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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favorite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for connection, sharing, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.
We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?
Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.
Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want
If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.
Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.
Consider the following questions:
- If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
- How do you want members to experience the group?
- What would be the best possible version of this group?
It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your res hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:
- Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
- Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
- Meeting new people
Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.
Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?
- Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
- Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
- Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.
By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.
Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.
“It’s important that the standard be set right from the beginning that mistreatment of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
How you can put this into practice
Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural center with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?
It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural center, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:
- “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
- “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”
Point out behaviors that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”
It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.
Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practice bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.
What this might look like
Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?
Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:
- “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
- “Please refer to the community guidelines.”
Comments to redirect the group
- “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
- “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”
It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.
Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:
- Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
- Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
- Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behavior and come up with a plan for approaching it as a team.
- Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behavior is unacceptable.
- Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.
What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behavior emerges in an online space that you manage?
For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:
1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.
“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviors.”
—Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization
“If [people] see hurtful posts quickly removed and frequent violators banned, this will set the tone that online abuse is not allowed here.”
2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.
Write to the targeted commenter. Let them know that you have deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.
3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.
Consider reporting the behavior to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first.
4) Reiterate your group expectations.
After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.
What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how to do it:
- If the behavior affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
- Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
- Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.
“At the beginning of the year, we have a discussion about what’s appropriate to post and what isn’t. If something negative is posted, it’s removed, and we have a discussion with the person who posted.”
—Jeanette A., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania
“It’s not a controversial forum. We have rules, but we’re relaxed and work together in a group rather than talk about conflicting ideas.”
—Eliot A., recent graduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver
“I monitor the page though my manager app that I’ve installed on my phone. I posted guidelines and must approve all comments and posts before they’re allowed to be posted. If someone complains about harassment or being messaged, I’ll check out the situation, take proper steps to stop it, and prevent it in the future.”
—Angel P., fourth-year undergraduate, Governors State University, Illinois
“Anything that’s posted that’s disrespectful is deleted and that person is warned through a personal message. If they continue, they’re removed from the page.”
—Leah H., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.
[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,counselingservices, studentservices’] Get help or find out more
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization.
Justin Patchin, PhD, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Awwad, H. (2017, June 1). Virtual abuse? How to build a positive online community. Student Health 101. Retrieved from https://publicsite.readsh101.net/virtual-abuse/
Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology, 32(1), 61–79.
Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character and empathy. Random House Incorporated.
Brody, N., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). Bystander intervention in cyberbullying. Communication Monographs, 83(1), 94–119.
Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Lescovec, J. (2017). Anyone can become a troll: Causes of trolling behavior in online discussions. CSCW ’17: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, 1217–1230. Retrieved from https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2998181.2998213
Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201–234.
Jones, L. M., Mitchell, K. J., & Turner, H. A. (2015). Victim reports of bystander reactions to in-person and online peer harassment: A national survey of adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(12), 2308–2320.
LaMorte, W. W. (2016). Social norms theory. Boston University. Retrieved from https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories7.html
Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., et al. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites: How American teens navigate the new world of “digital citizenship.” Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Matias, J. N. (2016, October 8). Posting rules in online discussions prevents problems and increases participation. Civil Servant. Retrieved from https://civilservant.io/moderation_experiment_r_science_rule_posting.html
Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14(5), 703–722.
Ren, Y., Kraut, R., Kiesler, S., & Resnick, P. (2012). Encouraging commitment in online communities. Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design, 77–124.
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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to attend class or concentrate on learning, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.
How can you respond if you or a friend is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We are all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.
Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.
Online harassment takes various forms:
- Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
- Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
- Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
- Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
- Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
- Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
- Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
- Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.
Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:
- Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
- 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
- Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
- Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
- Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
- LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
- Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).
Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:
- Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
- Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
- Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
- Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011). Among young teens, both the perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying are more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, the same study found.
- Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.
Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:
- We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
- We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).
In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well- intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.
The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:
- A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
- A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
- Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
- Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
- Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.
1. Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard
The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.
2. Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics
Disagreeing with a friend’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.
3. Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional
If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.
4. Ask for clarification if you need it
If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”
5. Stay chill when you feel misunderstood
Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.
6. Use the reporting tools
Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.
7. Use your moderator powers for good
If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:
- Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
- Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
- Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
- Being open to feedback from your community and others
8. Support people and platforms doing good work
In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:
Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.
