Developing a professional online identity

This post was originally written at /usr/space for the participants of the #pht402 Professional Ethics course. For many of the participants working online was a new and interesting experience but for most it probably wouldn’t progress much further than that. This post was intended to highlight how the blogs that had been created as part of the course might form the foundation of an online professional identity that could be carried forward as evidence of learning in a variety of contexts. Note that while the context of this post was for health care professionals, the principles are more broadly applicable to other fields.

digital_identityIn an increasingly connected and digital world, it often seems that too much is happening, too quickly. Every week another online service, app or device is competing for your time and it can be overwhelming to decide where to focus your attention. Even in our professional lives as clinicians or academics, there’s an increasing sense that “being” online is important, even if we don’t know exactly “how” to be, or “where” to be. There is a move towards the sharing of clinical experiences and resources that can add value to your professional life, if the available services and tools are used effectively. The clinical context is so dynamic, complex and challenging that we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and our professions to share what we know.

The Internet offers a perfect platform for this professional interaction, particularly through the use of social media. “Social media” is an umbrella term for a range of online services that facilitate the creation, curation and sharing of user-generated content. It is increasingly being tied in to mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets) that make it easy to share many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Some examples of the types of technologies that come under this term are: blogs (like we’re seeing in this course), microblogs (e.g. Twitter), wikis (e.g. Wikipedia, Physiopedia), podcasts, discussion forums, virtual social worlds (e.g. Second Life), gaming worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft) and social networks (e.g. Google+ and Facebook). As you can see, the term “social media” covers a lot of ground, which is why it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what exactly someone means when they talk mention it.

While the main theme of this post is to highlight the benefits of creating and maintaining an online professional presence, bear in mind that it’s not enough to simply “be” online. The main advantage of having an online professional identity is that it allows you to interact and engage with others in your field. Twenty years ago, academics and clinicians could only rely on the (very slow) process of publication and citation to learn about changes in the field. Now, with the affordances that the web provides, crafting a professional online identity can happen very quickly. However, it’s the interaction and engagement through conversation and discussion that builds reputation and a sense of presence, rather than simply “being there”.

You might be feeling that this is all a bit overwhelming and that you don’t have possibly have the time to get involved with all of these services. And you’d be right. Try to think of this as a developmental process, one that is going to take time to evolve. You didn’t emerge from university as a fully-formed, well-rounded clinical practitioner or researcher. It took time for you to develop the confidence to engage with colleagues, to share your ideas and to contribute to professional dialogue. Establishing an online identity is no different.

Whether you decide to continue updating your blog, or to start tweeting, the point is that you start somewhere, and start small. As your confidence grows, you’ll want to begin experimenting with other services, integrating them with each other and building them into your workflow. This is the most crucial part because if you think of this as just another thing you have to do, or another place you have to go, you’ll find yourself resenting it. Build a foundation in one space at a time, and only use services and applications that you feel provide you with value.

In the beginning, you may feel more comfortable “lurking” on social media sites, listening to the conversation without really contributing. This is OK and is likened to a form of Wenger’s concept of legitimate peripheral participation. Over time, as you gain confidence you may begin to feel that you have something to say. This may be as simple as posting your own content (e.g. a tweet, a blog post, a status update), sharing the content of others, or agreeing / disagreeing with something that someone else has said. Whatever it is, don’t feel pressured to say something profound or clever. Just give your sincere input to the conversation.

In case you’re wondering if there are any rules or regulations in terms of using social media as a health care professional, that’s hard to say. Many organisations and institutions do have a set of policies that can inform practice when it comes to employees using social media, although it’s hard to say if these are rules or guidelines. One of the biggest difficulties is that as a health care professional, the public often perceives you as always being “on duty”. A physio is always a physio, whether you’re working or not, which makes it difficult to determine what is appropriate to share, and when. The following list of health-related social media policies may help you to tread the fine line between your personal and professional online identities.

Developing an online professional identity and presence is an essential aspect of modern scholarship and increasingly, clinical practice. Not only does it allow you to connect and engage with researchers, academics and other clinicians in your field of interest, but it helps to develop your professional reputation by giving you an international platform to share your work and your ideas.

There are many services and platforms already available, with more becoming available all the time. While it’s not necessary to have a presence and to participate in all possible online spaces, it helps to be aware of what is available and how the different services can be used in the development of your own professional identity. Finally, while developing a professional presence is advisable, be aware that what you share and how you share will have as much of an impact on whether your share or not. There are some guidelines that are particularly relevant for health care professionals and researchers, but even then, the area is under such rapid development that it’s difficult for institutional social media policies to keep up. If in doubt, always check with your employer and colleagues.

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Michael Rowe

I'm a physiotherapy lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and have an interest in technology-mediated teaching and learning.

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