Since writing about varying opinions on social media and ownership of online content, I’ve been musing about ‘online presence’ as a concept in general. Last night I mentioned to a friend that in 10 years (or less), it’s very likely that some of the basic web development skills we teach at The Iron Yard to help people launch careers in software development will be either an expectation for most knowledge workers’ jobs, automated in some way, or, more likely, a combination of both.
This topic is a complex one without singular answers, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my mind as of late.You can find links to all of the posts in the series on this page. Here’s Part 2:
Take a moment and think about this question: is it possible to be a successful professional in today’s world without an online presence?
I’m sure a variety of different thoughts were stirred in different readers’ minds. When I initially tried to answer that query, my mind jumped first to the accomplished people I know who don’t have an online presence (or do, but as a collection of ‘dead’ accounts). I would guess that many of us can think of successful people who don’t maintain an online presence, meaning the simple answer to the question is, “yes, you can be successful without a digital identity.”
What makes the question more difficult is that, for most of us, it’s easier to think about people who are successful in large part because of their online presence.
Even if we take social media out of the equation completely, the complexity remains. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and popular author, is a great example. In a blog post called Why I Never Joined Facebook1, he recalls the emergence of Facebook and asking the question, “what problem do I have that this solves?” Unable to find a satisfactory answer, he never joined—Facebook or any other social media platform:
After a while, I stopped asking this question, and just moved on with my life without a presence on Facebook. Ten years later, I still have never had a Facebook account — nor any social media account, for that matter — and have never missed it. I have close friends. I still have lots of readers and still sell lots of books. And I’ve preserved my ability to focus, allowing me to make a nice a living as a theoretician.
Newport makes great points in his article, but would he sell as many books if he didn’t have a highly-trafficked website and popular blog? Even without social media, his online presence plays a significant role in his career.
My wife’s floral design business provides another interesting example. As I’ve watched her company grow, I’ve seen the vital importance of online presence—in social media, specifically. Because her work is highly visual, being tagged in photos on Facebook and Instagram and utilizing tools like Pinterest translate to visibility, credibility and, as a result, money, over time. It’s hard to imagine her attaining the same amount of business without taking advantage of the digital tools she uses.
In some cases, online presence is more a requirement than a tool to be wielded. I have a friend who used to be a professional musician. An amazing songwriter, he had the opportunity to sign a possible record deal with big label out of Los Angeles. The music company confirmed that his songs were potential hits, but he didn’t get the deal. Why? His social media statistics were lackluster and online presence helps sell songs.
The examples above are anecdotal, but the practical reality for most people is that an online presences is, at a minimum, helpful professionally (think about LinkedIn). On the other end of the spectrum, people make lots of money through their digital identities. We have entered an age in which, for most people in developed societies, having no digital presence seems strange or even suspect. Further, it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine even running a business without being online (many have shut down for lack of a digital presence).
There will always be people who find success without needing to use the platform-du-jour, but they will become increasingly rare in the coming decades.
1. You can read Cal Newport's article, Why I Never Joined Facebook, on his website.
Also published on Medium.