People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:
1. Think about what you can potentially accomplish
“Your goal might be to approach a friend involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.
2. Reach out and offer support
You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.
3.Add positive comments to a negative thread
If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University. That said…
4. Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf
If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this is not a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, do not take action on their behalf if you have not been asked to do so.
5. Check in with your own feelings
“It is important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you are in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you are going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”
6. Seek support, off-line and on
“It is important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted peer or RA or dean who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.
Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:
Take advantage of customization tools
Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).
Pick your friends
There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that are not the same as ours. However, if you are experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.
Protect your privacy
Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.
Consider making online magic
Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.
Be aware that not all sites are created equal
Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.
[school_resource category='counsellingservices, studentservices']
Robin Stern, PhD, associate director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Yale University, Connecticut.
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Lenhart, A., Ybarra, M., Zickuhr, K., & Price-Feeney, M. (2016, November 21). Online harassment, digital abuse, and cyberstalking in America. Data & Society Research Institute; Center for Innovative Public Health Research. Retrieved from https://www.datasociety.net/pubs/oh/Online_Harassment_2016.pdf
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What if a potential employer, academic supervisor, or date searches for you online (as they certainly will), and finds—right there!—your elegant design portfolio or insightful blog posts, and the Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube account that demos your passion and thoroughly engaging personality? Establishing a positive online presence (a “personal brand”) can make the difference in whether or not you get seriously considered for an internship or job.
The internet offers a range of ways to help you capitalize on, showcase, and develop your skills and potential. When you are actively present online, sharing ideas, making connections, and discovering new opportunities and resources, those possibilities magnify. “Start with your LinkedIn profile and make sure it is tightly composed, easy to read, and to the point,” says Jeff Onore, a career coach based in Boston, Massachusetts. “If you are in a creative profession (or want to join one), then putting your work online is necessary. But don’t overdo it. Create additional online outlets only if you are committed to continually tweeting, posting, revising, and being attentive to your ‘brand.’”
1. What’s this for?
Here’s what a positive online presence can help you do:
- Present your knowledge, skills, or passions to anyone who might evaluate you in a professional capacity
- Add detail and color to what’s on your résumé
- Customize various profiles or social media accounts for particular audiences or goals
- Give potential employers something good to find
- Network and connect with others in your (future) field
- Expand your exposure to work and news in your (future) field
- Advocate for a cause or showcase your values
- Personalize yourself in relatable ways
- Demonstrate your commitment to your goals
- Separate your public and personal online presence
Students speak to their goals
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 82 percent of students who responded said that a proactive online presence could definitely or potentially be valuable to them. More than 3 in 10 said they were already working on this to some degree.
Present your knowledge, skills, or passions to employers or anyone else who may evaluate you in an academic or professional capacity
“In the architecture profession it is important for potential employers to see the graphic work we do, not just a résumé. Many students post portfolios online so they can be viewed prior to an interview or perhaps spark a connection. This is not dissimilar to firms posting their work online for potential clients and employees to see.” —First-year graduate student, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Massachusetts
Add detail to the basic info on your résumé and LinkedIn profile
“I am passionate about instructional technology. I have been working in higher ed for almost 10 years now and am looking to continue advancing my career. One way is to brand myself as an expert in the technologies used in higher ed.” —Third-year graduate student, The University of Memphis, Tennessee
Customize your various profiles for particular employers or audiences
“I have a LinkedIn account that I use, but it is too diverse; I need to specify different accounts for my different interests/personas. I have a Twitter account that I set up for where I want to be professionally, but content is all over the place. I need to get focused and separate past, current, and future me.” —Third-year online graduate student, University of the Pacific, California
Give potential employers something to find
“I would create professional Facebook/Twitter accounts. I have very private, personal ones, so I am worried an employer may not hire me because they don’t see my presence online.” —Second-year graduate student, University of Wyoming
Be in control of what comes up first
“I have gone about this by putting content out there that I am proud of; for instance, writing for the school magazine about topics I know or care about. Whenever my department wants to feature students on its website, I also jump at the opportunity. Now when I search my name, the articles I have written, and what has been written about me, are some of the first things that come up.” —First-year graduate student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York
Network and connect with others in your (future) field
