In 2010, you are whatever the Net says you are. Deal with it.
Let’s assume that you want to deal with it; that is, you care about the picture the Net paints of you. I think that most of us should care, and I can think of three approaches to influencing the Net’s view: Branding, Offending, and Spelling. The first probably won’t work and the second stinks, so that leaves Spelling; more precisely, spell-checking and what it stands for.
[You know what’s weird? I feel no need for any explanation or defense of my opening sentence.]
Plan A: Branding · In business, they say that reality is what marketing creates. Certain professions (beer, blue jeans, and TV politics come to mind) are about brand construction and very little else.
Why not go with the conventional wisdom and do some personal branding? There are people eager to help, for a price. I suggest reading How Marketing Has Got Under Our Skin by “Peter York”, intense reportage from the front lines. A book title sampled from this world: Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success. I taste vomit in my throat.
York suggests that the process is in the end self-defeating; When everyone is branded, how can yours stand out? His predictions for the future’s “undetectable best stuff” are hilarious, making me think of seductive memes like “Anti-Branding”.
Maybe York’s wrong; after all, a lot of people drink Bud and wear Diesel. But I think that at the personal level, he’s hit the nail on the head; that conventional marketing techniques really aren’t very effective at establishing who you are.
Plan B: Offending · By definition, commercial media write not what most needs to be written, but what’s most apt to be read. While this has always been true, either it’s more blatant recently or perhaps our eyes are sharper. From an Economist blogger: “these are the political ramifications of living in an economy that, to an unprecedented degree, is centred on the media, and hence driven by pure attention.” Is the Attention Economy just a new way of saying “If it bleeds, it leads”?
The effect is that you don’t have to do good work, or be right, or even to have the faintest regard for the truth, to become a household name. If what you’re after is increasing your value in such an economy, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s despicable enough to wreck your career, as long as it comes with a simple colorful story attached. Offend, and be noticed.
Put the old-fashioned way: “I don’t care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right.” And it’s way cheaper than conventional brand-building.
There ought to be a better alternative, and there is.
Plan C: Spelling · Use a spell-checker, I mean. I’m serious. And do the things that people who use spell-checkers do: Take care to be present and accurate and orderly and coherent.
If this is a little too abstract, let me dress it up in a numbered list, just like a self-help book title: Ten Steps To Online Success In The Post-Branded Future.
Get yourself some Web space. It’d be nice if the URL included your
name; easy if you’ve got a low-frequency name, tough for Bill Smith and Sue
Brown (but consider
bill-smith-from-tulsa.net and similar
While having your own space is best, many people use Facebook, LinkedIn, or even Twitter as their online home. This is better than nothing, but do bear in mind that at the end of the day, you don’t control space there, which could be a problem. It’s OK to hire an expert to work on this with you. [Hereinafter abbreviated “Help OK”.]
Get software in place so that you can update your Web space yourself. This may well be blogging software, which is OK even if you don’t plan to blog. Make sure it includes a spell-checker. Help OK.
Ensure that your space doesn’t look goofy. A cheap and satisfactory approach is to use one of the pre-cooked “Themes” that probably came with the software in Step 2. The best approach is to hire an expensive designer with a good reputation. I’m not sure there are any good intermediate approaches.
It’s really important to realize that your presence doesn’t need to be graphically excellent. Good enough is good enough, as long as it doesn’t look amateurish; think of this as visual spell-checking.
Don’t use Flash.
Load your Web space with useful information about yourself. It’s really best if you write it; but if you’re terrified or have reason to think you suck at writing, you may have to outsource. The worst possible choice is to have Marketing write stuff under your name, because the intelligent modern reader has developed a sensitive marketing-speak detector, and when it goes off, so does your credibility.
So if you have to, bash out what you think the key points are and then get writing help. And even if you think you’re a decent writer, it’s not only OK but a no-brainer to consult a few friends whose judgment you respect about what you’ve written, and be open-minded about taking their suggestions.
Don’t forget to spell-check.
Every so often, ensure that your Web presence is up-to-date. Since few third-millennium lives are static, most of us need to update regularly. Make sure to spell-check.
Tell everyone you know who is already online (and who uses a spell-checker) that you are too. A few of them will probably link to you, which will make a difference.
Do not invest any time or money with anyone whose title, or company name, includes the words “Search Engine” or the abbreviations “SEO” or “SEM”. While one hears that there are a few honest souls out there, lots are just looking for sheep to fleece; don’t be one.
And if your site has your name in the URL and the title, and a friend or two links to you, then when someone wants to find you, they will.
Make sure your Web presence includes a couple of decent pictures of you. Should anyone write anything about you, they’ll want to decorate it with a photo. They’ll search the Web for images, and it’d be really unfortunate if what they find makes you look like Comrade Lenin or a Sudanese warlord. I speak from bitter experience. Help OK.
Every so often, search the Web for your name. Quite likely, unless you have the unfair advantage of a weird name, you share yours with someone more famous or Internet-connected, so you’re not on the first page.
Don’t sweat it; anyone who really wants to find you will add in your hometown or where you work or some such, and probably succeed, assuming you’ve done a good job on the preceding steps in this list.
One reason you’re ego-searching is to turn up Bad Stuff. Maybe someone has published something nasty about you; maybe someone’s created a Wikipedia entry for you and it’s lame; maybe one of your drunken undergrad rants has gotten a little too popular; maybe your LinkedIn profile hasn’t been spell-checked; maybe maybe maybe.
You need to know about these; what to do about them is a complex judgment call. Help OK.
Well, and you might find Good Things too. If there’s something useful, interesting, or nice about you in a spell-checked part of the Web, link to it from your space.
It’s Like This · Being absent from the Internet is not an option. Trying to out-brand everyone else probably isn’t either. Getting noticed for being colorfully offensive is, but let’s not.
Assuming that, like most people, you’re competent and honest, you can do a whole lot worse than making sure that the truth, coherent and spell-checked, is out there.