Identity crisis: How much should I share on social media?

Identity crisis: How much should I share on social media?

equalizerAs more people are jumping into the social media river, many are wondering what they should share online — specifically, where are the boundaries between personal and professional behavior in this brave new world, where we’re all able to peek into the windows of our friends, family and coworkers.

I talked in pretty simple terms about some different approaches in “The non-fanatical beginner’s guide to Twitter.” With this post, I’m going to flesh out some of the nitty gritty and help to answer some of the tougher questions.

It used to be said with one of the very first popular online social tools — email — that you shouldn’t write anything in a message that you wouldn’t want to appear in the New York Times. Few people ever followed that rule, thank goodness. How boring would our lives be if we all subjected ourselves to Grey Lady standards of information sharing?

Nowadays, new tools make it easier to share as much of ourselves as we want, and especially if you’re just getting going, it can be difficult to know what’s okay to post and what isn’t. A flat-out easy beginner’s guidepost comes from the illustrious Susan Mernit, who told participants in a workshop we led: “If you’re wondering whether you should post something or not, you probably shouldn’t.”

The genesis of this proverb comes from a key principle of social media: Authenticity is king. That word is being thrown around quite a bit these days (“authenticity,” not “king,” heh).? Social media “gurus” and “mavens” often slip “authenticity” into smarmy marketing posts. Ignore them. They are not the guides you are looking for. But authenticity is.

First of all, let’s make it clear that despite technology’s best efforts, we still have multiple authentic selves. We are the same person, for sure, at work and at home, but the mix of personality components we use is at least a little bit different in each setting. Social media makes the mix slightly more transparent, thus we have to think more about which parts we present, as well as when and how. But just like our personalities in the offline world, it’s those different parts that make us unique — and our perspective and experiences interesting.

One of my cousins, who’s a therapist in D.C., told me recently about a model of thinking about intimacy in relationships as a stereo equalizer, where things like reliability, trust, availability, etc., are the main components. Skew one of those bands outta whack, and the whole mix is off.

Social media authenticity works much the same way. It’s a mix of personal insights, professional announcements, expertise (whether it’s a job or a hobby), general passion, lots of opinion, and often humor. (Question to advanced users: What other bands would you add to the equalizer?) It takes some experimentation to figure out what mix sounds right to you. This is why Susan’s advice is so dead-on: What you perceive to be good, what you feel comfortable with, that’s what people will pick up on as they share in your experiences. For people who are largely private folks who don’t want to tell the world about the silly stuff their kid just did, that’s fine. Share more about what you thought when you read an article related to your work. It also doesn’t have to be your most familiar voice, either, if that doesn’t make you feel comfortable. You can maintain a fairly professional tone in social media (though do try not to be emotionless) and still provide value.

It’s all about the mix that’s going to make your voice sound good — to you and others.

For some people, it’s easy to share personal news and events. Me, I have no bones about tweeting funny things my mom says, details of a party I’m at, or (loads of) pictures of my dog. It’s a way for me to keep a running log of things that are important to me. That said, my guidepost is to not share things that would make me feel vulnerable, like details of my dating life. I share things once in a while about my health, either to reach out for help or to show solidarity with others, but I consciously keep it to a minimum … simply because that’s what feels right to me.

The experimentation can be uncomfortable to start with, but know that it’s okay to make mistakes here and there; social media is quite a bit more forgiving than more traditional forms of media (and I would say, also more forgiving than blogging). Worried about it all being Out There? Jaclyn Friedman made a great point recently in a workshop I was leading about how our perception of social media is rapidly changing, similar to how our perception of tattoos has changed in the last 50 years. Think about the attitudes toward a person who got a tattoo in 1959, versus attitudes now. It’s the same with social media. Ten years ago, someone getting a swig of TMI via Google might have had an adverse reaction, versus today, when seeing something a little off-topic in a Twitter stream is no big whoop.

That said, I do want to mention that there are some folks in jobs where more attention needs to be paid to privacy and security (you know who you are). There are different parameters to work with when establishing your mix, but you shouldn’t keep yourself out of social media altogether. Almost all of us are, in some way, already represented online. Social media sites generally appear within the top 10 search results; you should do your best to influence how you appear, even if it’s to show that you’re largely a very private person.

In a really big picture sense, I see all of our social media voices combining into this huge, glorious mix that has a real chance to change our cultural perceptions and values. (Note: this is the premise of the book I’m writing this summer for Berrett-Koehler.) All of this social technology has a humanizing effect on our digital interactions. Much like everyone getting tattoos, if we’re all presenting our authentic selves and experiences — versus relying on gatekeepers to tell our stories — we stand a chance to cause a tidal wave of change and inject our values, finally, into a culture that has long ignored too many of our experiences.