A few weeks ago, author extraordinaire Eleanor Brown was on Twitter, asking people how they decided how much of their personal selves, beliefs and opinions they infused in their online interactions.
It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Or at least it seems to be for a lot of people.
So I put some thought into where my lines fell, and though it’s a total “me” perspective, that’s the only perspective I’ve got. So here’s a bit about how I consider what to post online, when to use the delete key, and what criteria I (briefly) consider when I’m putting stuff out on the internet for all to read. Maybe it’ll help you.
Potential DEFCON level of the post.
I don’t personally enjoy inciting controversy, debate, or all out flame wars. I definitely don’t enjoy the side of the internet bridge that houses the trolls that eventually devolve to “yeah, well you eat too many donuts” attacks when they’re out of things to say. Some people find poking that hornet’s nest fun. I am not one of them.
Politics and religious preferences are almost sure to do those things, so I largely avoid those topics except in pretty broad circumstances where I feel compelled to take a verbal stand on something I believe in (like supporting gay marriage). They’re also largely personal topics to me, and it doesn’t necessarily appeal to me to discuss them with complete strangers or acquaintances.
Your tolerance for disagreement, debate, and even full on argument will certainly vary, as will your interest in carrying out varying types of discussions in such public forums. Some people absolutely love to rock the boat and watch the response stream explode. Some care to share every detail of their personal lives. Some prefer to be rather mild-mannered, or rely on humor, and walk somewhere nearer the middle of the road.
You’ll know pretty quickly where you stand on this one. This is a matter of comfort level.
The web is a vast professional network, too.
I have always had a blended personal and professional presence, and that’s a choice for me. I don’t believe that you really CAN separate them in the long run online, so I’ve just chosen to keep it me all around, edit as needed, and use the gates provided to me (like on Facebook) to establish places where I can be more liberal with my commentary , humor, and language.
On sites like Twitter, I’ve chosen to blend both personal and professional contacts as well as connect to many people I’m not really acquainted with at all, so I have to be mindful of what I post from a personal level (details about my daughter) and a professional one (not cussing out a client for a late payment or breaking any confidentiality agreements and such).
My work intersects with the web, so that makes a lot of sense for me. A majority of my potential client market could be online at any time, and I never know who is paying attention or listening carefully. Whether or not I use some kind of disclaimer about my posts being personal opinion, my behavior reflects on my company and its reputation as well as mine. Period.
Increasingly I’m guessing your business intersects with the web, too. You have to decide what impression you want to leave there, even for the moments that Google remembers but that you’ve long since forgotten.
Yet even so, one of the questions that continues to arise as business and social channels collide: should I be professional or personal and how much of both? The answer?
There is no “RIGHT” answer.
With this as with anything else, there is no absolute right answer. There’s only the answer that fits your life, circumstances, established presence online, and the expectations that follow that. In a way, that’s really what it comes down to, expectations. The ones you set for yourself and the ones you set for the people that interact with you.
Someone like my friend Erika Napoletano sets the expectation right at the start that she’s direct, will throw curse words and hedgehogs in your direction, and believes in the Power of Unpopular. So that’s what her friends and community expect, and I’d be willing to guess that if she went all Pollyanna on us, we’d be disappointed and confused.
If, however, your online persona is full of happy cheerleading, life affirmations, and pictures of cats, the people who count on you for those things will probably be put off if you suddenly start snarking about your boss, letting the vitriol fly, and dropping the f-bomb in every other sentence.
Both ends of the extremes can work, as can everything in-between. It’s a matter of deciding what you stand for (and don’t), being that person in the way that works for you, and giving up on the idea that you can be all things to all people. Once you’re palatable to everyone, you’re just white noise.
Accountability is the determining factor.
What it boils down to is what you’re willing to answer for.
All human behavior has consequences, whether it’s typed or spoken or simply implied. When we ask for the “right” answer what we’re often doing is trying to find the answer that will somehow absolve us of responsibility for our own choices and decisions. It’s much easier to point to some standard or ‘best practice” and say that we were just doing what we were taught instead of making a conscious choice about how we want to represent ourselves.
It’s not about results, because there are successful examples across the spectrum as wide and varied as the people behind them. Ultimately, it’s about choice. Gut feel. What makes you happy, excited, motivated, curious. What suits you in whatever unique way works.
Try to emulate precisely what other people do, and you just end up being an imperfect copy of someone you can never be.
The answer to walking the personal/professional line?
Yes. You can. And someone will always advise you to do exactly the opposite of what you’re doing now.
So quit fussing over an answer you’ll never get, and go do something brilliant and worthwhile. You know you’ve got it in you. Even if it comes with pictures of your dinner once in a while.