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Impression management in online professional communities

Presenting Professionalism:

Assignment No. 3 by

Senthil Sukumar
Group No. G17 Academic Writing CORE 006, T2 AY 09-10

I declare that this Assignment is my original work and all information obtained from other sources has been cited accordingly. _______________________ Signature and Date Course Instructor: Elizabeth Rankin

1 Introduction Online forums, social networking services, blogs and many other emerging forms of online networking websites have become popular mediums through which people interact with others. Although more commonly associated with social networking for personal reasons, and typified by successful social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, virtual communities of professionals are increasingly warming to the potential benefits of social networking sites in creating and maintaining a professional image. In this paper, it is suggested that the technologies of online social networks offer more precise impression management tools than can be found in traditional face-to-face interactions, and allows virtual communities of professionals to better present and maintain the ideal professional image. To demonstrate this, real world professional identity formation will be contrasted with aspects of professional identity formation on online social networking sites. In addition, the challenge of establishing credibility in an online environment and how exclusivity of participation in social networking sites can solidify a virtual community’s professional identity will be explored.

Professional Identity Professional identity can be defined as the persona of an individual which is designed in accordance to a code of conduct that facilitates the attainment of objectives unique and central to a particular profession. The purposeful design of an individual’s professional identity traditionally begins with the attainment of skills that usually requires formal training and education, and eventually, tangible proof of professional competency in the form of certifications, accreditations, or academic qualifications is obtained. These proofs of professional competency (e.g. a medical license, bar certification etc.) communicate to others firstly, a compliance with a set of professional standards, secondly, the possession of certain specialized knowledge, and thirdly for some professions, an adherence to ethical guidelines, and are often sufficient to coalesce around a particular community of professionals a common professional identity (Harshman et al., 2005, p. 230). Proofs of competency alone, however, are insufficient for the long-run maintenance of a professional identity. Harshman et al. (2005) assert that the individuals’ need for expert assistance and their inability to satisfy those needs for themselves creates a dependency and

2 vulnerability to the expertise of professionals, and the primary factor that contributes to overall satisfaction of services rendered is the application of specialized and professional expertise that produces tangible and beneficial results (p. 229). This means that the professional’s inanimate proofs of competency must eventually be augmented by confidence in competency that can only be provided by individuals who are external to the professional community such as patients, clients or customers. Confidence in competency is earned through repeated use of a professional’s expert faculties to provide beneficial assistance to these external parties, and it produces three key elements of the professional identity: expertise, experience and reputation. How well and for how long the professionals within a community fulfill the needs of external parties through efficacious use of their professional competencies ultimately determines the degree to which external parties choose to legitimize the professional identity of the professions they are dependent on. This legitimization by external parties, through repeated engagement of professional services from a chosen community, recommendation of these services to other external parties, or through direct and positive feedback about services rendered, is crucial for professional communities in establishing a successful professional identity.

Offline vs. Online Impression Management The professional identity that accompanies proofs of competency are made manifest through appropriate public displays of these proofs, such as when credentials are displayed in the accompanying professional setting (e.g. a doctor hanging his medical certificate on a wall in his office) so that when non-professionals enter the spaces of the professional setting, there is little room for debate about the professional function and capabilities of the practitioner. In addition, professionals augment these proofs of competency through experience, age, demeanor, dress, and manipulation of professional tools such as a stethoscope or a legal contract in order to present a claim to professional expertise (Harshman et al., 2005, p. 230). In real world interactions, these physical cues are often used to establish the validity of professional knowledge and advice. If the individuals within a community assume the ‘look’ that is commonly ascribed to a particular profession, or if they are in an environment commonly associated with a particular profession, then the professional identity and authority of that community is often adequately established beyond doubt, and the ideal impression is conveyed.

3 Impression management is thus the goal-directed conscious or unconscious attempt to influence the perceptions of other people by controlling information in social interactions. Through impression management, individuals and groups try to manipulate the impressions others form of them, with the ultimate aim of projecting and validating a positive professional persona. In the real world, impression management is exercised through explicit signals such as the aforementioned professional credentials or attire as well as implicit signals like body language and tone of voice. In cyberspace, however, the physical proofs of competency and environmental cues that lend credence to professional identities are omitted, and professionals are no longer able to rely on these usual signals to manage the communication of their professional identities to external parties. Online impression management serves to remedy these omissions by providing tools through which professionals are able to communicate competency in an online environment.

