[Updated 27 February, 2011: A new service aims to help you "connect, integrate and manage your social identities": http://www.whoopaa.com]
[Updated 5 January, 2011: Multiple identities on the social web, from All Things Digital.]
[Updated 17 November, 2010: CASE Currents profile of how different alumni professionals treat the question of separate social network profiles. CASE member log in required.]
I recently read (and enjoyed) the novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. For all his misfortune, Tolstoy's suffering magistrate had it better than we do in at least one respect. He could keep his "professional life discrete from his actual life" (and I like Tolstoy's dichotomy of "professional" and "actual" lives). For regular users of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, separating personal and professional networks can be a desirable, but elusive goal.
Here's how Tolstoy described it:
Ivan Ilych had practiced this skill for keeping his professional life discrete from his actual life for a long time, and had developed it to such a degree that he sometimes, like a virtuoso, would blend his personal and professional attitudes together, as though for fun. He allowed himself to do so because he felt sure he'd be able to disentangle them when he needed to...
There are some insightful higher education professionals whose regular tweets and blog posts inform and inspire me – but who often deliver scene-by-scene online critiques of their favorite television shows. Other colleagues have added me as a Facebook friend – although I am already connected to them on LinkedIn, and don't think of them as "friends" (even by Facebook standards). This isn't a big deal, but unlike Ivan Ilych, I don't feel like I can "disentangle" these connections as easily as I would like to.
And so these interactions slip and slide among online communities, blurring the personal and the professional, the Friend and the Fan. Eventually – soon, maybe – tools will evolve to help me put the right information in the right place, easily accessible in the right way. Of course, with periodic pruning of our networks, we can make a little headway ourselves.
- By deleting LinkedIn connections whose work we don't know first-hand, or can't otherwise vouch for;
- by unfriending (or hiding updates from) the over-zealous Facebooker who reached out to everyone from Mrs. Leonard's 4th grade homeroom class; and
- by unfollowing Twitter contacts who have mistaken your professional profile for a restaurant review repository.
Of course, many people prefer to mix professional and personal connections and content in online communities. I do link to Alumni Futures from my Facebook profile, and sometimes even tweet about a baseball game (but LinkedIn is for professional use only). Overall, though, I prefer my work and personal profiles online to be more separate than connected.
Until I can easily assign my contacts to what I consider the "right" place in either network (or in both), I'll just have to live vicariously through the Ivan Ilyches of the Internet age, who can patiently and readily disentangle the two.