Performing the professional self

Reflections on the development of my professional identity and how my website helps me show who I am

As a content writer, I spend a lot of time helping people to create their online professional identities and I’m constantly refining my own. My website is key to my online professional identity, even more so than social media. When your business is you, there’s an obvious tension that comes to the fore in building your online identity: how do you balance presenting an authentic version of yourself with the probable motivation for developing an online professional identity, building your business?

Pagis and Ailon (2017, p. 261) recognise these ‘tensions and paradoxes’ inherent in self-branding exercises, which themselves are ‘textual and visual performances’ of identity. Using my website as an example, let’s take a look at three aspects of online professional identity performance identified by Pagis and Ailon (2017, pp. 251-259) as ‘constructed uniqueness’, ‘constructed friendliness’ and ‘constructed realness’.

Elements of online professional identity. Source: Pagis, M & Ailon, G 2017, ‘The paradoxes of self-branding: an analysis of consultants’ professional web pages’, Work and Occupations, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 243-267, doi: 10.1177/0730888417709327
Image designed by L Bevilacqua, 15 December 2019 using Canva

A unique mix

On my website I identify professionally as both a writer and an editor. For me this is important because I am not writer who also edits or an editor who also writes. I see ‘writer’ and ‘editor’ as two of the multiple identities I hold.

Some of my many identities (L Bevilacqua, 16 December 2019; centre photograph by L Bevilacqua, taken 17 September 2019)
Designed using Canva

This could be seen as an example of constructing coherence between multiple identities and ‘emphasizing multiple expertise’, which contributes to the construction of a unique identity (Pagis & Ailon 2017, p. 252). The other aspect of constructing uniqueness is ‘inventing specialized services’ (Pagis & Ailon 2017, pp. 252-253), but I’m yet to discover that particular part of my skill set.

Friendly or formal?

On my first website, I was quite formal, impersonal and almost hidden. My current website, however, is much more personal and friendly. This transition could be explained as a period of experimenting with and evaluating ‘provisional selves’ (Ibarra 1999, p. 779; Demetry 2017, p. 198) as I developed new professional identities. I also changed from using a business name unrelated to my own name to only using my personal name, and this is reflected in my web address. Interestingly, a 2012 study found some independent professionals considered it a disadvantage to emphasise their personal name in their web address, while others thought it helped to encourage a personal connection (Killoran 2012, pp. 274-278). I tend to agree with the latter, but it depends what’s right for you.

My tweet pondering whether there has been a shift towards independent professionals using their personal name in their web address.

In addition, how you refer to yourself can change how friendly you appear, as this video that I tweeted explains:

Personal invitations to connect are one way to deploy this friendly voice in performing your online professional identity (Pagis & Ailon 2017, p. 254). You can see examples of how I use this technique on my Home, Writing and Editing pages.

Another element of friendliness is the ‘attempt to expose the personal “behind” the professional’ (Pagis & Ailon 2017, p. 253). On my website there’s just a single sentence about my personal interests on the About page. However, this is an improvement on my first website, which featured no personal identity at all. I’m slowly becoming more open on social media as well, but it doesn’t come naturally for me.

Lastly on the topic of friendliness is what isn’t on my website, or the ‘silences’, typically around money (Pagis & Ailon 2017, p. 255). In the past, I have experimented with putting pricing on my website. For now at least, my approach reflects the findings of Pagis and Ailon (2017, p. 255) who say of the online professional profiles they examined that ‘work is frequently portrayed as a passion, something that the profiler likes doing’ and ‘[the profile] reenacts the client as a partner in a much larger, passion-evoking, interesting, fun, and meaningful project’. That’s certainly the way I think about projects and I want to work with people who appreciate a relational, not transactional, approach.

Being real (whatever that means)

How ‘real’ is the ‘you’ on your website? Getting this right is about ‘producing an impression of a more rounded and full persona’ while at the same time avoiding ‘depictions of niceness or passion as mere caricatures’ (Pagis & Ailon 2017, pp. 256-257). Although I am comfortable with the ‘me’ on my website being real, I wonder how others perceive me? Personal stories, non-work photographs and links to personal social media can all help demonstrate ‘realness’ (Pagis & Alion 2017, pp. 255-259). Yet I do none of these.

I have used a selfie as my profile picture and a photograph I took as a header image. This alone presents my identity as more real than on my first website, which had no profile picture and relied heavily on stock photography. But is this enough? I suspect that were I to suddenly start including more personal content on my website or professional social media, it may well come across as inauthentic and forced if my reason for doing so was that research says it will make me more real.

Closing reflections

Analysing how I perform my professional identity through my website has demonstrated the evolution of how I see myself and how I want to be seen professionally. It also provides an example of how uniqueness, friendliness and realness contribute to the performance of the professional self online.

I hope this has given you something helpful to consider as you navigate the performance of your own professional identity online. For me, it’s been a reminder that there is no prescribed formula for achieving the perfect online identity, but being aware of how we perform our online professional selves can allow us to make the most of the opportunities it presents.

References

Demetry, D 2017, ‘Pop-up to professional: emerging entrepreneurial identity and evolving vocabularies of motive’, Academy of Management Discoveries, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 187-207, doi: 10.5465/amd.2015.0152

Ibarra, H 1999, ‘Provisional selves: experimenting with image and identity in professional adaptation’, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 44, pp. 764-791, doi: 10.2307/2667055

Killoran, JB 2012, ‘Is it “About Us”? Self-representation of technical communication consultants, independent contractors, and companies on the web’, Technical Communication, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 267-285, retrieved 15 December 2019, JSTOR.

Pagis, M & Ailon, G 2017, ‘The paradoxes of self-branding: an analysis of consultants’ professional web pages’, Work and Occupations, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 243-267, doi: 10.1177/0730888417709327

Peters, P 2007, The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (cited in tweeted video).

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