Managing an Online Professional Identity In the virtual environment, the proofs of competency that convey professionalism are replaced with user profiles where personal information and the professional qualifications of an individual are collated and displayed for both members of the community and external parties to view. Through profile pages, the first element of the professional identity, namely expertise, is adequately conveyed to peers within a professional community as well as to external parties through the inclusion of professional qualifications. This inclusion can occur either through preassigned data fields for the sole purpose of publicizing an individual’s qualifications, or the use of the ‘About Me’ data field to describe these qualifications. The latter is a staple of virtually every modern social networking website. The second element of experience is communicated more effectively online through these profile pages than offline interactions. This is due to the fact that in professional face-to-face interactions, unless queried or as a means to validate one’s level of professional expertise, it would be awkward to mention the number of years of experience one has had thus far in a particular profession. Another gauge of experience, both offline and online, is the range of one’s professional network, as over time, professionals are expected to have built up an extensive network consisting of professionals both internal and external to the practitioner’s profession. The size and range of a professional’s network is often used as an implicit indicator of how

4 experienced that professional is, and like the explicit revelation of the length of experience one has, revealing the range and size of one’s professional network in physical interactions is often awkward (Kleck et al., 2007, p. 4) and can come across as self-aggrandizing. In online interactions, however, information such as the number of years of experience one has can be updated informally, and social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn automatically calculate and list the number of people in an individual’s network. As the act of accessing the information available on online profile pages is initiated by an external audience, through social networking sites, professionals are able to effectively communicate their level of experience and network size automatically, routinely, and therefore casually (Kleck et al., 2007, p. 4). The third element of reputation is perhaps the best example of how online impression management tools can convey one’s professional identity more efficiently and with greater precision than offline impression management. Social networking sites, and in particular those in the form of online forums, which are essentially extensive databases of an individual’s contribution of expertise to a virtual community, function as automated and accessible aggregators of online professional discourse. This aggregation of discursive content allows others to view the contributions of members within a particular community, and external parties can then evaluate the quality of discourse to determine the professional breadth of that community. However, there is a distinction to be made here regarding the difference between data and information on the Internet. The virtual world is a deluge of data; anything from stock prices to lists of drugs or legal definitions can be found at the click of a mouse, and Harshman et al. (2005) rightly assert that data delivered conveniently and cheaply will not rise to the level of information unless it finds appropriate and efficacious application (pp. 231, 235). The reputation of a professional community is thus enhanced (or reduced) based on how well available data is rearranged by professionals into useful information that provide guidance for appropriate action. The more applicable and useful professional discourse is to external parties, the greater the degree to which they legitimize the professional identity of the community from which such information is retrieved. Another online tool which provides an online representation of reputation is the rating system employed by social networking sites. Online rating systems measure two main types of online interactions of professionals: the level of contribution and the quality of contributions.

5 The level of contribution is measured by the number of times an individual contributes content to a virtual community, either through posting information useful to others who have access to that community, or by responding to the queries of other people with professional opinions and advice. These contributions are tallied into a numerical value that is equated with different tiers of professionalism. The higher this number, the more professional an individual is perceived to be as compared to other professionals with a lower contribution value. A professional’s quality of contributions is measured through reviews and feedback from professionals and nonprofessionals. Many social networking sites include feedback mechanisms through which a professional’s guidance and discursive contributions can be reviewed by others, and similar to the numerical value for the level of contribution, more positive reviews from others translates into a higher quality rating for that professional, and positive reviews serve as the online equivalent of legitimizing the professional identity. An example of online rating systems can be found on Facebook, where group pages created to represent a particular community such as commercial or professional organizations tabulate the number of interactions between the people within the community and those without. The quality of these interactions is also determined by the percentage of people that engage and interact with the community whenever new content is posted on a group page. The rating systems of social networking sites serve three purposes. Firstly, as a numerical representation of professionalism, it serves to quantify an individual’s professional reputation, and to improve this rating, individuals can choose to frequently and regularly contribute constructive content to their virtual communities. Secondly, it communicates to external parties the professional echelon of a particular virtual community: more active professionals and a higher quality of discourse within a virtual community can increase the willingness of external parties to approach, engage and interact with that virtual community. Thirdly, a successful professional identity communicated through these ratings can entice and draw in to that virtual community other professionals who seek to legitimize their own professional identities through active participation in communities of similar practice.

