Social Work, Safety & Internet Presence: My Lessons Learned in 2017

I had one of the senior counselors that I work with at field placement ask about my website the other day, and how one goes about setting up a digital presence. It lead me to think about the journey that my digital identity has taken over the past year (and what I’ve learned from it).

When I first started as an MSW student at the UBSSW, they shared with us a great infographic entitled the Social Worker’s Guide to Social Media (which I highly recommend). After reading the infographic, and doing a bit more research, I created a second Facebook profile, and a second website to function as my ‘professional’ presence. I separated out my “work friends” (who were really colleagues) from my “personal friends,” and any classmates who I became friends with were added to the new profile (since they would be future colleagues).

I have been running a personal website/blog since I was 13, so it was a bit of work to tease the two out, and to determine what would get posted where: where do I talk about what?

When I started my clinical field placement I found that one of the rules at the counseling center was that we could not have an accessible Social Media presence: clients could not be able to find us online. I grumbled to myself (a bit) in my head, not because I disagreed…but because my digital presence was (and is!) part of my Social Work practice: I have been a regular participant in #MacroSW twitter chats, I have used hundreds of public posts to share information relevant to the profession of Social Work on my new Facebook profile. I interact in a number of groups to promote the values of Social Work and to discuss policy. I also grumbled a bit because I knew that it would mean making a third website (and how many domains can one person own and maintain?).

However, it was actually a blessing in disguise. Outside of my field placement, I work with survivors of violence at a confidential location (we literally don’t have an address, and we’re better protected than 12 Grimmauld Place). As part of my work, I provide counsel to people who are escaping both violence and torture.

I did not realize how absolutely perilous it could be for someone to associate me with my work, until one of our clients (who’s under our protection) came into the office and said he was worried the person that he was escaping would shoot up our location with a machine gun if they found out he was there. Since then I have had at least a few incidents a week where I was incredibly grateful to have worked to slowly remove any social media presence that could link me to my Social Work practice (I’ve been working slowly in order to avoid the Streisand Effect).

Just last week I was searching an apartment with a police officer behind me (one of us had Kevlar and a weapon, and it wasn’t me). I was on point for reasons clear to no one. But Social Workers (and Social Work Students) go into the same locations that police do all the time: we just don’t get the backup or protective garments, and if we’re lucky, we have a 90’s Nokia and our name on a whiteboard back in the office…and sometimes (like last week) we even get a police officer (who will stand a few feet behind us).

It could be absolutely perilous to be followed (digitally or in person) by someone who makes the connection about who I am, what I do, and where I work: not only for me, but for my clients who are seeking safety.

This means that (today) I have a spectrum of presence on the internet: I have my main website, which isn’t in English, has me listed as living in another country, and – likely – would be very hard for the average person searching for me to find. This is where my “personal” self finds its digital home. There is nothing I say here that I would be somehow embarrassed to have on the front page of the New York Times…but it’s very personal, and we have to be very careful about the use of self in Social Work. Additionally, I don’t think anyone in the Social Work profession ls terribly interested in my retro 8-bit gaming, Pokémon, or Dungeons & Dragons (which I write about a lot).

I have my “professional” website, which has me listed as working in another profession entirely (one that I happen to be vocationally trained in, like some of my heroes were); the website, the Instagram, the social media, the twitter, are all red herrings that let me have what I call my “travel” persona (something I developed when I worked for a government agency in another country many years ago): I can go anywhere, and introduce myself, and my ‘travel story’ will match what they can find about me online…because I don’t always want people to know too much about me. It is entirely neutral, entirely boring, entirely safe…and I can talk about it for hours ad nauseum. It also hosts the email I use professionally when not at work, or when traveling, and it is the user name that I register on many sites (since I never want SocialWorkDesk to be associated with my name)…the front end of this websites protects me (what people see is a person who works in a very neutral field), the back end allows me to function and to work via email.

I then have this website, which is my professional voice, which allows me to participate in the Social Work community safely, and anonymously: my clients can’t find me through this website; and I can – in one place – discuss issues that I find important, digitally advocate on the Macro level, discuss the profession (warts included), and not have it come up with my name (which I find essential to my safety and the safety of my clients).

This isn’t the kind of thing they teach you in Social Work School…it’s the kind of thing that you develop on your own, as you go…but it is incredibly important that Social Workers (and Social Work students) give serious thought to how they intend to work digitally. I cannot imagine the setup I have now changing (because I always want the option of anonymity, and to work in some of the more…critical areas…of Social Work, and so I am disinclined to pierce the veil…especially after how much work it took to get here).

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