Social media makes it easy to get help in online user-support communities, but all your questions (even the really newbie ones) become a permanent google-able record. Does social media's record hurt your professional web-presence?
Communicating online in help-forums is a powerful way to get help learning because it is so public. The record that your question and conversation with users creates is what attracts even more users to help you. This record is also what allows you to get help by reading conversations other users have had on issues you want to understand better. The problem comes when this collection of conversations where users teach each other to use a resource is mined for data about you – the classroom can feel like a safe place to experiment with ideas, but social media's record doesn't provide quite the same safe space.
Recently I got a lot of help at WordPress.org in the user-support forums. Their materials are very extensive, it's all word-searchable, and to some extent entries are tagged as being about a particular WordPress theme or issue. I also found a person looking for help to modify a blog header in the same theme I was learning to modify. I wrote a response to help her, ran it through a spellchecker, and posted it. (Can you tell where this is going yet?) After I had posted it I realized that I had made an error, but when I went to edit my post I couldn't. To make sure the WordPress forums contain useful content for users, WordPress.org doesn't usually “edit or delete” support forum posts because that would undermine the work of the support forum in creating a resource to help people learn how to use WordPress. My error is now preserved and google-able.
Digital preservation is incredibly costly to do effectively, so I don't know that my error will be saved forever (though a friend's error has been in a forum for just over a decade now). I do know that my error will be preserved long enough for anyone in the immediate future, including any potential employers, to google it. They will see that I was actively engaged in learning, and they will also see that I hadn't read my post before uploading it – they will see me acting like a student speaking in a classroom instead of a user creating a permanent, searchable record.
I needed another way to think about participating in online user-support communities to keep being an active participant. My solution was to reframe my participation. I created another identity for the learning that I do in online forums. My profile still has my name and enough information for someone to recognize me, but I post under a nickname. Instead of my work photograph I use one of the whimsical little images that the forum creates for its users. My newbie questions remain right there where they were along with my mistakes, but the version of me that makes them doesn't look like the way I present myself professionally on mine or my employer's website. I don't know that everyone would agree that this solves anything at all, but this helps me feel free to learn in and contribute to online user-support communities without worrying about how it could affect my professional web-presence… of course, now I put everything through an online grammar-checker too.
HT to Sarah Gotschall and Cindy Hirsch.
Last Updated: March 12, 2013