Who are you when you go online? That’s a question that goes way beyond how you feel in your own virtual skin, and affects how we perceive and relate to one another in the world of social media. I recently gave a TEDx talk based on my HBR post, 10 Reasons to Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life. When that talk appeared on sites like The Atlantic and Slate, the comment threads revealed that many people have already embraced their online lives as real — which is why we need to stop using the acronym IRL (In Real Life) to refer to the offline world.
But many wonder whether online people are real. Those who remain reluctant to engage online often blame the frequently confrontational, hostile, or even cruel tone of online conversation. That rudeness might be a sign that we aren’t our real selves online, but some kind of demonic creature that is unleashed by the computer. Or it might be a sign that we are all too real online, liberated to be our real selves by the remove or anonymity of online communications.
The truth, of course, is that people are their real selves online — but they make wildly divergent choices about which part of that real self they’re going to share and project. Some of us may get real by becoming angels: letting down our defenses, sharing our creativity and insights, or even our most personal experiences (sometimes by getting real anonymously). Others get real by becoming devils: losing the sense of diplomacy or offline inhibitions that restrain their brusqueness, narcissism, or cruel sense of humor.
Most worrying, people are often utterly aware of whether they’re being angels or devils. They read their outbound emails through the lens of their own good intentions, their clever tweets as funny rather than mean. Online, the human struggle to honestly understand your own strengths and weaknesses is intensified by the newness of our online customs and interactions.
Fortunately, we have some offline tools that are designed to compensate for our natural inability to see ourselves as others see us — most notably, the 360. The 360 is a widely-used HR and leadership tool in which a range of colleagues, friends, and family offer their different perspectives on your skills, talents, and character, to provide a 360-degree view of who you are.
While the 360 is sometimes criticized for its limitations, undertaking an online 360 offers a huge advantage over the way people usually evaluate their online personas (either not at all, or using a dubious indicator like Klout).
To get a clear picture of your online persona — and make no mistake, the variety of ways you communicate online define your online persona in the eyes of the people who know or follow you — send an online 360 to people who know you both on- and offline, as well as to people who know you online only. (Ideally you’ll also do a 360 of people who know you offline, so you can compare your online persona with your offline personality.)
Ask your respondents to provide a scaled assessment (1= never, 10=always) on the following:
- Is polite and respectful in their emails, tweets, or other online communications
- Provides useful or informative content in their online contributions or comments
- Makes effective use of their time online, and responds to online communications (e.g. emails, messages), comments (on blogs or in Twitter mentions) and feedback in a timely and effective way
- Provides constructive feedback and generous appreciation in their online comments, replies, and other online communications
- Is transparent about their relationship to or financial interest in the brands, companies, and products they discuss online
- Makes thoughtful and appropriate choices about which on- and offline communications channels to use for different purposes or in different circumstances, and inspires or encourages others to do the same
- Builds online relationships that support their own work and their organization’s goals
- Is an online leader within their field
Combine the results of your 360 into a single tally that gives you your average score on each indicator. When you look at your average numbers, don’t worry if you’re not a 10 on all eight indicators. What’s actually most useful is to look at the relative variance across each dimension: if you’re strong on content and leadership, but weaker on politeness or constructive engagement, that tells you your persona is recognized for expertise more than conversational style. If the same is true for your offline 360 — perhaps people describe you as a smart person who can be brusque in pursuit of a goal — then your online persona may be a very accurate and consistent reflection of who you are, period.
But if your personas diverge — if you’re known for your personal touch offline, but come off as a bull in a china shop online — you may want to think about how you can translate your face-to-face interpersonal skills into your online relationships, or conversely, how to speak so that the authority and expertise you hold online is also recognized by the colleagues who work down the hall.
Just like your offline personality, your online persona now forms a significant part of your professional identity. Understanding how those personas align, diverge, and complement one another is crucial to ensure your professional effectiveness, on- and offline.