Thanks to our new President, the word of the moment is “transparency.” We all love it! We all want more of it! Yay, transparency! That is, until the transparency applies to us.
The first question I get from people new to the world of social networks is, “Yeah, but how do I keep my [clients, friends, whatever] from seeing [whatever]?” The meteoric rise of Facebook and Twitter over the past year has a lot of people worrying about exactly that. In the good old days, it was easier to keep work life and home life separate (at least it looks easy on Mad Men). Now, it’s harder to keep that separation. Or, rather, it’s harder to be active in social networks and keep that separation.
Let’s assume that you do want to participate in some social network. How do you do it appropriately? I mean, if all you share is the dry, professional business side of yourself, you probably won’t get much out of the experience — nor will your friends or followers. What people truly enjoy in social networks is actually getting to know other people. I’ve never met @ms_rezai in person, but the tweet in which she shared a photo of her kid in front of a rack of knives endeared her to me forever. Only after I randomly started following her on Twitter did I find out that she works in the same industry I do. Weeks later, we bonded over the monkey cupcakes I made for my kid’s 3rd birthday. Later this week, we actually may meet in person at the local Social Media Breakfast. Professional women making a connection online by sharing a slice of their lives as moms. That’s social networking.
So, what’s a girl to do? A few ideas:
1. If you aren’t comfortable sharing your personal life online, don’t.
If you want to keep your online persona totally pro, stick to strictly business sites like LinkedIn. If you’re on Facebook, things will inevitably get personal and if you put it online, it’s forever. No matter how careful you are, at some point someone will find it if they really want to. But, to me, the key part of that setence is: if they really want to. When I think about the potentially embarrassing information that’s out there about me online, I try to remember that I’m not at all important and the likelihood that someone will search out that information is pretty slim. If anyone is so interested in me that they want to seek that stuff out, more power to them. I’ve made peace with the amount of personal information I’ve (over)shared in my life. That being said, I don’t think I can run for President.
2. Don’t say or do anything online that you wouldn’t in person.
This is a good rule that applies in many situations (think before you hit “send” on that email!), but it’s worth repeating. If you put it online, it’s forever. Even if you think you can delete it, those ones and zeroes exist somewhere. It only takes seconds to post a careless comment that you can end up regretting for a long time. The best, and probably most famous, example is Dooce. I started reading her blog right around the time she lost her job. Back then, those of us that were blogging were cocky about the fact that not many people we knew were reading them. Blogs felt anonymous. Of course, they weren’t. You can read the full story on her web site, but the short version is that she blogged about work and got fired (and spawned the verb “dooced.” As in, my boss found my blog and I got dooced). Recent history shows people still learning that lesson, like the guy from Ketchum who angered the folks at FedEx. Think before you type.
3. Choose your network(s) with care.
Almost everyone is on LinkedIn and, for professional purposes, it’s a great place to start. It used to be strictly a resume site, but in the past year they’ve added some additional social features. Create a professional profile and connect with colleagues. This is not a social network that you need to be very active in, but there are opportunites: there are discussion boards, question/answer areas, etc. Participating may drive people to your profile, so it becomes a form of online networking. Their “what are you working on?” feature is sort of a professional version of Twitter (which I’ve blogged about here, here, and here). You can also recommend people you’ve worked with, or ask them to recommend you. So, it’s a great place to dip your toes in the social networking water. It’s not too scary because it’s totally professional. Photo optional.
Almost everyone is also on Facebook, but this one is trickier. My Facebook “friends” include my boss, my mom, my junior high boyfriend, college classmates, cousins, clients and co-workers. How exactly does one manage the flow of information between a group that diverse? I thought I was going to have to type up a whole big list of instructions, but thanks to @KatieCW (who tweeted a link to this story earlier this week), I can just point you to 10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know. This article gives great, step-by-step instructions on how to compartmentalize your Facebook friends and keep information segmented accordingly. And by that I mean making sure that your clients don’t see a photo of you drunk at your cousin’s house on New Year’s Eve.
4. Maintain and monitor your network(s).
Keep an eye on your own profile, and those of your connections. Follow the tips in the Facebook article above to ensure that you’re not sharing more than you want. If a friend posts an embarrassing photo, ask them politely if they’d mind taking it down. (I’ve actually had to do this, and the friend totally understood and complied.) If they won’t (and it’s on Facebook), you can at least un-tag yourself from the photo. And you can double-check all the privacy settings from the article above and minimize the damage.
Watch your connections and keep them updated as circumstances change. On LinkedIn, I’ve disconnected myself from people that I wasn’t comfortable being professionally connected with. I do this on the assumption that more is not better, and that people judge me based on the quality of those I’m connected with. If I wouldn’t recommend someone, I don’t connect myself to them. By the same logic, I don’t accept or request connections from people I don’t know. Because then, what’s the point?
Same deal with Facebook: only people I know and only people I like. None of this “frenemies” crap. You’re a grownup, for crying out loud! You can eat ice cream for breakfast if you want to and you can turn down Facebook requests that you don’t want to accept.
Depending on how you look at it, all of this sharing is either a good thing (transparancy!) or a bad thing (embarrassing!). I’d say there’s a little good and bad in all of it. But, whether it’s good or bad, I think that there is more understanding now. Understanding that we are all human, and we’ve all done stupid stuff. So, for the most part, a little evidence of that isn’t going to kill anyone’s career anymore. Or at least, it sure won’t in the near future. Think about it: we all live in glass houses now, and by the time the Millenials are old enough to run for President, I can’t imagine that even one of them won’t have a drunken Facebook photo in their past.
I won’t lie: it’s difficult — maybe even impossible — to keep your personal and professional lives 100% separated online. But, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Social connections, online and in real life, can often evolve into business opportunities, and our business connections can result in rewarding social relationships.
UPDATE: A few hours after I posted this, I found the following article via @gwenbell: Help me! I’m drowning in social media! It’s another good overview of how to use social networks in ways that work for you.
UPDATE #2: There’s been quite a recent furor over Facebook and who owns what you upload there. Google “facebook tos” or check out a few of the following articles for an overview of the issues (in order of appearance):