Recently I was part of the facilitators team of a webinar on First Impressions Online. In a previous post I described the tools we used. As part of preparations for the webinar we conducted an online survey among participants. We asked them to remember the first stage of our course Social Media for Learning & Change in which we all got to know each other online and to have one of the other participants in mind answering 4 questions.
Interestingly, people formed quite strong opinions about others without ever having met. People were described as “young and not overly confident”, “enthusiastic”, “in control all the time”, “helpful” or “not accessible, judgemental”. Photos were an important basis for these impressions for 8 out of 11 respondents. They noticed that a person was not smiling and was looking down in their profile picture, and looked at clothes, too. “Formal or informal makes a big difference”, concluded one participant. For about half of the respondents the accompanying text and/or the style in which it was written was important as well. Observations include “concise & powerful”, “phrasing used”, “judgemental”, and “lack of nuance”. Not all people that found the content of the text important also focused on its style and vice versa.
Another thing that was important in forming an impression of someone was their activity in the internal learning environment (a Ning). Respondents were impressed by the activity of others (“fast replies”, “(s)he is really into it”) and by the fact that they contributed in different places in the Ning (“replies popped up everywhere”).
Remarkable was that personal profiles did not play a role in forming a first impression of others. This might be explained by the fact that the personal profiles were located on a separate page for each participant and were thus perhaps not as easily visible as the first introductions and profile pictures that appeared on the home page.
However strongly felt the first impressions were, respondents were open to adjust them and in fact did so: 64% changed their opinion about the person later on. This was mostly the result of (more) interaction online or face-to-face. More contact resulted in better understanding of the person and in a more positive impression.
In the webinar participants mentioned that it was not easy to “reconstruct” their first impression. One of the great things about connecting to (new) people online is that you have a possibility to reserve judgement as one of the participants said. There is time to think, you do not have to react immediately but can consider the best way to answer or deal with something. You can choose how to react. This is an immense difference with face-to-face confrontations with others, where you cannot always buy time and consider the best approach.
In the ensuing conversation about how people try to present themselves online it became clear that there are many challenges. The fact that you should consider all networks as essentially “public” makes people reticent and careful – in where they are active (LinkedIn and not Facebook for instance), what they share (mostly professional information) and how they share it (no typos!). This is especially the case for those that work in bigger organisations. Freelancers seem to feel they have a bit more time and freedom, and perhaps also a bigger need to present themselves online. Many of them actively use different social media for networking and contacts. However, they make a distinction between networks they use privately and networks where they are present professionally. In these networks they of course also take into account that their clients may see their contributions and profiles. In that sense, online connections to a large extent are still extensions of offline contacts and networks. Participants also find it easier to contribute in platforms where they actually know (some of the) people offline, too, and become so-called lurkers in networks where they are less familiar with other members.
Most people have an idea about the impression they would like others to have from their social media presence. But the big majority is not yet very actively developing an image for themselves. For now, they focus on trying to be as authentic as possible – not so authentic as to scare people away but also not so much focused on getting an image across that it makes one look too eager and phony, either.
Of course there are all sorts of online tools using statistic information that can help you assess how engaged people are with you online and, depending on how much credit you give these tools, how you come across online. One of those tools is Klout. However, Klout does not (yet?) use LinkedIn as a source and as such might not be much help for those that focus on this professional network only (please note: nowadays Klout does use LinkedIn, too!).
In the end you may still need to rely on people you actually know well telling you that you might do well to exchange your profile picture for one with a smile or making you think about whether or not to have the same profile picture in all your networks…
There is definitely much more to be said on the matter of how you come across online and how you can align your online image with your authentic self. For me, the webinar and preparing for it formed a good start for thinking about this, and I certainly look forward to discovering more on this subject.