By analysing texts relating to performing identity, impression management, deception and honesty in how LinkedIn users create and maintain their online identity, this paper argues how LinkedIn has changed the way professionals portray themselves and associate with their peers. Drawing on peer reviewed articles relating to social interactions involving identity performance, this paper draws a distinction between how these interactions differ between ‘real identity’ and ‘online identity’, and how virtual communities shape these identities.
Keywords: LinkedIn, social media, identity performance, impression management, self-presentation, online communities
In recent years, LinkedIn has shown to be a vital resource for proactive professionals wanting to build their network, market themselves, search for a new job, and create potential business opportunities. Despite previous tried-and-true methods of professional networking such as industry seminars, and self-promotion via resumes – which are still relevant today – the key advantage now is that LinkedIn has given new powers to users to actively create and maintain their professional profile. Through their daily interactions on the social media tool, LinkedIn users can choose to perform any identity they wish, usually for personal benefit. Users can post their thoughts, follow notable people within their industry, as well as like and comment on content that mirrors the image they wish to project, which involves a public display of connections as explained by Donath and boyd (2004). Creating and performing identity is certainly not a new concept, however, people wishing to land their dream job are becoming savvy with the opportunities that LinkedIn offers and are creating personas for themselves to land that job. In the cut-throat world of business, individuals are finding that self-presentation, performing identity and impression management are vital to promoting their professional ‘brand’ that can give them an edge over other candidates when competing for a job. A professional and credible presence on LinkedIn can show to recruiters that the candidate is knowledgeable or respected in their field. As a result, this leaves opportunity for deception and dishonesty to take place, where individuals can give misleading information about themselves, which is harder to detect in the online world compared to the ‘real world’. Considering that our peers make evaluations based on our LinkedIn profile and our past interactions – now more than ever, LinkedIn users are recognizing that impression management is imperative for developing a professional reputation – in turn, LinkedIn has changed how professionals portray themselves and associate with their peers.
Impression management, identity performance, and self-presentation
One of the key aspects that attracts professionals to social networking sites such as LinkedIn is to build a network of friends, acquaintances, and business colleagues and to maintain these connections for positive personal gain. Utz (2010) writes that impression management is key to establishing interactions between users on services such as LinkedIn. A users list of connections is viewable to others when browsing an individual’s profile, and yet while there is the option to keep this information hidden, for some LinkedIn users, openly flaunting their contact list is a form of impression management that serves three key purposes. Firstly, it offers bragging rights if they have notable people in their network. Secondly, if they have a large number of connections in their network it might suggest that they themselves are popular and are worthy of attention, and lastly, people who search through their contacts list might discover mutual acquaintances and establish new connections of their own – in other words – these LinkedIn users help bring people together. Regarding the first example, associating with ‘known’ people who have significant status is a way that users can establish credibility for themselves. If noteworthy people are our friends, then we must be important also. Donath and Boyd explain that this premise of deliberate “name-dropping” (2004, p.72) serves a selfish purpose to impress an audience. Regarding the second point, a LinkedIn user having a large network of friends might suggest that they are someone of note within their industry, it suggests that they have a level of credibility which becomes important when it comes to sharing their own thoughts or articles on LinkedIn. In the last concept, Donath and Boyd (2004) provide that introducing people to others within a network, gains ‘social capital’. This is an extremely significant commodity within the realm of LinkedIn where the quality of connections is measured. For example, LinkedIn allows users to see the degree of separation between themselves and everyone else – regardless of whether they are in their network or not. Somebody who they know directly has “1st” listed under their name, whereas someone who is a ‘friend of a friend’ that they are not connected with has “3rd” listed. Although it is important to maintain the close relationships they already have, it would seem reasonable to suggest that maintaining lower ranked connections can be useful too, where social capital that LinkedIn users have accrued can be used as leverage to instigate or develop new business opportunities. Pearson (2009) claim this to be the case, noting that these ‘weaker ties’ are actually what makes for a unified social network.
Whatever the reasons for displaying their LinkedIn network may be, the underlying aim is to perform identity for the sake of personal gain. Pearson (2009), writes that social networking sites provide a ‘stage’ for users to perform identity. Through LinkedIn, users thoughtfully construct a persona that mirrors how they want to be perceived by a particular audience, and consequently all of their interactions within this realm remains consistent in maintaining the persona. LinkedIn users can decide which personal information they share via their profile page, such as their username, avatar, education, and employment history. Jakala and Berki (2013) point out that this in itself demonstrates that they can construct their persona depending on how they wish to be perceived by the community. Importantly, Pearson (2009) notes that the identity they construct is relative to the network, which suggests that they modify aspects of their persona according to the audience they want to appeal to. Similarly, Jakala and Berki (2013) explain that identity is merely a ‘role’ people play that varies from audience to audience, a concept affirmed by van der Nagel and Frith’s (2015) writings regarding identity performance online. Pearson (2012) argues that impression management strategies are directly affected by ‘codes of conduct’ which govern virtual communities and dictate impression management. Whether implied or not, rules exist within these groups that determine online etiquette. Hence, if a LinkedIn audience consists of educated professionals, then the language and individual uses and the content that they engage with on these platforms will tend to reflect the ideals of that audience. For instance, they may enjoy listening to heavy metal music in their spare time, but if they were communicating with a group of accountants on a LinkedIn media post, they probably would not find it appropriate to discuss heavy metal music in that forum. In this scenario is seems natural that communications vary when users interact with other communities and changes from group to group. As such, virtual communities such as LinkedIn have had a substantial impact on how professionals associate with their peers.