Case Study: Bankers On Line Forum User profiles, as mentioned previously, are highly customizable according to individual preferences; the selective obfuscation of certain elements of the offline persona and active

6 promotion of the professional persona is the most common form of online impression management, and results in a highly personalized collection of data that is the explicit digital representation of a person’s professional identity. An analysis of user profile design on Bankers On Line (BOL), a publicly available online forum dedicated to the professional discussions of bankers by Emmanuelle Vaast (2007) demonstrates how the various fields available in the forum’s user profiles are used to convey and affirm membership to their occupation. BOL user profiles consist of various data fields that users may or may not fill: these are the user id (only mandatory field), e-mail, member number, homepage, occupation, hobbies, location, birthday, bio, and date of registration (Vaast, 2007, p. 187). The website also automatically gives users' a title based on the level of contribution, and publishes the total number of posts per user (Vaast, 2007, p. 187). Among Vaast’s (2007) sample test group, several similarities in how data fields were filled were noted. To convey expertise, profiles usually included technical and professional certifications, and the occupation field was used to convey specialized roles within the banking profession, such as compliance or loan assistance (Vaast, 2007, p. 190). In contrast to the diversity of the values seen in the occupation field, the hobbies presented fell into only a few categories: indoor activities such as reading and cooking, outdoor activities such as fishing and sailing and sports such as golf and volleyball (Vaast, 2007, p. 191). BOL users avoided mentioning any hobby that was not socially approved offline, such as gambling, smoking or watching TV (Vaast, 2007, p. 191). In some profiles, the presentation of hobbies reinforced the impression of professionalism. Vaast (2007) noted that golfing appeared very often in the hobbies field, which is largely similar to offline environments where mentioning that one is a golfer conveys one’s social status (p. 191). Reputation is also conveyed through BOL’s rating system, which segregates users based on the amount of content contributed to the forum. Users progress through the various tiers according to the cumulative number of posts they have made, and a system-generated title corresponding to different levels of contribution is assigned to users. This title is visible to both registered and non-registered users of BOL, and categorizes registered users (the majority of whom are bankers) into different tiers of professionalism. For example, a user with the title of ‘Junior Member’ (post count of 25) may be perceived to be less professional than a user with the title of ‘Diamond Poster’ (post count of 1000). In addition, some titles are not attainable through

7 content contribution, but are assigned by the BOL forum owner to denote official representatives of the company or other VIPs, and denote an entirely separate, but coveted level of professionalism. Vaast’s (2007) research also highlights how although the impression management tools provided by BOL’s virtual environment allows users to ‘mystify’ their professional identities by not including information such as their real names or email addresses, most professionals actually provided a lot of information on their profile pages in an attempt to limit the distance between their online and offline personas (p. 194). Vaast (2007) posits that such "demystification" may be part of an impression management tactic (p. 194). On the Internet, where anyone can manipulate data to take on the identity of someone else, providing information about the offline persona can be used to enhance the trustworthiness of the professional persona and establish credibility. In addition, although it was observed that markers of offline social identities such as gender and motherhood were included in most user profiles, other markers such as age and ethnicity, readily identifiable in offline environments, were absent in the BOL forums, and while professional training and past experiences were often mentioned, there was usually no detail about the certifying institutions and the previous companies for which the user had worked (Vaast, 2007, p. 194). These observations suggest that over time, social norms of what should and should not be presented in BOL user profiles had emerged, and that users collectively modified the aspects of the offline self they presented in the virtual environment of the BOL forum in accordance to these norms (Vaast, 2007, p. 194).

Assuming a False Professional Identity Despite the positive aspects of professional identity formation afforded by the technologies of social networking sites, the same tools that provide for the micro-management of professional identities can potentially lend themselves to abuse. As digital data is far easier to fabricate than real-world cues to professionalism such as age, dress or credentials, the online professional identity’s reliance on user-modifiable input to construct a coherent virtual front makes it easier for external parties to infiltrate the ranks of and masquerade as professionals. Lewis (2001) puts forth a well-publicized case of this type of deception in which 12-yearold Marcus Arnold began dispensing legal advice on, an online knowledge sharing

8 portal. Within a relatively short period, 12-year-old Marcus had created a new professional identity for himself, that of a lawyer, and had became one of the top legal ‘experts’ on the website. In a particular two-week period he had answered nearly 1000 legal questions (as cited in Lewis, 2001, p. 36). On AskMe’s version of the user profile page, Marcus had listed himself as a ‘ expert with two years of formal training in the law’ and as being involved in ‘…trials, legal studies and certain forms of jurisprudence’, but in actual fact, he lacked any form of legal training and experience whatsoever (as cited in Lewis, 2001, p. 36). Like most social networking sites, has a rating system where users can rate the self-designated experts from whom they seek advice, and this rating is calculated based on the number of questions answered by the expert, the speed with which the answers are provided, and the usefulness or quality of responses (Harshman et al., 2005, p. 228) User satisfaction with the quality of Marcus’ legal advice was extremely high, and he eventually made it to AskMe’s list of the ‘Top 10’ legal experts. Although the majority of users were satisfied with Marcus’s advice, their lack of knowledge and dependency on professional expertise made them unable to distinguish between proper legal information and Marcus’ well-researched data. This example shows how easy it is for pretenders to use Internet technologies to assume a false professional identity, and although no one was harmed from Marcus’ unqualified legal advice, it demonstrates how individuals can be deceived by unsubstantiated claims of professional expertise.