“I would create a personal blog/website to display my graphic design portfolio work and publish a little about myself. I would also start to actively engage with graphic designers who have blogs and integrate myself into communities of graphic designers.” —Second-year undergraduate, Drake University, Iowa
Expand your exposure to key themes and news in your (future) field
“As an English education major, it’s important that I’m immersing myself in the content that I wish to teach. I currently try to operate a young-adult novel review site where I keep up with the latest trends in YA literature. That way I can speak about it in any conversation, be it an interview or just a discussion with students.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, The College of New Jersey
Advocate for a cause or showcase your values
“If I was looking to brand myself, it would most likely be toward what I’m most passionate about: raising money for cancer [through race events]. I’m creating my own website, and my ‘brand name’ is Tri-ing for A Cure. Every year I increase my fundraising goal. I would love to get my name out there and raise as much money as possible.” —First-year undergraduate, University of Maine
Personalize yourself in relatable ways
“I made myself appear family-oriented, [saying I] like to volunteer and am a trend starter. Posting pictures of my family and the things that I’m proud of is a boost to my reputation.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of Delaware
Demonstrate your commitment to your goals
“I have been working on a blog for the past four years. It’s simply a storyline of my goals [with the message that] no matter what happens, you can’t give up. I’m a runner, and after four years of trying I finally was able to qualify and will be running the 2016 Boston Marathon!” —Third-year undergraduate, Averett University, Virginia
Separate your public and personal online presence
“I would use one email address for professional branding endeavors and try to maintain a separate personal online persona.” —Second-year online graduate student, University of Maryland
2. What kind of content?
What you post depends on your goals, your choice of online forum, how much time you have available, and other factors. Consider these steps:
- Figure out who your target audience is
- Create content that interests your audience
- Share relevant content from other reliable sources
- Speak to your audience in an appropriate voice
- Incorporate visuals
- Use keywords strategically so that you and your work are easily found
- Consider creating different outlets for different purposes
- Think about quality control
- Minimize digressions from your theme
- Be aware of your mood and motivation
Successful blogs and social media feeds are based around a particular theme. They usually include visual images: People are more likely to look at photos and graphics than they are to read words. Your theme could be:
- Stylistic; e.g., showcasing your humor or design skills
- Issue-based—presenting your take on a professional, social, academic, or political topic, e.g., advocating for local food sources or disability access
- Interest-based; e.g., speaking to your talent or experience in computer coding or sports commentary
Some content elements are obvious. On LinkedIn, you would summarize your career goals and relevant achievements, with the option of posting your résumé and samples of your work. On a blog or personal website, you’d include a brief bio; present visual work or post updates; and link to relevant publications or your social media accounts.
“In the past, a college student would send résumés through the mail (what??) or email specific employers. Now, with the advent of LinkedIn and other public postings, your résumé is available 24/7 to everyone. The relative anonymity of a mailed résumé is a different concept from how much more fully you may present online. Be cautious.” —Jeff Onore, career coach, Boston, Massachusetts
These steps will help you figure out what to post
Think about who your audience is
“I would first try to step into the shoes of the people I’d want to ‘sell’ myself to.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of New Hampshire
Create content that interests your audience
“Think about what you are saying before you say it, always with an eye on serving an audience. Quality content really just means giving the audience something that they can get invested in, too.” —Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs, Massachusetts
Share relevant content from other sources
“Look for interesting posts about your topic and share them. It’s a good idea to link to quality content and share things that are more ‘on topic’ for your audience. Use hashtags around that topic and grow a following that is interested in that topic.” —Andrea Vahl, social media consultant, author, and blogger
Speak to your audience in a voice they recognize
“I am in the process of making a webcomic and website for myself. I make everything themed and worded in a certain way to attract the audience I want to be interested in my story.” —First-year student, Collin College, Texas
“I try to post a lot of pictures of my animal connections and involvements with rescuing and rehabilitating animals.” —Third-year undergraduate, Missouri University of Science and Technology
Use keywords strategically
“I would make sure that keywords that are on my website show up on my professional pages (LinkedIn, ResearchGate, etc.), and I would update my blog to reflect these interests.” —Third-year graduate student, University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences
Consider different outlets for different purposes
“I am building my brand as a traveler as well as a humorous person. While I’m here interning for a development organization, I post blogs about the business and agricultural environment in Mozambique. When I return to the States, I plan to create a blog that is more social and pertaining to music and working-class culture. I also plan to build on my blog posts for my internship by creating a more politically and economically conscious blog.” —Third-year graduate student, American University School of International Service, Washington DC
Think about quality control
“High-quality pictures (no selfies!). Nothing negative about anything or anyone.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of California, Merced
Minimize digressions from your theme
“Avoid sharing your every move, meal, or thought. When you post too much, you can overwhelm your audience and get unfollowed.” —Andrea Vahl, social media consultant, author, and blogger
Be aware of your mood and motivation
Read everything twice and edit it before you post; avoid writing in haste or anger; and be cautious and respectful about how you respond to other people’s posts. —Jim Joseph, marketing instructor at New York University (in Entrepreneur)
