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Millennials, Here’s How to Avoid an Online Identity Crisis

Most millennials deal with a personal identity crisis in high school, a natural part of life. But once they leave go on to work or college, there's an entirely different one facing them: an online identity crisis.

Simply put: Too many people are ignoring their online identity and don't know how it affects them.

Cartoon of a man who does not have an online identity also not having any identity at all.

Even if this isn't the real you, it's often how a company sees you before they meet you. (Max Antonucci)

In a growing number of fields, not just in technology or information, how millennials present themselves online can have surprising effects on their working lives. It isn't the most important part of them, but it's important enough that it can't just be ignored or done half-heartedly. People who do will eventually trip over their mistake down the road, and they'll likely trip hard.

What is a Strong Online Identity?

I don't need to give any examples about how someone SHOULDN'T present themselves online, since there's endless examples already out there, including a recent one about a tweet that cost a young girl a job before she started. A little common sense can help avoid oversharing.

Instead let's look at what a good online identity is, which includes everything a person posts online - their social media profiles, comments, personal website, online portfolio and whatever else has their name on it. From what I've read (and written myself), creating a good online identity has three core steps:

1. Find and understand your unique perspective on the world.

This can stem from our work, past, unique traits, world views or any combination of them. Know what sets you apart from others that makes people immediately think of you - this is a solid foundation for one's online identity.

2. Find interesting ways to share your uniqueness online.

This ranges from simply writing in a unique voice, taking photos that give glimpses your world, shooting video, or any medium you enjoy - as long as your individuality shines through.

3. Be bold and engaging with what you share.

Even when writing in your own voice, give readers a reason to care. Put the focus on your audience, not just yourself, and what others can learn from your perspective - otherwise they'll click away to something else.

And don't be afraid to address tough subjects, like political issues or other thorny topics - as long as you handle them delicately, rationally, and are open to other viewpoints. More often than not, unless a topic is expressly off-limits for your field, there's little to worry about.

This doesn't sound tough, but ...

... in the relationship most millennials have with technology today, getting a firm grip on one's online identity much harder than it seems.

We're a generation that grew up with so much media at our fingertips, we also grew up with the mindset of consuming from it, not adding to it. Making an online identity means being a creator, but most millennials are too used to being consumers. It then becomes an issue of teaching an old dog new tricks when it really shouldn't.

A meme showing how an online identity is perceived differently by almost everyone, but is ultimately like a constant job interview.

A good online identity is like a good interview, no business casual clothes required. (Max Antonucci)

This isn't the only reason making a strong online identity is tough:

  • Seeing so much content published every day, it feels like there's way to beat the endless competition for people's attention.
  • There have been horror stories of people getting fired over one stray post, so some millennials only feel comfortable posting about boring things, like food or the weather.
  • With all the time spent reading listicles and watching Netflix, there's often little time (or motivation) left for writing one's own content.

I won't pretend to be an exception to much of this. Even though I've put lots of work in how I present myself online, these issues (and others) are always in the way. My biggest struggle is worrying how possible employers will react to a personal blog post that's potentially offensive, which has made it hard to tell my own stories on my own blog. Like with many other millennials, it's a constant struggle.

Why should millennials care about their online identity?

This is the biggest reason I think most people don't see their online identity as something serious: they don't see the benefits. With all the work that goes into this but no quick benefits, what's the point?

The point is simple and crucial: in an economy where hundreds of people are applying to every job, one's online identity is one of the best ways to stand out.

Maintaining a good online brand sends tons of positive messages

  • Independence
  • Discipline
  • Creativity
  • Being tech-savvy
  • Good writing and communication skills
  • An understanding of the Internet
  • Are always learning
  • Can meet self-imposed deadlines
  • Can take initiative and add to a company right away

As you can guess, all of the above are good messages to tell the world and help start any job opportunity on the right foot.

The most important thing, however, is an online brand shows people that you're human. Companies don't want to hire robots, they want to hire people who add unique value to their business. If companies wanted machines, instead of hiring they'd buy more calculators, software, or actual robots in 2050.

Cartoon of a woman getting a job instead of a calculator, laptop, and floppy disk

Lots of calculators may be out of a job because of you, but it's a necessary evil. (Max Antonucci)

Companies want real people because they can create, not just consume. They can absorb the world around them and create something no machine can - something valuable and unique to their identity. Having an online brand is the best way to tell the world: "I make something useful that no one else can, and I do it all the time."

If millennials, or indeed anyone, can't do this, they're not just losing future jobs - they're losing what makes them human. Managing your online identity is a small price for holding onto your humanity in the digital age.

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Millennials, Here’s How to Avoid an Online Identity Crisis

Max Antonucci

Max Antonucci is a senior at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, studying Online Journalism and Information Technology. His career focuses include web design and development, social media, content marketing, and anything related to working and thinking digitally. At school he's the Lead Tech and Innovation Producer at The Newshouse and helping launch a local startup news site. He can turn almost any topic into a political or philosophical discussion, enjoys drawing the occasional cartoon, and somehow has gone his whole college life without drinking coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @DigitalMaxToday.

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