Exclusivity as a Gauge of Professionalism Online impression management is not merely a tool for the professionals within a virtual community. The creators of virtual communities can apply impression management tactics to their creations as well to establish a community’s ideal professional image. The members within a professional community all possess a common set of knowledge and skills, and they articulate some form of moral commitment associated with the practice of that profession (Harshman et al., 2005, p. 230). This implies that real-world professional communities have as the criterion for entry into a particular community the exclusivity of skill and commitment that is central to a particular profession. This is reminiscent of guilds prevalent in the early Middle Ages that brought together the craftsmen of a particular trade, and although exclusive guilds of craftsmen

9 have been largely replaced by modern capitalist economies, there is no question about the guildlike aspects of professional communities of practice. This guild structure, when translated to virtual communities, seems even more contradictory given the evolution of the Internet as a democratic and level playing field. Bruckman (1996), however, gives an example of the benefits of guild-like communities by describing how, in creating and managing the professional identity of MediaMOO, an online community for media researchers, she rigorously enforced the requirement that new members be actively involved in media-related academic research. To preserve MediaMOO’s character as a place to conduct scholarly discussions, she regularly rejects applications from undergraduates with no particular focus to their interests (Bruckman, 1996, p. 175), and similar to guild recruitment, most new members are attracted either by word of mouth or recommended by existing professionals within the community. In addition, Bruckman (1996) also recognized that individuals who are not willing to fully share their professional identities online would be less inclined to engage in serious professional discussion, and thus enforced a strict non-anonymity policy for MediaMOO (p. 176). Guild-like exclusivity of membership is not necessarily a bad thing. As Bruckman (1996) notes, virtual communities are groups of people brought together for a common purpose, and achieving that purpose requires a recreation of the discretionary polices inherent in guilds to determine who can join a professional community (p. 174). Thus, deciding on how virtual communities operate with regards to admissions policies and anonymity limits the scope of discourse that occurs, and can be an efficient determinant of a virtual community’s level of professionalism. If the same strict admissions policies and rules of non-anonymity that MediaMOO employs had been used by to validate Marcus Arnold’s claim to legal expertise, he would have been unable to assume and project the professional identify of a lawyer as successfully and for as long as he did. Another form of exclusivity comes in the form of content moderation, where discursive content is actively monitored by individuals who are familiar with the professional character of an online community, and filter out content that is deemed as inappropriate or out of line with this pre-defined character. Moderation of content, like restricting admissions into an online community, grants certain individuals within a community power over others, and can be an effective compromise between stringent exclusionary policies and fully open, non-exclusionary

10 communities (Bruckman, 1996, p. 175). Content moderation also allows non-professionals to enter a virtual community and seek professional advice while limiting their influence on the rest of the community. This allows virtual communities to function as places where professional advice can be given to external parties, while ensuring that people with differences of opinion or an antagonistic agenda do not interact with a virtual community in a deliberate attempt to disrupt professional discourse (Bruckman, 1996, 176).

Summary and Conclusions This paper has identified three main elements that constitute the professional identity: expertise, experience and reputation, and how online impression management tools such as user profiles and rating systems allow professionals to better create and maintain an ideal professional image in a virtual environment as opposed to a physical one. The rationale for this is because social networking sites are able to effectively communicate explicit signals of expertise while replacing the (sometimes ambiguous) implicit real world signals that suggest professionalism by aggregating and numerically quantifying the elements of experience and reputation. In addition, the research conducted by Vaast (2007) demonstrates that shared expectations and norms can be formed in a professional virtual community, and this influences the collective impression management tactics of that community such that a consistent and common community identity is projected. However, there are limitations to online impression management with regards to standards of professional integrity, as the democratically participative nature of cyberspace provides both professionals and non-professionals with access to a common set of impression management tools on social networking sites. To prevent individuals from communicating a professional claim to expertise where there is none and undermining the credibility of a professional community, principles of exclusivity must be exercised. Ultimately, the phenomenal rise of social networking sites, combined with the increasing trend of professional discourse being carried out online means that even with the potential for misuse, the art of online impression management must be practiced and continually refined if virtual communities want to communicate to others a shared, consistent and ideal professional identity.


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