3. Which platforms?
Where to start? These questions will help you find your niche:
- Where does your intended audience hang out?
- Does your (future) career rely on a particular online skill or forum?
- Are you aiming for a diverse audience?
- Will your content involve visuals?
- Will your content be time sensitive?
- Will you have limited time for posting?
- Do you want to integrate and connect your online networks and accounts?
Successful blogs and social media accounts are dynamic and up-to-date. They involve a significant time commitment. If your goal is to display your visual work, a gorgeous website would be ideal, but an Instagram gallery may be more realistic and looks good, too.
Ask yourself these questions:
Where does your intended audience hang out online?
“[I would] become active in whatever source I want to be involved with. Find discussion boards, network with other users, and make impactful statements.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Platteville
Will your content involve visuals?
“I created a LinkedIn profile, but I would certainly love a platform to portray my work and my experience in a more visual format.” —First-year graduate student, Florida International University
Does your future career rely on a particular online forum?
“Schools are looking for teachers who know how to use Twitter and when I start looking for jobs as a teacher, I want schools to know that I am technologically proficient.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Old Dominion University, Virginia
Are you aiming for a diverse audience?
“I would make an Instagram for my artwork, as well as a website or a Tumblr blog. Getting the work out on many platforms so that people will see it and want to share it is the key.” —Second-year graduate student, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania
Will your content be time sensitive?
“Using Twitter is huge. It helps you advocate for anything that you are passionate about and allows immediate interaction.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage
Will you have limited time for posting?
“I would lean toward trying to use easy advertising methods, such as hashtags on Instagram, where it is very simple for anyone to access what I am trying to put forward.” —Third-year undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Do you want to integrate and connect your online networks?
“Ideally the different mediums would support each other; blogs, tweets, etc. would be consistent.” —Second-year online graduate student, University of Maryland
4. What’s public vs. private?
Which of your online outlets will be for public or professional purposes, and which are for your personal use? Could your existing profiles be re-oriented toward professional goals, or do you need to open new accounts?
- Identify your professional/personal boundaries and appropriate privacy settings
- Make sure you are easily found by those you want to find you
- Give yourself an option for staying anonymous
- Consider the professional relevance of your online identity
- Check your existing accounts and privacy settings, including tag approval
- Be conservative about what you allow or post
Think about your public/private boundary
“I value the separation of work and private life. I won’t even be Facebook friends with coworkers unless I become good friends with them.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, Boise State University, Idaho
Make sure you are easily found by those you want to find you
“Keep the same name, profile pic, imagery, and look across your social media profiles,” writes Kevan Lee, a professional content tracker at Buffer, an app that lets you plan and strategize your social media posts, in a blog post. This makes you more recognizable to your followers and helps you stand out.
“Consistency is key. [I make] sure all my social media accounts contain the same name so it’s easy to find me on all of them.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Grand View University, Iowa
If necessary, give yourself an option for staying anonymous
If you want to post snarky updates or controversial comments that might give pause to future employers, keep an anonymous account. No one need know that @PrattlingParrot is you.
“[For professional purposes] I would create a second Twitter with my real name as the username and keep my original account fun.” —Second-year undergraduate, Drake University, Iowa
Consider the professional relevance of your online identity
“I’m going to be a teacher, so if I were to create new accounts (on Twitter or something) I’d make my username ‘Ms. Something’ instead of my first name or a pet’s name or whatever. Also, I only post positive things about my job and my classes in case future employers could see that.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of North Dakota
Check your existing accounts and privacy settings
“I think the first step would be to clean up your online profiles. No matter how conscious someone can be, you never know if something you posted may have offended someone. Going back and double-checking is a great start.” —Fourth-year graduate student, East Tennessee State University
In a recent survey by SH101, 72 percent of respondents said they had searched for themselves online with the specific goal of seeing what’s public and heading off potential problems (another 16 percent had not, but planned to). And about 90 percent said they are conscientious about whether or not their content is appropriate, at least some of the time.
