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Professional Identity in an Age of Social Media

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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I know of at least one case in which university managers raised the possibility of counting tweets in order to measure time spent away from work.


The posting below raises some important issues about the use of social media by university employees. It is from Chapter 6 – Professional identity in an age of social media, in the book Social Media for Academics, by Mark Carrigan. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. © Mark Carrigan, 2016.

All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Stop Walking, Start Talking


Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

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Professional Identity in an Age of Social Media


Identity dilemma #1: Your employers

Universities are changing, as are the employment relations within them (Holmwood 2011b, McGettigan 2013). This book isn’t really about these changes but it’s hard not to refer to them because they have such obvious implications for how universities as employers orientate themselves to the social media activities of academics as employees. From the perspective of modern management trends, universities appear to be ‘dumb organizations’ (Fuller 2003) in the sense that managers at all levels often struggle to keep up with the activities of their highly individualized workforces. If managers are concerned with efficiently managing the human resources of the university, it would be understandable that they might see social media as a distraction from work. After all, as Ele Belfiore observed to me, ‘There’s still the perception that colleagues will see you as skiving’. I know of at least one case in which university managers raised the possibility of counting tweets in order to measure time spent away from work. At the very least, social media pose obvious questions of how they can be incorporated into the time management practices adopted by universities (Vostal 2015). The answer is not straightforward, and at least if the managers in question are skeptical about the value of social media, it’s easy to see how this might prove extremely worrying.

There’s also the issue of what Marwick (2014: 238) describes as ‘the intrinsic conflict between self-branding and corporate employment’: what’s best for the self-branding employee might not be what’s best for the company and vice versa. In this case you can’t have academics running around the internet offering ‘outspoken opinions’ without feeling that your carefully worked-out plans for the corporate brand are potentially at risk. The institutional brand has cachet on social media, in fact a stated affiliation could be shaping people’s perceptions of you to an extent far beyond what you imagine to be the case (Nickel 2011). In turn, the personal brands academics are developing – in some cases having drawn audiences via an online engagement that has vastly exceeded anything that could be imagined through traditional forms of scholarly publishing (Pearce et al. 2012) – risk being seen ambivalently as both an opportunity and threat to the university. As Cottom (2015) puts it, public engagement leverages attention into brand awareness which, in turn, somehow contributes to greater prestige in the competition for prestigious students. But that brand awareness also carries risks. How this might be construed and then acted upon will likely vary immensely, but the risk is inherent in the relationship between employers and employees within a digitized environment and any reflection on your online identity as an academic needs to begin by recognizing this. The fact that academics are embracing social media at precisely the time when most universities are imposing a standardization upon the web presences they provide for their staff, suggests diverging priorities and the potential for growing conflict.

What compounds the problem is the potential instability in how management respond to a strategic question like this, as well as how the ensuing shifts are imposed on academics within the institution (Ginsberg 2012). One academic with a deep commitment to public engagement, digital and otherwise, described to me the difficulties this created with their institution. The institution initially saw their online activity as a threat, invoking the possibility of disciplinary action upon the discovery that they’d been critical of research assessment practices on their blog. After some negotiation, an agreement was reached that they would remove references to their work from the blog and keep it entirely distinct from their academic work. However the growing prominence of Twitter within higher education led them to change tack entirely, actually pushing them into more engagement online at a time when various unpleasant events had meant that they wanted exactly the opposite. As I discuss in the final chapter, there’s a real risk that social media are becoming mandated by institutions in a way that risks squeezing out the potential scholarly and personal value to be found in their use. At least superficially, it might appear that negotiating this identity dilemma is likely to be a simple matter of familiarizing yourself with a code of practice and ensuring that your conduct stays within what it defines as acceptable behavior. However the reality is likely more complex, or at least it will become so over time. At present social media guidelines are intensely liable to revision, likely introduced either as a form of retrospective crisis management or in a non-binding way as an initiative of social media mangers. This is not universally true though and it’s important to familiarize yourself with the policy at your institution.

Though as Mewburn and Thomson (2013) suggest, ‘An academic blogger could make the argument that they are operating as a private individual who blogs in their own time’. But how would this be received? Trends in other sectors do not give cause for optimism. In an overview of how employers are using social media for recruitment, McDonald and Thompson (2015) suggest the two main benefits this offers to employers: helping them to select ‘enterprising’ candidates and screen out those deemed to be undesirable in some way, particularly on the basis of criteria which are difficult to act on as part of the formal recruitment process. Exactly how widespread such a practice is remains difficult to ascertain reliably. There are polls of employers which suggest the figure could be over 50% but it’s a difficult phenomenon to measure reliably. For instance, it’s hard to imagine that any employer would ever record figures on ‘people we would have hired but didn’t when we check their Facebook profile’, and the causality would remain elusive even if this were not the case.