These concepts of self-presentation and performing identity do not only apply solely to serve the purposes of the individual however. They can also establish the identity of larger communities and help individuals to feel connected to that community. For instance, for a LinkedIn user who belongs to a virtual community such as web designers, any individual performing their identity within this group not only reinforces their individual persona but supports the ideals that web design group stands for. For example, when a LinkedIn user comments on topics related to web design, using terminology exclusive to web designers, this reinforces the collective identity of the group. For an outsider observing the interactions of the group, they would pick up on terminology or themes specific to web design. For instance, if the group is discussing an issue with implementing a CSS rule to a website, the observer assumes that that all web designers must be familiar with what CSS is and how it works, therefore the observer would need to become familiar with the function of CSS before engaging in meaningful interactions with the web design group. For the observer, the value in connecting with knowledgeable industry figures or companies in these communities is especially important on LinkedIn where knowledge sharing provides value to anyone connected to the group. This is certainly the case in Koteyko and Hunt’s (2016) study of the Facebook interactions between a small community of diabetics, who found that diabetes-related dialogues within the group helped members feel a sense of ‘solidarity’ and connectedness to the group. The use of terms and concepts that only diabetes sufferers would know helps members feel connected to the group, and projects an identity of the community. Most importantly, Koteyko and Hunt note that in these instances the individual constructs the identity for the group and not just themselves (2016). As such, individuals within virtual communities each play a part in shaping the perceptions of a wider community they align with. Additionally, it becomes evident that LinkedIn users can portray different versions of their persona to mirror the behaviour of a group they wish to be a part of, which is a key way to highlight how LinkedIn has changed how professionals perform identity.
Honesty and deception in identity management
Any effective discussion on the creation and performance of identity can not occur without discussing the role of honesty and deception and how they influence how professionals portray themselves over LinkedIn. Virtual communities and in particular social media platforms such as LinkedIn, rely on the sharing of information, thoughts and ideas, or stories about challenges people have faced in their personal or professional lives for the purpose of mentoring others. For this to occur, there needs to be a level of trust or reliability between the giver and receiver of information. Donath (1999) and Utz (2010), write that in the online world, users do not have the same visual cues to gauge a person’s credibility like they do in the physical world. Hence, they look to the writer’s web profile and interactions to decide for themselves whether that person is a source to be trusted or not. Hardey (2002) argues that platforms such as LinkedIn have led to a differentiation between a physical persona and an online persona. He suggests that in face to face interactions, people can inadvertently give away information about themselves – such as their accent or skin colour. This kind of information is clearly evident in physical encounters – one can not suppress these facts like they can in an online world. On LinkedIn for example, individuals can choose not to upload a photo of themselves to their profile, some may opt for the logo of their company or even no photo at all. However, proactive LinkedIn users may wish to refrain from this practice, as transparency establishes trust and credibility, which becomes especially important when potential employers view their profile.
Obviously as web personas can be constructed and manipulated from the writer themselves, there is opportunity for deception to occur. People can choose to omit pieces of information on LinkedIn that they do not want others to know about them, such as their age, nationality or where they live. This affords them a level of anonymity that van der Nagel and Frith (2015) argue leads to ‘antisocial behaviour’, suggesting that people are more likely to break the rules if they know others cannot identify them. For this reason, Donath (1999) states that being mindful of identity is vital to forming a sense of community. Virtual communities thrive when individuals interact openly and honestly. Donath goes on to explain that the writer’s motivation, beliefs, or affiliations are key indicators that people look to when they evaluate the writer’s credibility (1999). If a Toyota salesman describes how the latest model Toyota four-wheel drive is the safest in its class, one may take these claims as nothing more than marketing hype. However, if an independent car safety analyst were to explain the same, one would be more inclined to trust the information. The same can be said for LinkedIn users, when users seek out leaders in their industry to gain information or mentorship from, they seek validation that those leaders are credible and trustworthy and that the information they provide is insightful and pertinent. Kapoor and Gunta (2016) argue that online relationships differ from physical relationships where traditional means for sourcing credibility cannot be used. People make their own evaluations of credibility based on information they gather from LinkedIn profile pages – for example – who they are employed for, the communities they are affiliated with, and their history of interactions with others. Utz provides some insight into how important these factors become when assessing credibility and “social attractiveness” (2010, p.317). This is a key difference to highlight how LinkedIn has changed how people perceive and portray identity in virtual communities.
The emergence of social media platforms such as LinkedIn and its impact on how professionals portray identity and interact with their peers cannot be understated. Although performing identity and impression management are not new concepts, LinkedIn has provided a new platform for users to construct and maintain their persona in any manner they wish. Performing identity happens on this platform happens in a number of ways. Showing who they know in their network, the construction of their profile page and the personal information they choose to share on it, the groups they engage with and the way they interact with them, are all ways in which LinkedIn users perform identity. In the online world, these same factors are also what people use to determine credibility in others. Credibility is a vital commodity on LinkedIn, where relationships built on mutual trust might produce business opportunities or career advancement. Deception may occur when individuals omit or give misleading information about themselves, and this is problematic considering that traditional means of evaluating credibility do not apply to the online world. However, LinkedIn communities operate best when all members interact openly – sharing experiences, giving advice, and offering knowledge.
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