managing different aspects of my life has worked well for me, allowing me that separation between home and work that can be so difficult to obtain in a constantly connected world. But I'd be very interested to hear from others on the subject. Is managing virtual identities like this the future, or just a temporary artefact, a product of the current state of development of the world wide web?

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