John McBurnie Your Online Identity: Key to Marketing and Being Found
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By John McBurnie


We all have different identities that change depending on where we are and who we are with. There is fluidity to our identity in different contexts; identity is a complex construct. Certain people and situations bring out different aspects of our identities. As a result, different people will perceive us differently as they have experienced the constructs of our identity in different situations.

Now many have started to build an online identity, again changing the idea of identity. People have different online identities; flickr <> identities, Facebook <> identities, FreePint Bar <> identities and even identities with secret pseudonyms. As social networking tools become more prevalent, the concept of online identity becomes more important. This article looks at libraries building an online identity using MySpace <> and information professionals using social networking tools to build an online identity.

Making MySpace work for libraries

The influence of (mostly free) social networking tools is changing the way libraries interact with their users. This is especially true for institutions such as university libraries, whose core users are part of the demographic most likely to use tools such as MySpace. In August 2006 The Financial Times called the UK's 16-24s the 'networked generation'. This was in response to an Ofcom report that concluded young people were moving away from 'traditional media' such as newspapers, television and radio to online communities. According to the survey, more than 70% of 16-24 year olds visited social networking sites and 54% used them at least weekly.

Traditionally, libraries have communicated using one-way messages. The message is created by the library and directed at the user. With MySpace, the messages are delivered using a peer-to-peer pyramid model. For example, the Brooklyn College Library (BCL) MySpace page <> delivers messages and targets its audience organically. At the time of writing BCL has 3,257 MySpace 'friends'. These are people who wish to be associated and networked with the BCL. The peer to peer pyramid model means that 'friends' of 'friends' will visit BCL's MySpace page.

By simply ensuring that the content on their page is current and useful, MySpace's networking model ensures that BCL's message is distributed to a wide audience, as their MySpace popularity increases by virtue of peers reviewing one another's friends and interests. Information from peers is becoming more trusted and influential. The 2007 Edelman Annual Trust Barometer study found that in the US trust in a 'person like me' was 68%, compared to 20% in 2003. This is why organisations like BCL are using MySpace - it is a powerful tool, especially amongst young people.

If librarians use tools such as MySpace, they cannot be 'tourists'. It is not enough for libraries to use the basic functionality of social networking tools to project a credible online identity, by dressing up tired messages with pictures and MP3s. A library's use of any social networking tool must be purposeful. A MySpace page can be used as a portal to push users towards resources such as online libraries or catalogues.

Other MySpace profiles can be good sources or gatekeepers of information. For example, a library that is particularly concerned with Californian history can link to the Californian Historical Society profile. Libraries can help users by making more information rich profiles their 'top friends' and hence more prominent.

The functionality of MySpace allows libraries to deliver targeted messages. The profiles of friends allow libraries to find out more about users than they might in traditional interactions. This gives libraries the ability to deliver more personalised, informal messages. In a university setting, for instance, if a biology student becomes a friend, a welcome note can be sent recommending that the student contact the science librarian with any subject-specific questions or giving instructions on how to access a subject-related database. Announcements can be sent out to groups of friends according to a particular demographic or interest. For example, a pubic library hosting a Teen Reading Week can send out a bulletin to all teenage friends.

A MySpace page must be kept current. Social networking tools allow an online identity to grow, but only if there is content that people feel is worth sharing with their peers. As well as timeliness of content, libraries should treat personal messages via MySpace as they would emails. According to an AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey published in early 2006, nearly three in four (72%) teens who use instant messaging (IM) say they send more IMs than emails, as do one in four (26%) adults. If libraries are to build relationships with their users, they will have to embrace instant messaging as it becomes more popular.

Building an online identity using social networking tools

As individuals, information professionals can build up an online identity to present themselves and their profession. On his blog <>, Ben Hammersley (currently a BBC journalist, who amongst other things, coined the term 'podcasting') presents his online identity via links to Wikipedia <>, Facebook, Twitter <>, YouTube <>, <> and Flickr, rather than having a biography or About Me section. Hammersley allows us to explore his online identity, find out what he has done in the past, what he is currently doing and his plans for the future. We can even delve further into his online identity to find out a little about his personality. Ultimately, we can decide if he is a person that interests us or not.

Via blogs and pages such as Facebook, information professionals can declare who they are, and where they can be found. Services and value are demonstrated via these facets of online identity. Online identities should allow people to interact with one another and explore shared interests. Most obviously, this is accomplished through things like becoming friends on sites like Bebo <> or through social bookmarking. Social bookmarking sites such as and Furl <> provide a powerful tool for people to find out about one another's interests by looking at their bookmarks. This can be taken a step further by looking at profiles of users who share the same bookmarks. As well as providing peer reviewed content, social bookmarking sites allow online identities to be built. On top of this, content created can be easily shared; therefore it is important that your websites and blog posts can be easily bookmarked.

Information professionals have the ability to build specific, personalised networks using tools such as Ning <> or's Snapp network <>.

Ning allows anyone to create their own functional and customised social networks quickly and easily. Social networks created on Ning are personal and tailored to specific interests. At the time of writing, there are over 76,000 Ning networks, nearly 200 of which turn up in a search on the word 'Librarian'.

Ning differs from tools such as Facebook and MySpace in that it is less proprietary and more specialised. As social networking becomes more popular and people begin to build a more robust online identity, they will become more interested in creating their own worlds, their own social networks, around different needs and niches. As such, pliable applications such as Ning will become more powerful. Don't know where to find statistics on a certain topic? Join a Ning group and discuss this and other issues with people who have a definitive interest. The Ning group doesn't exist? Build one and wait for like- minded individuals to join (no matter how small the niche). Gaps in knowledge can be bridged by looking outside of comfort zones, as Ning allows networking amongst practitioners of many disciplines.

Finding and being found

The importance of building a viable online identity by those who want to be found is reflected in the number of people search engines such as Peek You <> and wink <>. As well as people search, more profile aggregators such as claimID <>, Lijit <> and Ziki <> are being created. Profile aggregators allow various profiles to be accessed in one place. Tools such as Ziki allow a more complete online identity to be built by enabling users to aggregate identities, post contact information, interests, tags and photos. Other features include a blogging facility and related Zikis, a network of users who share similar interests; these networks are built up around the tags attached to profiles.

Building and managing a consistent online identity will help to project an image of an active, well-informed, progressive individual or organisation. As well as building a reputation to promote themselves, libraries and information professionals can build an online identity to push and pull rich information. Online identities should be accessible and frank, but most of all, interesting.

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