You Are A Brand (whether you like it or not)

In today’s employers market (and it is theirs, believe me), the base line assumption is that everyone down to the lowliest person in your company will have an email address and an electronic copy of their resume.  At the Public Library we spend hours a day introducing returning job seekers to this world that they’ve accidentally come to inhabit that is entirely online.  Checkout Cashiers at the local grocery have to apply online.  People who wash dishes, or flip burgers have to apply online.  To someone net savvy, like any of the people who are reading this blog right now this may seem like it’s not a big deal.  But it is.  It is an enormous deal, because these new job seekers, by the truckload, are unprepared to enter into this kind of workforce.  And the library becomes a default place to learn those skills in the moment of need.

Now I’m not complaining that we need to go back to paper society with physical applications, or even that our job is made more difficult by the massive influx of people who don’t have computer skills.  What I am more importantly concerned with is the severe disadvantage that new people jumping into the digital age face as they enter into the new workforce.

I’ve been online since 1994, at least.  I had an email address at the University of Cincinnati while I was undergraduate.  I learned how to navigate Gophers, then Mozilla, then Netscape.  I developed a handle for my email when I got one at Yahoo in 1997.  I came into my adult dating years via IRC.  I was filing documents online and through EDI to shipping companies in Costa Rica in 1998.  I jumped onto LiveJournal in 2002.  I’ve been on some social networks since before they were open to the public.  I’ve got a very broad and deep public persona.  And it’s one that, over the last few years, I’ve cultivated carefully into the person writing this blog.  That’s 15 years of history of being online, to become the person I am today.

And now we expect everyone to be there as a matter of course.  Not only are they expected to be at that level, but they are also expected to understand intricate levels of social propriety in online discourse so that they won’t tarnish the reputation of the company.  Some companies administer social media background checks against new employees, and if your public (or semi-public) persona is at fault they won’t hire you.

Everyone online is expected to be a brand of themselves now.  You’re not just promoting yourself when you go to that fancy party, or when you hand out your business cards.  No, it’s all the time.  You are building a reputation of who you are and what your values are as a person and as an employee all the time.  And your employers, as well as everyone else in the world, know who you make yourself out to be.  They can see if you talk about your previous employers, or if you bitch about your job and your coworkers.  Don’t think for a minute that they can’t.

Adults who have no online presence today, are like people with no credit score.  If you have no credit score, no bank in their right mind is going to give you a loan.  You’re untrusted goods.  No one knows your value or the value of your word.  The same is true for your online persona.  If you don’t have one, that says volumes about who you are to a prospective employer.  They don’t know who you are as an employee, but they can already tell that you’re lagging behind other people in the workforce. That means they will have to invest extra amounts of time in training you, which no American company is willing to do when they can pick and choose from the cream of the crop.

But even more damaging than those people who have no online persona are those who have been born with them.  Again, I see kids at the public library every day going onto Facebook, uploading videos to YouTube and posting pictures all over the internet.  One of the strange trends that is popping up these days are fight videos.  Now, everyone who went to a public school saw a fight between teens.  I saw plenty of them back in my day, and I could probably name names.  Some of them were vicious and brutal, and it is a fact that it happens.  But there was no permanent record of these fights occurring between these people.  Now there is.  And personal, reputation damaging content like this being online can ruin someone’s life before they even have a chance to begin it.  There was a fantastic article in Forbes about how The School at Columbia University is approaching teaching kids about the effects of their actions online.  They have developed an internal social network that allows the kids a chance to experiment with online interactions in a controlled environment, so that they can learn about the repercussions of their actions.  On page two they talk about a YouTube video that one of the students posted where he jokingly makes a racist statement and then play-fights with a friend.  A teacher was able to find the video, and bring the students into the Principal to talk about the consequences of what this video can mean to someone years down the road, when they themselves may have even forgotten it exists.  That level of social sophistication is something that today’s kids, and all future kids, are going to have to be instilled with from the very beginning.

The digital divide today is so much more than just having access to the computer and the internet.  It is about understanding a new level of social interactions, having a permanent record of your life available for the world to see, establishing a digital reputation for yourself, and maintaining that image throughout your life.  Adults joining the online world for the first have two hurdles to overcome, not only the technological, but also the social.  Children and Teens who are getting online are going to need to have a serious education about branding themselves, developing their unique online persona and managing the image of themselves online.  Teens are always experimenting with breaking the rules, and pushing boundaries, but they don’t always understand the consequences of their actions.  Today its even more crucial to know that, because mistakes that teens make today most certainly will come to define their employment opportunities in the future.

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