Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Telling Stories and Looking Professional Online

At least some of y'all read the Emily Gould Times piece and thought, "Clearly, not a graduate student." At least, not a PhD student in a field where, despite a great deal of work about storytelling, said PhD student still has to worry about the word "overshare" being used during a prospective job evaluation.

This is something I have wrestled with for years. If you were to go to my website -- and I am most deliberately not giving you the URL -- you would find a badly formatted, sparsely updated blog I gave up on a couple months ago after being informed that no matter what tweaks I made to WordPress, the only people allowed to comment, apparently, were spammers. Clearly, it would benefit me more to have a richer and better-looking online presence, to decrease the risks that a search committee would be spending time raising their eyebrows at the number of friends I have zombiefied on Facebook.

But to be less flippant about it: the idea of "telling stories" as a method of distributing and accumulating planning knowledge is extremely attractive to me, as someone who wanted to be a writer long before she wanted to be any variety of planner. Stories are powerful. Emily Gould's story, particular as it is to her place, time, and socioeconomic situation, inspired so many comments the Times first had to close the comment thread and then had to open it back up again. Telling stories can invite confidence; open up space for similar or complementary narratives; communicate more effectively than other methods. The story can serve as warning, as inspiration, as exemplar, as lesson. Granted, it's not the easiest thing in the world to teach from story when every planning situation is unique, but people are working on it, and God bless 'em for it.

However: for women working -- not just women working in planning, or women working in academia, but women working, period -- telling stories is also dangerous. To take an example outside of planning academia, to tell a story that begins, or ends, with "I had a miscarriage" is pretty potent stuff. It can inspire sympathy. It can inspire discussions about how and why miscarriages happen, and how the American (or what have you) health care system should respond to miscarriages. It can also make your colleagues uncomfortable, and suggest that your mind is simply not on your work. (And for all we talk of work-life balance, I would suggest that any one of us wants our colleagues to have a work-life balance only up to the point that it does not harm our own work-life balance. Forgive my grammar.) And I think the negative repercussions of such storytelling-gone-awry are greater for women in the workplace than for men.

I am generally more inclined than not to tell stories about my personal life: because I'm seeking advice; because sometimes hiding the information is more trouble than just coming out with it; because sometimes I hope to be able to entertain or enlighten; because someone else has just told a story and I want to offer empathy with a similar story; because I just like telling stories by habit and inclination. But it means I am constantly running the risk of becoming Madame Overshare. And online, where oversharing once in 2002, or even 1992, will still be in Google's memory in 2010, the risk is even greater.

So for a while I have been wrestling with what I want a personal website to be. Because it is one thing to be "personal" and yet quite another to be "personal" while still being "professional." I wonder if other people feel they've been able to find a happy medium, or whether they would counsel me to screw the imagined search committee and tell all the stories I see fit, or wonder why this is even an issue.


nick said...

one of the great things about the internet is pseudo-anonymity. you can easily create your own personas and discard them with just as much ease. never use your full name online unless its something you want attributed to you, potentially for eternity.
storytelling is really important to me, too, and the web is a great place to practice without having to overshare—a term i'd never heard before read your post.

Jessica Doyle said...

Excellent point. When I was first online years ago I had a pseudonym and I stuck to it. And then I went and wrote a bunch of stuff I would cringe to read now. I don't think Google has ever cared enough to put two and two together.

There are two questions, to my mind, about pseudonyms: one, how can something (like telling stories) be worth doing without being worth doing under your real name? Or, to put it another way, how do you do work you're proud of, and claim it, while staying behind a pseudonym? Or does the pseudonym offer the temptation of leaving sloppy footprints online? And two, what are the risks of being found out? I know there are academic bloggers who can pull off the pseudonym (Bitch PhD, for one), but I would imagine that straddling the line of being useful while staying anonymous, or anonymous to all the right people, is difficult.

(Writing this on Kubuntu 8.04/KDE 4, by the way. It's clunky, but not nearly as bad as I expected, considering it's pretty much beta software.)

nick said...

i agree. this is one of the major issues that has gone largely unnoticed in our era of information. managing what information is attributed to you is a HUGE task for anyone.
i look at it as two separate personas. i let certain people in to my online world and others in my real world. i consistently use the same handles online so as to build trust among my online contacts.
over time, i think online personas can be as "real" as your real name, yet keep a certain level of privacy for your everyday life. right now, unfortunately, it takes a HUGE effort to pull this off, but maybe in the future it will become easier.