Impression Management - it's more important than you think...

I hope you have a go-to library of books which help act as a lighthouse for decisions, strategies, and vision.  The research that some writers have performed so as to figure out better ways of doing, to provide information that is not intuitive, or to offer case studies of roads not to take…are invaluable. 

If you read my stuff with any regularity, you probably already know my favorite authors and books.  Eli Pariser talking about filter bubbles, a problem that may be one of the greatest social issues of our time as it plays out in politics, business, and other forums is one go-to reference.  Medina’s work on the brain showing how little we know but, more importantly, how rarely we actually leverage what we do know to be effective is hugely important.  Add in Dweck, Pink, Lieberman, McGonigal, and other trend spotters and I have a genuine platform for stability.  Round that out with small, curated studies like, “How People Learn (2000)” and I believe I have a strong set of resources to act as a litmus test.

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I want to introduce (some of) you to another such resource.  I was rereading Danah Boyd’s book, “It’s Complicated” (2014) last night.  Now that I am working in and around that connectedness, social, uber-integrated workspace for my day job, I felt it was important to go back to the start.  And Boyd’s book was the start of my journey into the power of socialness.  It had been a while since 4 keynote speakers all recommended a book, talking about the power and eye-opening remarks, but that is exactly what happened in 2014.  So I bought it and read it.  Then I read it again. 

I don’t aim to unpack it all in this single post, but I was reminded yet again of something important that we so rarely attempt to fix.  It still astounds me how often we learn of new, validated ways of working or we find new, validated (replicated) information that should change our paradigms, yet we do nothing.  So few people seem to be able to look beyond the boundaries of their own work to find vitally important, ancillary work that should dovetail with their own.  (Likely creating a new kind of work altogether when all is said and done.)  But that’s all quite theoretical.  Let me give you a practical example.

Profiles.  Yep, seemingly innocuous profiles.  We all have them…which is to say that we all likely have dozens.  We create profiles in all kinds of accounts these days – our banks, our social media tools, our sports websites, our phones, our computers…these all have a profile.  For most of these resources, we likely have a similar or even shared profile.  How great was it when you could start logging into various web resources with your Google or Facebook accounts, thereby foregoing the need to create yet another profile?

But profiles are more and more a crucial component of our lives.  It’s not quite as reported today as it was five years ago when we were still figuring out just how profiles worked, but the web is littered with reports of people who lost jobs, scholarships, marriages, or worse, because a profile was not private enough, a person had multiple profiles, or because someone shared a profile of another person without their permission.  Those things still happen, they just aren’t newsworthy anymore.  But just because our information hungry brains also crave novelty doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue.  Especially for younger parts of our society.  It’s called impression management and it’s worth talking about.

Enter Boyd.  For a decade she interviewed teenagers regarding their social media usage, experiences, etc.  That included a conversation about profiles.

It’s important to note that most young people simply don’t see profiles (or privacy about them) the same way adults do.  There is a learning curve involved.  (Note – a learning curve that very few people are keen to help guide teens through.)  But essentially, the ethnographic study Boyd performs illustrates that teenagers are very interested in privacy from those who have power over them, but not really many others.  In other words, they don’t want their social imprints to be viewed by their parents, teachers, or bosses, but they really don’t care much about what the Government, big business, or the general-public might see.  Their view of an impression is that social media is for friends and potential peers, not for anyone else.  Who cares if the Government sees their fetish or pictures of a party?  They don’t know “the Government” nor do they care what “big business” knows about them. 

So, it is not overly surprising that young people (and into early adulthood) are shocked when they discover that their posts, feeds, or profiles have been viewed by people never intended as an audience.  When a potential employer sees pictures of a recruit at a party with drinking or drugs, when a parent sees a post about lewd behavior, or when a scholarship committee pulls up a social profile with crude humor or images, the fallout may not be surprising to onlookers, but it is extremely surprising to those who posted the materials in the first place. 

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One tactic students (and adults for that matter) take is to create two or more personas with profiles that can’t easily be associated with their true being.  Interestingly, Facebook’s own leader, Zuckerberg himself, remarked how behavior such as this is unethical. 

Other young social media users may scrape their entire activity stream in an attempt to erase any possible negative impressions.  The strategy is called “white-walling” (originating when a person’s “wall” in Facebook was left blank).  But there are obvious downsides.  Any human who so desires can screen capture the activity and use it later, etc.  At the end of the day, Boyd goes into great detail about some extremely clever and just plain extreme ways young people try to deal with impression management.

So I ask a question which has been posed thousands of times in the past several decades: why isn’t education helping people navigate this?  We have seen an entire generation quickly dissociate themselves from email at every possible turn, only to be forced to use the medium by formal, professional groups (like universities), which produces very mixed results.  I have a friend whose younger brother (currently 23 years old) had this to say about email: “I only have an email account for when I have to change a password, create a new profile, or buy an airline ticket.  Otherwise I never use email.” 

Take that in for a minute.  He NEVER uses email.  If you’re an educator, you might be thinking, “Well, this is why writing is so awful anymore.  Students only practice micro-writing and use emoji’s whenever possible!”  I don’t actually disagree that more students than ever struggle to write well.  But again, why aren’t we doing anything about it?  Remedial writing, writing across the curriculum, and other strategies are only achieving partial results.  But none of them speaks to the root of the problem.  Why aren’t we helping students navigate social media, formal vs informal writing, profile and impression management, and beyond?  It’s akin to critics of education asking why we don’t teach how to do taxes, how to fill out a loan document, how to apply an understanding of compound interest, etc. 

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We could do this.  We really could, and it wouldn’t have to take a major shift in curriculum.  But it would take some strategic, intentional thinking about curricula, as well as use of some modern tools.  The first step would be to leverage a social tool that was also safe.  It needs to be a walled garden, keeping student and other stakeholder’s private information private.  That tool should include profiles, micro-writing options, as well as multiple channels for usage. 

Then (and here is where it starts to get fun) I would begin during Freshman Seminar or First Year Experience.  You know, the orientation about how to be a successful college student? Almost every university has one.  But before some of you shout out, “No way!  We don’t have enough time as it is to teach students how to put together an essay and how to find their advisor!” I will ask you to hold on for just a second.  IF you were to include this in the writing section, you could use it as an opportunity to both teach AND create a practical profile as well as posts for incoming students, while also starting to discuss micro-writing alongside formal essays.  Added benefit?  Students see real-world, practical application immediately.

In parallel, you could start using the profiles as a first step for internships, teaching assistants, work study, etc.  Faculty can create profiles to model effective practices.  Staff can do the same, leveraging their personas for advancement or job changes. 

Over a few years (yes, it may take some focus for a while), the culture will start to change.  By norming the profile concept, students will learn both organically and formally, how a profile can help them, support their goals, and even better connect them to people, services, and other offerings. 

Help your students figure this out.  The connected world is only going to make this harder while also being elevated as more important.  Don’t relegate it to a class, don’t make it a “pet project” for a staff member, etc.  Make it a strategy – an initiative.  Give your students the support they need, while bolstering learning at your school.

Good luck and good learning.