One of the things I consistently tell grad students is that they need to start developing an online profile now, their future, and the future of the profession depends on this. While already established faculty (read ones with secure full time jobs) can afford to ignore the developing intellectual landscape the coming generation of scholars will have no such privilege. This is a softer version of two other related points: that what you do in college matters far less than developing a digital portfolio, and that in the future you can be online or be irrelevant (quick, before you send me hate mail on the second one it is not an evaluative claim merely a descriptive one).

A couple of recent news items and conversations and developments brought this into focus and got me thinking about this problem, so bear with me for this longer than usual blog post as I explain how this all ties together, but first here are the pieces:

One of the things the digital era affords us as scholars is the ability to both deliver to a wider audience, and develop a reputation independent of institutional structures. That is, not only can you blog about developments in your field, and blog about how those developments might be of interest to a wider audience, and audience outside of your immediate classroom and colleagues, but perhaps more importantly one can develop a profile and voice that is more important than the specific institution with which you are associated. Think about this as rather than being a professor from Omega university who writes about Legal Institutions in Meerkat Communities, you can be a professor who writes about Meerkats and the Law and who is associated with Omega university. This is not really anything earthshaking, but rather a general trend that the internet creates, administrative and sorting functions are pushed down to the local level. This is happening in all sorts of fields and education will certainly follow.

In this landscape managing your online “portfolio” will become increasingly important. Tom Scheinfeldt was making a similar point in his recent post, “Brand Name Scholar,” albeit while referring mostly to institutions. But I think this holds for scholars as well. If you publish a book, write an article, make an appearance, apply for a job, you can be sure that a large portion of your audience will google you (or employ another search engine of their choosing). It is to your advantage to be able to be seen and findable in this type of information structure. As a way of demonstrating this google any random name, heck even try your own name, and see what comes up. In many instances the top hit for any particular name is a linkedin account or a facebook account. I think most academics would want people viewing their own faculty profile before a link to a page in which their name appears on a list of conference speakers or worse perhaps, a place where someone is questioning your academic credentials or argument. Its to your adverting to control the discourse.

Now linkedin in part serves this function for professionals, making it easy to find someone’s professional portfolio and set of related contacts, but it doesn’t quite work for academics, as it doesn’t allow the flexibility as much to constantly update and link to courses one is teaching along with links or perhaps the full documents from recent publications and presentations. Now universities in part can fill in the gap for their faculty by having faculty pages, but this means that your “reputation” and content are tied to a specific institution, buried deep within a series of faculty and department pages which you may or may not have the ability to update easily, and which you certainly would not have the ability to change the look of, and perhaps most importantly you could not take with you if you left the institution. Simply put you want a place that you control, that you can take with you independent of any institution, that demonstrates to the world what type of scholar you are, and what you do.

These can serve a range of functions, from presenting a simple CV and list of courses taught, to linking to research, hosting a discussion for a recently released book, to an ongoing conversation about current events . . .The point is you want a space you control.

Now one solution to this would be for someone to build/host a “facebook for academics” one particularly tailored to the interests of those working in academia. I think this is the tack is perhaps taking over the long term by creating a large database of faculty and faculty profiles, but as of now it doesn’t really allow one the sort of robust functionality you might want.

Enter Interfolio. Let me start by saying I recommend Interfolio (not this current product but its prior set of services: dossier management). I used them during my job search and had nothing but a good experience with them. The few times (2) I had to contact customer service they were wonderfully responsive. My only complaint is that they are pricey, especially for poor graduate students, but I don’t get the sense that they are artificially inflating prices, just that I wish there was a cheaper way to handle this (perhaps if more Universities could receive documents electronically . . .). So, it seems like a natural transition for Interfolio to develop a platform for academics to manage their online portfolio, again a sort of facebook for academics, to serve as a central hub to which scholars can point people interested in their work. It appears from this mock-upthat they have developed a platform that will cater to all of the interests/needs of most academics.

I am of two minds about this. Part of me thinks that many academics need this, especially the less digitally savvy ones, ones for whom setting up their own webpage and/or set of pages would be a daunting task, even if using something like iWeb. And when I talk to academics who are not well versed in things digital, but who want to have their own online portfolio this seems to be one of the larger barriers. So, I definitely see Interfolio filling a gap. But on the other hand I think it is better to develop your own profile, your own set of pages and develop the digital literacy to control your own data. Why? Because of Facebook. If Facebook has taught us one thing it is that the services that provide us with places to store and share information about ourselves, develop an uncomfortable amount of power, and that when these sites decide to change TOS or use your data in ways in which you are uncomfortable with, there is often little you can do. I think in this regard the internet has two futures (similar argument here to Zittrain) one which people set up their own websites and places to share information, and one in which this information is increasingly centralized, and the end user has less and less control over said information presentation and dissemination. Me I prefer the former, sure the learning curve is tougher for that route, but I think the payoff is larger. So I will be curious to see how this develops whether faculty will develop a digital literacy to present themselves to the world controlling their own information, or increasingly farm this out to third party services, where an or a facebook for academics replaces the University, rather than individual academics controlling their own voice and presentation.

Update: After I wrote this post I talked/emailed with some folks at Interfolio who saw this post. The Interfolio model is to let the users control/own all of their data, in other words you don’t give up the rights to your stuff, and you don’t have to worry about them selling your data (the other side of this is that the service will be subscription based). So, kudos to interfolio for doing this right.