5. Are you networking?
This is at least partly about networking, so:
- Go public with your goals and achievements
- Identify potential contacts
- Aim to learn from them too
- Build a relationship with your audience
- Interact with your contacts
Go public with your goals and achievements
“I have tried to network with as many people as possible so that they know what I am doing and [can] help me spread the news. Networking is extremely important.” —First-year undergraduate, Florida International University
Identify potential contacts
“I would line my posts up with my career goals. I’d like to work with the mining industry, so I have started to follow mining companies on social media, making sure my work experience is known in my profile.” —Third-year undergraduate, Montana Tech of the University of Montana
“I signed up with and followed a lot of authors and publishers on Twitter to help build my platform as a writer.” —Recent graduate, University of Central Arkansas
Aim to learn from them too
“I have started a blog but would like to further my knowledge [of the field] to build more of a stage for myself.” —Second-year undergraduate, Utah State University
Build a relationship with your audience
“I do believe that blogging or vlogging could be of interest to me. The most important thing would be to slowly create an association with readers/viewers. If you simply do it for yourself, you might as well keep a journal.” —Third-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Interact with your contacts
“Something that very much benefited me was recognizing that ‘connecting’ online isn’t necessarily networking. I have random additions on LinkedIn who have not said a word to me in two years. Now I make sure I’m interacting. Have a reason for connecting and following up. Share information and identify where you can physically meet and talk. That’s the difference between ‘networking’ and just ‘connecting.’” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta
6. Are you being true to yourself?
Projecting positively online is not about faking it.
- Be thoughtful about your photo and profile
- Be the person you’d want to work with
- Consider ways that your quirky perspective can work online
- Consider building on your existing online foundation
- Keep it real while staying on-message and mature
Positivity is powerful—not just IRL but in how we reflect those real-life experiences online. “Stay away from negativity,” says Vahl. Tweet others as you would want to be tweeted. A 2011 study analyzed more than 46,000 tweets and found that positive messages were more likely to be retweeted (System Sciences).
Be thoughtful about your photo and profile
“[Use] the same profile picture, one that reflects your personality/you, [and] conscious and reflective profile descriptions.” —Second-year graduate student, Clemson University, South Carolina
Be the person you’d want to work with
“[I would project] a positive and career-focused image. Nothing posted that will harm my possibilities with future employers.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Grand View University, Iowa
Consider ways that your quirky perspective can work online
“[I would] make it based on something unique about me, that other people could relate to. For example, I follow Diary of a Tall Girl on Twitter because her posts are super-relatable.” —Second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University
Consider building on your existing online foundation
“I think for those who have Facebook or Instagram, we’ve all pretty much already branded ourselves in some way—e.g., the foodie, the adventurer/explorer, the hipster, the politician.” —First-year graduate student, University of California, San Francisco
Keep it real while staying on-message and mature
“To brand myself would imply that I feel there is something about myself I am fearful [that others will know]. I feel wholehearted honesty works well when talking to other people.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Tulane University, Louisiana
7. Who can you learn from?
Take note of blogs, sites, and social media accounts that impress you, and why. Think about how you can learn from them:
- Check out what’s working for others
- Talk to people who present positively online
- Find out what professionals notice
Check out what’s working for others
“Continuously finding people who have similar, bigger goals and taking notes on what they do best, where they had difficulties; applying that knowledge to my own social media posts; connecting with people who have different interests/views, but similar core values to my own.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University
Talk to people who present positively online
“I would definitely consult with people who have created successful personas online.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, San Diego State University, California
Find out what professionals notice
“I would potentially consult with professionals in the field to help me get the most out of it.”
