How and why to tell your story online, revisited

I wrote this essay in 2006 as part of a series of Internet explainers I did for New Hampshire Public Radio. It never aired for reasons lost to history, so I’m publishing this 15-year-old time capsule here for the first time. My motive is of course not purely archival. I’m also reminding myself why I should still practice now what I preached then.

How and why to tell your story online

Teens and twenty-somethings are flocking to social websites like MySpace and Facebook, where they post photos, music, and personal diaries. Parents, teachers, and cops wish they wouldn’t. It’s a culture war between generations, and right now everybody’s losing.

Kids: Listen up. Did you hear the story about the college student who didn’t get hired because of his Facebook page? Or the teenage girl whose MySpace blog told an attacker when she’d be home alone? These things happen very rarely, but they can happen. Realize that the words and pictures you publish online will follow you around for the rest of your lives. Realize that wrong choices can have embarrassing or even tragic consequences.

Now, grownups, it’s your turn to listen up. You’re right to worry about the kids. But there’s another side to the story. The new forms of Internet self-publishing — including social networks, blogs, podcasting, and video sharing — can be much more than narcissistic games. Properly understood and applied, they’re power tools for claiming identity, exerting influence, and managing reputation. Sadly, very few adults are learning those skills, and fewer still are teaching them.

It’s not enough to condemn bad online behavior. We’ve got to model good online behavior too — in schools, on the job, and in civic life. But we’re stuck in a Catch-22 situation. Kids, who intuit the benefits of the new social media, fail to appreciate the risks. Grownups, meanwhile, see only risks and no benefits.

There’s a middle ground here, and we need to approach it from both sides of the generation gap. The new reality is that, from now on, our lives will be documented online — perhaps by us, perhaps by others, perhaps by both. We may or may not influence what others will say about us. But we can surely control our own narratives, and shape them in ways that advance our personal, educational, professional, and civic agendas.

Your online identity is a lifelong asset. If you invest in it foolishly you’ll regret that. But failing to invest at all is equally foolish. The best strategy, as always, is to invest wisely.

Here’s a simple test to guide your strategy. Imagine someone searching Google for your name. That person might be a college admissions officer, a prospective employer, a new client, an old friend, or even a complete stranger. The reason for the search might be to evaluate your knowledge, interests, agenda, accomplishments, credentials, activities, or reputation.

What do you want that person to find? That’s what you should publish online.

To find three examples of what I mean, try searching the web for the following three names: Todd Suomela, Martha Burtis, Thomas Mahon. In each case, the first Google result points to a personal blog that narrates a professional life.

Todd Suomela is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. On his blog, Todd writes about what he’s learning, and about how his interests and goals are evolving. He hasn’t launched his professional career yet. But when he does, his habit of sharing the information resources he collects, and reflecting thoughtfully on his educational experience, will serve him well.

Martha Burtis is an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington. She and her team research and deploy the technologies that students, faculty, and staff use to learn, teach, and collaborate. On her blog, Martha writes about the tools and techniques she and her team are developing, she assesses how her local academic community is making use of those tools and techniques, and thinks broadly about the future of education.

Thomas Mahon is a Savile Row tailor. His shop in London caters to people who can spend two thousand pounds on a classic handmade suit. I’ll never be in the market for one of those, but if I were I’d be fascinated by Mahon’s blog,, which tells you everything you might want to know about Savile Row past and present, about how Mahan practices the craft of bespoke tailoring, and about how to buy and care for the garments he makes.

For Todd and Martha and Thomas, the benefits of claiming their Net identities in these ways run wide and deep. Over time, their online narratives become autobiographies read by friends, colleagues, or clients, and just as importantly, read by people who may one day become friends, colleagues, or clients.

In most cases, of course, the words, pictures, audio, and video you might choose to publish online won’t attract many readers, listeners, or viewers. That’s OK. The point is that the people they do attract will be exactly the right people: those who share your interests and goals.

We’ve always used the term ‘social networking’ to refer to the process of finding and connecting with those people. And that process has always depended on a fabric of trust woven most easily in the context of local communities and face-to-face interaction.

But our interests and goals aren’t merely local. We face global challenges that compel us to collaborate on a global scale. Luckily, the new modes of social networking can reach across the Internet to include people anywhere and everywhere. But if we’re going to trust people across the Internet, we’ll need to be able check their references. Self-published narrative is one crucial form of evidence. The public reaction to such narratives, readily discoverable thanks to search engines and citation indexes, is another.

Is this a new and strange new activity? From one perspective it is, and that’s why I can’t yet point to many other folks who’ve figured out appropriate and effective ways to be online, as Todd and Martha and Thomas have.

But from another perspective, Internet self-publishing is just a new way to do what we’ve been doing for tens of thousand years: telling stories to explain ourselves to one another, and to make sense of our world.

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