Are You Crafting the Right Image Online?
Remember when photographs were personal? And only a small group of people saw those snaps at any given moment? They usually remained hidden in an album, only to be paraded out (to very select audiences) infrequently. Maybe they induced a few laughs, but chances are you never lost your job as a result of those photos.
Fast forward a few decades. We now operate in a world where this privacy has been replaced with very public platforms for the distribution and preservation of your personal image. At times it seems we’re morphing into Snow White’s Evil Queen, as we engage in a race to be the fairest in the land (and, like the Queen’s mirror, our virtual mirrors also talk back). But it’s hard to resist — social media presents an exciting opportunity to star in your own curated editorial spread. With real-time praise from adoring fans from your personal network, social media profiles are often validating and ego-boosting. But beyond the self-esteem boost, they’re also often the first, most frequent and most lasting images we have of people.
Your profile photo becomes your daily visual identity to many people in your close network and beyond — and however unfair it may seem, it plays a role in how people decide if they'll hire you and how competent they perceive you to be. The prominence — and consequences — of your virtual image is here to stay, so it’s time to start making savvy photo choices.
While each social media site draws a different audience, it’s good to construct each public profile as if you were sharing it with your boss or prospective client. Here are five rules to guide you as you select a face to greet the world as your digital surrogate.
Align With Your Personal Brand
We have many facets to our identities. The way we interact with our families, our work personas and the various subcultures and niche groups we’re a part of all necessitate and nurture different aspects of our personalities. Each dimension is “us,” however disparate they may seem. So, when it comes time to represent yourself virtually, you may question whether you should project your “real” personality — perhaps the one with which you most identify — or highlight the qualities that have come to define your professional persona. While the nuances shift with each site and circumstance, I advocate for a hybrid of dressing beyond your biography, while still firmly anchoring yourself in your current reality.
Your social media profile photos should serve and complement your personal brand — not contrast it. Anything too formal will appear forced and fake; “professional” should still register as “human.” Part of what brings those images to life in a relatable way is a visual point of differentiation that marks your individuality in those contexts — perhaps it’s a clever detail or accessory, or maybe it’s just an enviably sleek, tailored appearance.
Set the Right Tone
Most professional headshots are immediately groan-inducing, while some “hipper” headshot photographers pride themselves on producing profile photos that are NSFW. But there is a happy medium between stiff and sex kitten. No one wants to look like a cheesy stock photograph, so focus on images where you feel alive — a shot that actually looks like you (not Glamour Shot you, everyday you — only slightly better).
Avoid the canon of contrived senior photo poses and stick with natural, relaxed, realistic configurations that aren’t overly complicated and don’t look like you’re trying too hard. If you do enlist a professional photographer, choose one with a portfolio of shots capturing image-conscious professionals like you. They should portray you as confident and pulled-together, not frivolous or unrelatable. A believable, appealing backdrop, paired with a comfortable smile and bright eyes goes a long way.
Keep it Classic
Some women use their social media images as an outlet for expressing their alter ego. But as fun as that may seem, tweeting about legal issues while self-presenting as a pin-up doll can send mixed messages and weaken your voice on that medium — and in person.
Instead, opt for classic, sophisticated styling that has a timeless look. Avoid busy prints or trendy details, focusing on neutral colors and clean lines. Makeup is a must, even if you don’t usually wear it on a regular basis, but it should appear to be soft and natural — almost as if you aren’t wearing any at all. (Lighting plays a big role here, and the right light should minimize the appearance of the makeup).
It’s important to select an image that gives the right impression, so save your fantasy images for private photo albums, or relegate that racier aesthetic to your Second Life avatar — it’ll be appreciated and rewarded far more there.
Know Your Audience
Looking “professional” isn’t one size fits all. If you’re an entrepreneur — particularly in the tech industry or a creative field — looking too buttoned up won’t serve you. But if you’re in the law or finance worlds, or something comparably conservative, projecting an image that’s too bohemian — even if that’s the look you most identify with — usually won’t help your cause.
Be realistic about your audience across each social media platform. If your Facebook profile photo is publicly searchable, remember that over 56 percent of employers check social media profiles before hiring — so even if you only “friend” actual friends, your image and some personal information is visible to strangers (unless you’ve very carefully adjusted your privacy settings). But in general, trying to remember which category every follower and friend falls into can be a personal PR disaster waiting to happen. There’s no clear, fool-proof division, so best to err on the side of professional in all things virtual. The consequences for those digital gaffes linger and sting far more than a verbal slip-up in a meeting or a bad wardrobe judgement call.
Be (Realistically) Vigilant
We primp and manicure our bodies on repeat, and daily maintenance is required of even the most visually modest amongst us. But image management has become exponentially complex with the rise of social media. You’ve picked out your outfit for the day, but what about your virtual profiles? Does that photo make your ego look big? Did someone tag you overnight in an image that reveals TMI?
As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, “Identity is a sentence to lifelong hard labor.” And your virtual identity is no exception. The pressure we feel to visually perform in our physical, embodied lives is multiplied as we — and everyone we know — has access to our image 24/7. Some feel so much pressure to look perfect in their profile photos that they transform their physical bodies through invasive procedures (aka the Facebook facelift).
Don’t expect to freeze time — it pays to keep your photos current and your profile up-to-date. Both your personal and professional networks will appreciate seeing a reflection of the real you. Just remember that photo “flaws” should come in the form of unflattering facial expressions, not behavior that might put your professionalism in question.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.