These are notes initially written for a workshop on Web Presence at the 2015 Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute, at the University of Chicago, July 29th 2015. They have been updated for a workshop on Building Your Profile in a Digital World at the 2016 Boston University Conference on Language Development. Slides from the BUCLD workshop are here. And later versions have been used in workshops on Building Your Online Presence at Winter Storm 2017 and Winter Storm 2020. Slides for that workshop are here. Slides from the LSA workshop are available here. Shevaun Lewis created a useful handout for a closely related workshop here.
Web Presence ≠ Website
Back in the day, having an “online presence” for an academic meant having a simple webpage — mugshot, contact info, short bio, and some links to your writings — and then you could get on with life as usual.
Times have changed.
I don’t mean that web technology has become fancier or that you need to have a super-slick personal domain. Though that’s certainly an option. The bigger change is that there are so many more ways to make your presence felt online, and many more choices to be made about how you should use online resources. Chances are that you also consume information differently now than you or your peers did a few years ago. You get far more information online, and you have easy access to vastly more quality online information. Perhaps you’re more distracted than you used to be. And it’s likely that easy access to information has made you less patient when you’re looking for information.
Your CV is boring, and hardly anybody is reading your papers. And even if they do, that doesn’t tell the story of what you can do. You have skills and interests that aren’t reflected in your CV. There are likely connections between your research projects that might not be evident in your papers. And publication cycles are so slow that important things that you’re doing might not appear as finished products for a while.
This sounds too much like marketing! And I don’t have the time anyway
The topic of how you present yourself online is a sensitive topic among academics. We like to pretend that we care only for the noblest intellectual pursuits, and that any distractions from that ideal should be treated with contempt. Marketing and self-promotion are unseemly. As long as you pursue the pure truth, everything else will take care of itself.
Now let’s get real.
Do you think it would be wise to never present at a conference? Or to give impenetrable talks? Or to write 100 page papers that nobody would ever make it through? Or to be a boring teacher? Probably not. You already believe in the value of effective science communication, and you already believe in the importance of engaging with your professional colleagues. It’s just that traditional modes of science communication are being joined by lots of new modes.
People spend huge amounts of time online. They expect to find everything easily online. They have many compelling online choices. Lots of interesting discussions happen online. So if you want to get their attention, you need to meet them where they are.
You are a Small Business Owner
It’s not like Yelp or TripAdvisor, where you’re selling a panang curry or a room with a view. Your business is your expertise.
But just like other small businesses you’re dependent on people investing in you. In your case, they invest their time in reading about your ideas. They invest their future in studying with you. They invest their energy in pursuing the questions that you find interesting. They invest their trust in collaborating with you. They invest their money in paying for you to travel, or to research, or to teach. Or they recommend that somebody else invest their resources in you, such as a journal or a funding agency. They invest their own reputation in endorsing you.
You may be interested in different types of people investing in you. Your current academic peers may be most salient right now, but it’s never to soon to think about the range of career options that are available to people with your skills and expertise. Non-academic employers may want to know different things about you.
And just like other small businesses, you depend on your reputation. But unlike the restaurant owner or B&B proprietor, you don’t get to see most of your reviews. Most of the reviews are hidden from you, but they’re definitely there.
Success = Research x Communication
So this all means that it’s not enough to just do great research. You need to be able to get those insights into the right hands.
I really like this Quora post by Rishabh Jain: What are the most valued characteristics for one to succeed in academic research?
What’s different for Linguists / Language Scientists?
In some fields you’ll be judged substantially based on some cold metrics like the number of journal publications, the impact factor of the journals where you publish, your h-index, or the amount of grant money that you raise.
Fortunately, linguistics is different. Your profile depends on more intangible factors. That has pros and cons. It means that there’s more need for you to pay attention to professional engagement, beyond your CV.
Linguistics includes diverse sub-fields that span many different scientific cultures, which don’t always understand each other perfectly. That creates more need to communicate broadly.
Linguistics has glacially slow publication cycles. The huge delay between when you do your research and when the results are published creates more need to let people know about it ahead of publication.
And it’s a field that is poorly understood, and that has no ‘right to life’. So that makes it all the more important to communicate to a broad audience.
Don’t overreach. You’ll look bad if you create something that you can’t maintain effectively. So create something that you’ll be able to keep up to date. If you don’t have a website, then you don’t exist. If you have an out-of-date website, then it looks like you once existed.
Think about who your target audience is, and what do you want them to know. For example, if you’re trying to reach potential employers, they’re unlikely to share your expertise — that’s why they’d want to hire you — so pitch your message at their level.
Don’t expect people to read much at all. Unless it’s really very compelling. Or unless they’re really motivated. This means that you shouldn’t be explaining yourself in your website in the same way that you do in your latest conference talk. Your target readers have neither the expertise nor the attention span for that.
First, find out what your online presence is already. What will people find if they look you up? Is it embarrassing to you? If needed, try to fix it. Or at least ensure that it’s not the first thing found about you.
Then, be sure to have at least a basic website. Yes, you do have time to do this.
Next, you could create/update your profiles on professional networking sites like LinkedIn, ResearchGate, etc. But you don’t have to be everywhere. And you should be cautious about creating multiple separate profiles that it will be hard to keep updated. Avoid duplication wherever possible.
Then find ways to engage with your professional colleagues. It’s still important to do this in person, but there are many ways to engage online.
Resources from the Chicago/Boston/College Park Workshops
Sample Personal Websites
- Beth Levin (Stanford: co-presenter at the 2015 LSA workshop): very basic, not even a picture, but it’s up-to-date, and that matters a lot
- Ivy Hauser (U of Minnesota; co-organizer of the LSA series where I first did this workshop); you don’t have to be old to have an effective site
- Kate Lindsey (Boston University); this page immediately engages with you
- Matt Wagers (UC Santa Cruz): dense single page conveys a lot (Google Sites)
- Valentine Hacquard (U of Maryland): simple way of illustrating research scope
- Omer Preminger (U of Maryland): minimalist in appearance, but informative and up-to-date (WordPress)
- Daniel Gutzmann (U of Cologne): perhaps the most beautiful linguist’s website that I have seen; don’t try this unless you have some good content
- Rachael Tatman (Seattle area data scientist & linguist): a compelling site, conveys a lot about the person
- Google Scholar: example Marina Bedny (Johns Hopkins; Winter Storm 2020 presenter)
- LinkedIn: example Emily Nava (a COSWL leader)
- Research Aggregators: ResearchGate, Academia.edu, LingBuzz
- Blogs for discussion: Faculty of Language (Norbert Hornstein), Dorothy Bishop’s blog, Language Log
- Blogs for reading (neither recently updated): NLPers (Hal Daumé, Maryland), Making Noise and Hearing Things (Rachael Tatman, Washington)
- Quora (question-and-answer site): my Quora answers
- Creating your web presence: A primer for academics (Miriam Posner, chronicle.com)
- Intentional web presence: 10 SEO strategies every academic needs to know (Patrick Lowenthal & Joanna Dunlap, EduCause)
- WordPress Beginner’s Guide blog
In case you’re interested, in another post I described the tools that I used to create this site: Extreme Makeover – Homepage Edition.