We might assume that higher education, as well as the professions more broadly, will tend to be somewhat unique simply because there’s a greater likelihood that candidate and recruiters might already have encountered each other in a professional setting. This might seem unnerving: someone reading an ill-judged tweet you sent when travelling home from a party on a Friday night might one day be charged with assessing whether or not to give you a job. But is it really so different from the situation which already applies in the academy? The person you’re making small talk with at a conference might one day be a future colleague. The presenter to whom you are addressing an ill-tempered intervention (perhaps a ‘comment rather than a question’) might one day be your manager. These possibilities are inherent in academic life, and we rarely find ourselves socially inhibited in light of them, so is there any reason why social media should be any different? I don’t think there is. However it’s perhaps easier to lose sight of this on social media than it is when physically attending an event. The prospect of being surreptitiously judged and found wanting by potential employers is obviously worrying. What makes it so unnerving is the likely opacity of the criteria involved: being judged in private upon standards to which you are not privy violates many of our intuitions about fairness. While it may be difficult to know how widespread this screening is within higher education, as well as the potential impact it has on any particular case or on recruitment processes more generally, it nonetheless points to what I think can be taken as a general rule of professional identity in a digital age. The more you tell your own story on a social media, the more difficult it is for other people to tell a story about you based on the fragments of material they find about you online (Thompson 2015). Plus a disclaimer would never hurt, if for no other reason than to placate your employers in the event that something does go wrong.

Potential Pitfalls

Social media and disclaimers

One way to make clear your own understanding of your activity is to add a disclaimer to your relevant accounts. Obviously the appropriate form for such a disclaimer varies across platforms. The most familiar form of such a disclaimer can be found in the countless academic Twitter profiles which make clear that ‘all views my own’ or ‘tweeting in a personal capacity’ etc. However these need not be confined to Twitter. For instance my own blog featured the following disclaimer:

The views on this blog are my own and are not connected to my institution. Pretty much everything on here is a work in progress. I also use it to record thoughts which haven’t yet reached even this status. Please note the date stamp on anything you read and consult my academic publications for a reliable record of my considered thoughts on the topics which feature on this blog.

My intention here is to make clear that I often work out provisional ideas on my blog. Anyone who reads it on a regular basis has probably already realized this, but adding the disclaimer reassures me that those stumbling across it will (hopefully) refrain from taking anything they encounter as a definitive statement of my views. Other people’s disclaimers can be a useful template but it’s important that you’re clear about what it is you’re trying to express through the disclaimer and that you do this effectively.


Cottom, T. M. (2015a) “Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are?”: Academic engagement, microcelebrity and digital sociology from the Far Left of the matrix of domination’, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology.

Cottom. T. (2015b) Everything but the burden: Publics, public scholarship, and institutions. TressieMc, 21 May. Available at (last accessed 22 May 2015).

Fuller, S. (2003) ‘Can universities solve the problem of knowledge in society without succumbing to the knowledge society?’, Policy Futures in Education, 1 (1): 106-124.

Holmwood, J. (2011b) A Manifesto for the Public University. London: A&C Black.

Marwick, A.E. (2014) Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McDonald, P. & Thompson, P. (2016) ‘Social media(tion) and the reshaping of public/private boundaries in employment relations’, International Journal of Management Reviews, 18(1): 69–84.

McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble. London: Pluto.

Mewburn, I. & Thompson, P. (2013) ‘Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges’, Studies in Higher Education, 38(8): 1105-1119.

Nickel, P. (2011) ‘The man from somewhere: Author, affiliation, and letterhead’, Fast Capitalism, 8(2).

Pearce, N., Weller, M., Scanlon, E. & Kinsley, S. (2012) ‘Digital scholarship considered: How new technologies could transform academic work’, Education, 16(1).

Thompson, P. (2015) ‘Constructing a sociological career’. Talk given at the University of Manchester, 20 February.

Vostal, F. (2015) ‘Academic life in the fast lane: The experience of time and speed in British academia’, Time & Society, 24(1): 71-95.