All about me, dot com

Who is the online you - hand-coded pages of hobbies and family photos, terse departmental entries or slickly branded media portals? Zoe Corbyn surveys the world of academics' personal websites

August 19, 2010

Like countless other academics, David Gauntlett has a perfectly functional departmental home page. Buried inside his university's web presence, you can find the University of Westminster professor of media and communications' biography, contact details and list of publications next to a semi-smiling headshot. His institution's logo appears in the top left corner.

But go to his personal website , located firmly outside the university sphere, and he comes alive. Here you can peruse his current projects, check his Twitter feed and blog posts or view his latest drawings. If you happen to click on a mention of his son, you can even watch a video of the toddler interacting with a passing train.

"It seems only natural and rational that an active academic would want to have a website and to make it as full and as interesting as possible," Gauntlett says.

He is part of a growing global band of academics who supplement their standard departmental online profiles with web presences outside the university domain. Despite the rise of Twitter, Facebook and blogs, such personal/professional websites are an important avenue for scholars to showcase their work and themselves in the digital world.

"It is not the case for everybody, but there certainly is a growing tranche of people who are actively making sure that they have their own domain name and complete control over their own digital identity," says Melissa Terras, a senior lecturer in electronic communication at University College London who studies how academics use the web.

She identifies a "digital identity" spectrum running from the dated, hand-coded pages often found on university servers to sleek, sophisticated, more professional-looking sites where the focus is on profile and impact.

"Increasingly, academics are looking for a way to create a digital presence that is not dependent on their current place of employment and that can go beyond the stodgy faculty pages at department websites with their mugshots and lists of courses and CVs," says Larry Cebula, an associate professor of history at Eastern Washington University who has a personal interest in the topic.

But who should one imitate? In 2005 Cebula posted on MetaFilter, a community weblog, seeking inspirational examples of academic websites. "I need a simple, clean professional website," he said, adding that he did some consulting and wanted a site where potential clients, colleagues, hiring committees and students could learn a little more about him. "The problem is, every site I see either looks amateurish or makes the person look like a self-important weenie."

Robert Levers runs Levers Advertising and Design, a small business specialising in university website design based in Boston, Massachusetts. Following a rise in the number of individual academics approaching his firm to create bespoke websites for them, last year he launched a special "package for professors" at $3,000 (£1,880) per site.

Similarly, last October Harvard University rolled out OpenScholar - a free website-creation package for academics.

Levers has about four projects on the go for US scholars at any one time. He says most of the interest comes from younger academics, who see it as a way to enhance their job prospects while a customised domain reduces problems when they move institutions.

Wendy Cadge, an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, is a Levers client, and her website went live last month at www.wendycadge.com. She is hoping that the site - which she notes is purely for her professional profile - will not only help the community groups she works with connect to her more easily, but will also facilitate contact by the media. Although some information about her is available on a departmental page, the university doesn't offer interactive web pages for faculty, she observes. On Cadge's new site, she will have the flexibility to post newspaper articles, videos, journal articles and syllabus material that do not easily fit within the university's templates, and to update the page herself.

Jim Wild is a senior lecturer in Lancaster University's department of physics; he is also interested in outreach, engagement and media work. He started www.jwild.co.uk four years ago, building the site himself using an off-the-shelf content management system rather than writing his own HTML code.

He revamped it about 18 months ago to give it more gloss, but still refers to it modestly as essentially an "online CV". It is a simple place, he says, to send those interested in booking him for events to get a feel for who he is - and, he notes, there are no "symbols and squiggles" in the URL as there tend to be in those of institutional pages.

Another impressive example of a scholar's comprehensive website operated outside the university sphere is that of Andy Miah, professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland.

Like Gauntlett's site, it mixes the professional and the personal. Miah says he established his own website when he became aware that there was a "degree of ownership" it would be valuable to grasp. He is passionate about the politics of it all, and argues that creating one's own site is an expression of academic freedom.

Branding and marketing

One of the few scholars to have carried out research specifically on academics' websites is Mike Thelwall, professor of information science at the University of Wolverhampton.

