Essay: Web presence, branding, and managing perceptions

Originally published online here.

Facebook users are now, as of 12:01 this morning, able to pick usernames, thus creating easy-to-remember links to their Profiles. (More information here.)

For some, picking a username was easy. I was not one of those people. I went back and forth up to the last minute between my real name and the online nick I’ve had since I first joined AOL in the early 90s.

Here’s why the choice wasn’t obvious.

Differences Among Social Networks

A lot of people treat all their online profiles the same way. They put the same information in every profile and link all their profiles to each other. In this post I’m dealing with social networking sites, but many people do this for all sites they frequent, whether there are communities built around them or not.

I have always viewed my online interactions on a community basis. The people I interact with on one site are not necessarily the people I interact with on another. I don’t see the point in having the same people on every single online application. Joining people in an online world is akin to being in a club–we’re all there because we share a certain interest, and we’ve chosen these means to explore that interest. A web application’s features ultimately determine what community it’s best for, through social evolution. Similarly, the content I publish is geared towards the community where I’m posting it.

Twitter, for example, is a microblog and conversation and news source and directory and more. It’s a way to track what’s interesting to people in the fields I’m interested in, and it’s also a way for me to drive my own creativity by getting random thoughts out of my head and into the world. I don’t simply follow everyone I know, because not everyone I know uses Twitter the way I use it. Similarly, I will follow and interact with people I don’t know if they are using Twitter the way I use it.

Some people have their Twitter and Facebook accounts linked, and post the same things to both. I tried that at first, but it seemed awkward and foreign, because ultimately I use Facebook and Twitter differently. The things I want my Twitter followers to see are not the same things I want my close friends and family to see–and those are the people I want to have on Facebook.

I don’t use Facebook for networking. I don’t friend everyone who wants to friend me, and I don’t advertise my page. I keep my professional life separate as well; I do not friend employers, past or present.

Facebook, to me, has always been about organizing people I am or have been close to. It’s been a lifesaver, a way to keep track of real life friends who I don’t interact with in other ways on the web. I have old friends from school, distant family members, and work friends there. I also have old online friends there, friends from my IRC or AMRN days who I don’t see often anymore.

The way I behave on Facebook is different from the way I behave elsewhere online. I censor certain things. I keep it fairly clean, and I don’t get deep into issues like politics and religion. On Facebook, I’m managing the perceptions of people who haven’t necessarily followed my blog for years, or who don’t see me every day, or who otherwise aren’t at the forefront of my life–but who are still very important to me.

These people are not interested in what I had for lunch, unless I had lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant in another country. These people don’t want to hear me bitch and moan. These people could care less about the minutiae of my day. I keep those things out of my Facebook and on my Twitter and blog where they belong. Instead, I let people know occasionally what’s going on with me, and I read what’s going on with them and comment or Like their updates. It’s a simple interaction, a way to say “Hey, I’m thinking about you” without getting in too deep. The memes, quizzes, and applications like Free Gifts and Flair that get passed around are the same–simple ways to reach out to people I care about and don’t see often, hopefully without overwhelming them.

There’s also a certain level of trust involved with Facebook. I have private contact information there for the use of people I know in real life, and I don’t really care to make my interactions with everyone I know public. Facebook is like a walled garden where I can mingle and observe without worrying too much about the outside world.

A Personal Brand

Since I use Facebook mostly for people I know offline, my real name makes the most sense as a Facebook username. And indeed, this is the reasoning behind my choice. However, there is another factor that weighed on me: branding.

I have not yet decided on a personal brand–a way to market myself once I get going on all the ideas currently stewing on the back burner. I have many options: my real name, the name of my website, any of my online personas, or something completely new.

Using my real name for my Facebook Profile’s username could mean I’ve removed it from the running for a brand. Why? Because, as stated above, I do not use Facebook for networking. I do not necessarily want potential clients, business partners, etc. looking up my profile there–not because they’d be able to see anything (I have strict privacy settings) but because I wouldn’t want to offend any of them by declining their friend requests.

If I had already chosen to use my name as my brand, and I had created a Facebook Page for that purpose, then I could have given that Page my real name. Now I don’t have that option.

It’s Better Than Nothing

Given my consternation over choosing a username, I could have opted to wait, or not to register a username at all. Facebook usernames are permanent, after all. I can never change it. The only way I could get a new username would be to create a completely different account.

It’s a sobering fact, and one that sparked the unwelcome thought “What if I make my username heathermeadows and then we get divorced?” (A younger me would never have even entertained this notion, because obviously Sean and I are going to be together forever. But being married to Sean has gradually instilled in me not only a rather wicked sense of humor, but also a kind of cold objectivity that comes out when it’s time to make big decisions.) For that reason I briefly pondered getting my maiden name instead–and really, that might have made it easier for old friends to find me.

Regardless, I knew that the longer I waited, the less chance there’d be of getting an optimal username. Plenty of people stayed up late specifically to snag their names. My name is not uncommon, either. If I wanted my typical online name I could probably have waited, since it’s unique to me…but if I wanted my real name I had to act immediately.

In the end, I decided to just go with my gut. I sat at and waited for the countdown to finish. At magic time, a blue Continue button appeared. I hit it, reflexively tagged the radio button next to Facebook’s suggestion of my real name, then hit Confirm.

It was over, just like that.

Moving Forward

The web and our use of it are always evolving. It’s possible that in the future I will want to use Facebook differently than I do today. I’ve already made exceptions to my standard rules by friending a couple of local people who I’ve never actually met.

It’s also possible that Facebook will disappear and all of this will be moot.

But no matter what happens online, my name will always be my name. So despite the above concerns, I think it’s safe to say I made the correct long-term choice.