A public persona online is the image or identity a person presents to a broad audience. It is how a person communicates their expertise to a large and diverse audience. Offline persona management often requires mass media coverage. For example, celebrities manage how they appear on TV, and pundits cultivate relationships with journalists to develop positive news coverage. These activities required extensive networks and dedicated public relations agencies.

Academics also have a public persona, conveying their expertise through books, speaking events, and opinion columns. Today, in a digitally interconnected world, academic persona management online mainly occurs on social media and by creating a personal blog. Whereas journal articles are meant for scientific communication with peers, persona management online aims to insert the public intellectual as a respected voice in the public sphere.

Universities often have incentives for scientific communication through journal articles but not necessarily for public communication. However, there are multiple benefits to developing the persona of a public intellectual, not just for the individual but for society. Public intellectuals can raise awareness, educate the public, and steer public policy. These functions are integral to academic freedom, as academics and universities serve as critics and society’s consciousness. Historically, academics have participated by raising critical voices and have traditionally been involved in social issues by injecting rational and evidence-based discourse to inspire and mobilize the public to take action. They can also communicate innovations and solutions to steer public policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated how academics develop their public personas online. However, using social media for academic expression can be challenging due to potential bullying and trolling, entanglement in culture wars, and low-quality interactions on platforms like X/Twitter. To counter these challenges, academics are reclaiming the so-called “artisanal web” by creating personal blogs and starting tailored audiences through newsletters. Moreover, science communication outlets like The Conversation play a crucial role in developing rational public discourse by academics.

Academic theories are a flashpoint of the US culture wars

Far-right activists hijack academic theories like Critical Race Theory for their culture wars. Whereas the theory aims to identify and challenge how racism is ingrained in legal systems and social structures, opponents argue that it promotes anti-white sentiment.

One of the current issues for academics is that the public persona online should differ from the person’s offline or private self. One example is the hijacking of Critical Race Theory into culture wars in the US. Whereas the theory aims to identify and challenge how racism is ingrained in legal systems and social structures, opponents argue that it promotes anti-white sentiment. The debate over critical race theory has become highly politicized, with some states passing laws to ban its teaching in schools. Overall, the cyber harassment of academics has emerged as a tool that far-right advocates use to silence theories they do not like.

Despite the challenges, the benefits of developing a public persona online outweigh the risks, as academics can contribute to society’s consciousness and help shape a better world.


Dallyn, S., Marinetto, M., & Cederström, C. (2015). The Academic as Public Intellectual: Examining Public Engagement in the Professionalised Academy. Sociology, 49(6), 1031-1046.

Pennell, J. R., & Maher, T. (2015). Whom Will Sociology Serve? Transforming the Discipline by Engaging Communities. Humanity & Society, 39(1), 47-63.

— This post is part of the pedagogical course Open Networked Learning,

Topic 1: Online participation and digital literacy—

ONL 241, ONL PBL 6

Digital Literacies in Academia: On the risks of developing a public persona online