In the five years since he has been examining the issue, he says, one of the biggest trends has been the move by university marketing departments to insist on standardisation for departmental and personal home pages. He isn't surprised, therefore, to have observed an increase in the number of academics opting to operate in a separate web space outside the institution's control.

But Thelwall puts his comments in context. While a scholar's home page is overall "still an important presence to have" - particularly to allow other academics to keep track of you - it is less essential than it once was, with increasingly important roles played by Facebook for personal connections and Google Scholar for the location of papers.

The University of Bath is an institution known for its liberal-minded approach to academics' home pages. Preferring to have its academics build their profiles as part of the university's web presence rather than via external sites, it encourages them to have a "people page" alongside their departmental entry.

Academics can post whatever they wish as long as it is lawful, and there is no requirement for those pages to follow a standard format (although the university offers no technical help either). About half of the university's academics have such a site. But Bath, too, is thinking about whether templates might be a good idea. "Obviously the university wants to have things that are branded and have a bit of consistency across academic profiles," says Alison Kerwin, the university's director of web services.

But a case that highlights the role of university policy in encouraging academics to take their creations elsewhere is that of Chris Mitchell, an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London.

For more than a decade, the professor of computer science has run a personal home page, which he built himself from scratch and maintains on his institution's site. The content is mostly work-related, but it includes many personal photographs.

Earlier this summer, Mitchell duplicated the contents of the site to a new home at http://chrismitchell.net/. The reason, he says, is that Royal Holloway is putting in place a new content management system for personal web pages that will generate them in a standard format. Wishing to avoid any future restrictions, he is going outside.

Of his institution, he says, "there have been standards for departmental sites for some time, but individuals' pages have always been completely up to the individual".

Paul Hoskins, managing director of Precedent, a digital marketing consultancy, has some words for universities. He believes it is better for academics and institutions alike if scholars' personal home pages fall under the wider web presence of the university. For a university not to be promoting its staff is, he says, a "missed opportunity".

Brian Kelly, web adviser at UKOLN, a centre for digital information management at the University of Bath, notes that universities may lose access to material, such as posted lecture notes, if academics are operating outside the university domain. But then again, if IT services cannot cater for academics who want to manage their personal page in a more hands-on style, an exit from the university sphere might make sense.

Getting personal

One of the most interesting and problematic issues with academics' personal home pages is just how much personal information is too much? As web content has got more professional, academics are looking to improve both the form and content of their websites.

As reported last month on the blog Boing Boing, Allen Rout, a University of Florida systems programmer, was recently googling himself when he came across a photo of his smiling baby boy on some Japanese websites. He had posted the picture in 1999 on his personal home page. The picture of his son - now 10 - was "adopted as a minor meme", a bemused Rout says, by a Japanese messageboard.

Wild has decided that he would rather not include personal content on his website. When he revamped the site he removed his galleries of photographs, as he felt that they were no longer appropriate and better off on Facebook instead. He does have a Twitter feed, but he switches it off when his tweets get personal.

Levers advises his clients against including any personal information on their websites. It is not, after all, a family website, but one where a scholar is being represented professionally to the world. But he also believes that there can be a range of motives at work when one decides to create a personal site. The reason for adding personal information when scholars are comfortable where they are and not looking for a job, he notes, may simply be to say, "Look, I am a human being too."

Terras believes that a change has taken place in the past few years. "It was OK to have a quirky home page a few years ago, but now we are expected to conform to 'this is what I do, this is how to contact me, this is my research area'," she says.

But other scholars say they would not wish to remove personal material from their web pages. Ralph Martin, professor of geometric computing at Cardiff University, is an avid cactus grower. His personal homepage, hosted on the university's site, has a wealth of information about cacti, including a database of cactus field numbers that he has built. Content related to his university work comes first, he says, but he likes to include his hobbies, too.

