Say yes to filling out that online profile

I help manage the TechSoup Community Forum, for employees, volunteers and consultants that work at or with nonprofit organizations, libraries, NGOs and other mission-based organizations. The focus is to discuss challenges, advice and questions regarding their computer, Internet and other network-tech use.

Before I reply to a question or respond to any post, I usually click on the person’s TechSoup community profile (here’s my profile). And most of the time, the person’s profile is blank. That’s frustrating for me, not just on TechSoup’s forum, but on any online forum I’m a part of. Who is this person that’s posted a question or comment? What kind of nonprofit do they represent – what’s its mission or how big is it? Why should I adhere to the person’s advice? All of these are questions that get answered with a profile.

I look at profiles on almost any online discussion group I’m on at some point – that includes YahooGroups, GoogleGroups, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, or any other platform. I look at a profile usually because someone has posted a really helpful post, and I want to know who the person is behind that excellent information, particularly what kind of organization they represent. I also always look at a person’s profile before responding to them on any group if I’m about to disagree with them – it’s a way for me to know a bit more about where they are coming from, so I can craft my response carefully and appropriately.

I also have looked at profiles because someone has said something that has made me realize that I might work in a similar field, or be in the same geographic area – and that’s lead to some great off-list conversations, lunch, coffee, even professional collaborations. In fact, my profile has played a role in some of the paid work I’ve gotten (people see some of my responses, click on my profile, read more about me, maybe click on the link to my web site to learn more about my credentials, and, boom, gig offer).

I treat online conversations like face-to-face meetings; I’d never get up in a group of people and espouse all sorts of opinions or professional advice, but not say who I am, what org I represent, etc. Not unless it was a group where all attendees are *supposed* to be anonymous (like many self-help groups). My profile is my name tag, where I can say as much or as little as I want. Imagine going to a panel discussion on a particular topic, and not having any information on the people in front of the room speaking – no organization name, no summary of the person’s background, etc. – that’s what it’s like, to me, when people talk on online groups but don’t fill out their profiles.

For me, a profile with even just a bit of info – a real name, a name of an organization or a link to a web site or LinkedIn profile – equals credibility. I’m going to take that person much more seriously when he or she offers up advice or questions, because I know at least a bit about who that person is.

TechSoup has advice that takes people step-by-step in filling out their TechSoup community profile.

A lot of people want to stay anonymous in online communities, even those groups focused on their professional, public work (IT, human resources management, social work, arts marketing, aid and development work, community garden management, etc.) because:

  • Their employer (or the organization they volunteer for) would frown on such participation, even if it contributes greatly to employees’ professional development, because they see it as a waste of time.
  • Their employer is afraid of a breach of confidentiality or the airing of dirty laundry (but that same employer probably doesn’t blink at an employee going to a conference, even presenting at a conference).
  • They want to ask questions and offer advice freely, without worrying about any on-the-record association with their employer (or where they are volunteering).
  • Even if they wrote in very general terms, if they were discussion a problem in the workplace or with a client, it would be easy to know what organization they worked for just based on the kind of nonprofit they have said they represent and the city in which they are located.
  • They work somewhere that is a highly-desired workplace, and know that if they provide their real name and/or the name of their employer, they will be inundated with inquiries by job seekers.

If any of those apply to you, you should still fill out your online profile, providing enough information so people know you are for real and credible, but not enough information to be identified. It’s NOT difficult! You could just say:

I work at a nonprofit organization based in Kentucky, focused on helping the elderly. I’m in charge of IT.

I volunteer at a Red Cross chapter west of the Mississippi. 

I am a social worker at a very well-known, large nonprofit in the USA.

No name for you or the organization, and not even a specific city name – yet, each of these profile statements give community members a sense of the kind of work you do, and helps us to better understand the advice you offer or questions you ask on an online community.

The discussion about why to fill out an online profile – or not – is happening over on TechSoup. Post there or here in the comments.

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