—Second-year graduate student, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Time is of the essence
To maximize the action on your social media accounts, post at certain times of day. Web marketing guru Neil Patel recommends this schedule (in Quicksprout):
1 p.m. – The most shares
3 p.m. – The most clicks
5 p.m. – The most retweets
12 p.m. & 6 p.m. – The highest click-through rates
3 – 4 p.m. – The most likes
8 – 11 p.m. – The best visibility
Misty Copeland was the first-ever African-American to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. Follow her on Twitter to learn more about her story, see what she does for others, and marvel at how she remains positive through tough times. + Visit Misty’s Twitter
Johanna Basford has played a huge role in the adult coloring books movement. She hand-draws all of the pages in her books, giving them a more authentic and original feel. Check out her down-to-earth Twitter feed for a peek into her world of drawing, to get some professional coloring tips, and to find out how her drawings have inspired others to become more creative and mindful. + Visit Johanna’s Twitter
Jeremy Lin is one of the few Asian-Americans who have played basketball in the NBA. His Twitter feed is filled with positive messages, including proud posts about his heritage and photos showing how he gives back to his fans.
+ Visit Jeremy’s Twitter
Dylan Millsap @dylanthenomad
This student, a talented photographer, goes around the world with his camera in hand. He’s studying screenwriting at the Academy of Art University in California.
Kara Benz @boho.berry
For how to live a more centered life, check out these tips on journaling, creating goals, and getting organized.
John and Hank Green
You may know John Green as the author of The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012). He and his brother, Hank, are together known on YouTube as the VlogBrothers, and incited a band of followers who call themselves the Nerdflighters. Check out their channel to see the insightful videos that have become so popular. + Check out John and Hank on YouTube
Seán William McLoughlin or “Jacksepticeye”
For cheerful, engaging video commentary, come here. “Jacksepticeye on YouTube is my inspiration. He has a way of making [his audience] feel engaged and wanted even though truly we’ve never met each other,” says a second-year undergraduate at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. + Check out Jacksepticeye on YouTube
This lifestyle and beauty video blogger from Canada is currently living in London. “Estée is my all-time favorite YouTuber! She is serious inspiration and her personality shines through her content,” says a second-year undergraduate at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. + Check out Estée on YouTube
Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs, Boston, Massachusetts.
Jeff Onore, career coach, Boston, Massachusetts.
Andrea Vahl, social media consultant and co-author of Facebook Marketing All-in-One for Dummies, Louisville, Colorado.
Blickley, L. (2015, April 2). How celebrities are using social media in a more positive and passionate way. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/02/celebrities-social-media-for-good_n_6979790.html
Coviello, L., Sohn, Y., Kramer, A. D. I., Marlow, C., et al. (2014). Detecting emotional contagion in massive social media networks. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e90315. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0090315
DeMers, J. (2014, October 20). Quality over quantity: The overblown importance of likes and followers. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2014/10/20/quality-over-quantity-the-overblown-importance-of-likes-and-followers/
Donnelly, L. (2012, July 8). Facebook and Twitter feed anxiety, study finds. Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/9383609/Facebook-and-Twitter-feed-anxiety-study-finds.html
Gruzd, A., Doiron, S., & Mai, P. (2011, January). Is happiness contagious online? A case of Twitter and the 2010 Winter Olympics. In System Sciences (HICSS), 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences–2011, (pp. 1–9). IEEE.
Jordan, A. H., Monin, B., Dweck, C. S., Lovett, B. J., et al. (2011). Misery has more company than people think: Underestimating the prevalence of others’ negative emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(1), 120–135.
Joseph, J. (2014, June 25). Build your personal brand on social media, moment by moment. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/235073
Lee, K. (2015, January 15). The 5 keys to building a social media strategy for your personal brand [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.bufferapp.com/social-media-strategy-personal-branding-tips
Lenhart, A. (2015, April 9). Teens, social media and technology overview 2015. Pew. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., et al. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS ONE, 8(8), e69841.
My Security Sign. #TakeNoBullies: Making digital responsibility stick. Retrieved from https://www.mysecuritysign.com/take-no-bullies
Patel, N. (2015, January 2). What are the best times to post onto social media? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.quicksprout.com/2015/01/02/what-are-the-best-times-to-post-on-social-media/
Rosen, L. (2011, August 6). Social networking’s good and bad impact on kids. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/08/social-kids.aspx
Sandrine, S. (2015, August 20). Complete guide to YouTube optimization: Everything you need to know to improve your channel. Buffersocial. Retrieved from https://blog.bufferapp.com/youtube-optimization
Student Health 101 survey, February 2016