Meanwhile, the photograph albums on Chris Mitchell's website date back to 2005. "Perhaps it isn't very appropriate to be disseminating my holiday photos via a university site, but it has just kind of grown organically," he says, adding that his desire to ensure he keeps such content is probably one of the reasons he sought to host it elsewhere.

Others post poetry and personal writing. "My personality leaked through," says Alan Dix, a professor in Lancaster University's computing department.

For Gauntlett, it is important to "learn something about what someone is like from their website". "I expect it in other people's websites, and so I suppose that's why I include bits of personal stuff in my own - as a contribution to a hoped-for world where we don't just have very bland corporate sites," he says.

But Melissa Terras urges academics to think hard about their digital presence. "Digital literacy is a big problem for the academy. And people need to be careful about their digital identity because it is going to hang around as long as their publication record," since deleted items won't necessarily disappear.

"Most of it is harmless and you have got to admire that academia is so full of such quirky eccentricities, but at the same time they should be aware," she says.

Terras illustrates her point with an example of an academic who on his website had a comprehensive database listing every single light bulb that he had in his house, the brand, the date he had put them in the light fittings, and when they were due to expire.

"It is so much fun to create web pages, but a lot of people are opening themselves up to ridicule. They don't understand how much their undergraduate students use Google and how quickly they find these personal spaces, and what a laughing matter (some of these sites) have become."

As she sees it, scholars have often been told that it would be a good idea to put something up online, but many of them aren't sufficiently informed about the conventions of how they will appear online or the longevity of the material on the internet.

Terras is particularly pointed about those who post pictures of their children. "When kids are involved it becomes a huge issue. It is not just your digital identity you are messing with, but theirs too. It is a question of levels of appropriateness, and I don't think enough people have really engaged with that yet.

"You wouldn't, for example, expect the media to feature you and a picture of your child and the cute things you have done this week, so why would you necessarily want to publish it anywhere else if it is in a professional context? Anything posted online is in the public domain," she adds.

Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University in the US and an expert on online behaviour, agrees. "People need to realise that anything they can put online can potentially reach a very broad audience." Make sure you are OK with different audiences ranging from students to deans to your mother to your children seeing it, is her advice.

But others see it as a great shame when the individual personalities of academics disappear in the online environment. A web presence is like a lecture style, Brian Kelly at UKOLN says. Should we seek to control academics' dress style or the corny jokes they tell?

"What is wonderful about the internet is that it is a space for all these different things," says Andy Miah. "What is different about academia is that it is not always fashionable - and long may that continue."

BUILD YOUR OWN: 10 WEBSITE CREATION TIPS

"Shop around for your own domain name. Ask colleagues who already have their own domains who they have registered them through. You don't need to pay lots of money." - Chris Mitchell, professor of computer science, Royal Holloway, University of London

"Think carefully about the design, in terms of both organisation and presentation. The more you put in, the more you have to maintain." - Ralph Martin, professor of geometric computing, Cardiff University

"Look carefully at colleagues' sites for inspiration." - Wendy Cadge, associate professor of sociology, Brandeis University

"Make it yourself - I don't really think it's something you can farm out to someone else, unless it's to be very impersonal, which I don't think is the point. It takes some time to learn, but it's worth it." - David Gauntlett, professor of media and communications, University of Westminster

"Think about how you will be presenting yourself to the world." - Kevin Morrell, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour, University of Birmingham

"Think about your Google ranking and how you can ensure your website comes fairly high up." - Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies, Northwestern University

"Get somebody good to design it and then train yourself to operate it and update it." - Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law, London School of Economics

"Think about the audiences and make the site easy for them to navigate. Don't underestimate the importance of the colours and visual displays - there is much more to the page than just the words!" - Wendy Cadge

"Get your friends to critique your website before it goes live. You might feel like a show-off at first, but if you are expecting the entire World Wide Web to look at it, you should be able to show it to a few friends first and get their honest opinion." - Jim Wild, senior lecturer in physics, Lancaster University

"Maintain it. There is nothing so annoying as academics' sites with reference lists that are five years out of date." - Alan Dix, professor of computing, Lancaster University

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