You have probably heard the acronym “TMI” before—Too Much Information. It’s usually said when someone shares something a little too personal. Context and audience have always been the keys to knowing what is or is not appropriate in behavior and speech at any given moment. This has not changed. Almost everything else has.
To frame the discussion, I asked my father to summarize an experience he had once related to me.
“I had a new client, an ad agency, who sent a young producer to our photoshoot. She was about 25. She was a freelance producer, so her business card was not an official one from the ad agency, it was her own. It had her own website address on it. I went to her website just out of interest, and it had a link to personal pages of journals, photos, etc. One journal had a sentence talking about how she was not really happy working at the agency (the one she was working with currently on this photo project) and that she is looking for other work, moving back to the Bay Area, etc. Being from another generation – I found this disturbing.
First, that she doesn’t think that this may come back to haunt her, and second – that she feels no need to keep her personal and professional lives separate. In my years of working in my business starting in the early 80s, you only mixed personal and professional if you had developed a personal relationship with the client – maybe you’ve worked with them for years, had them over to the house for a party, etc. I’m not saying you don’t socialize with new clients– you go to dinner and drinks after the shoot and learn more about each others’ personal lives, but this was different. The photos and journals took it way further.”
A serious case of TMI! It also lost this young woman further business from my father.
Let’s focus on the two factors we’ve already hit on: context and audience.
How has context changed in the age of digital communication and Social Media? Think of it like setting, in the most general sense. Am I in an office setting? A casual lunch? An after hours business function? How we behave changes depending on social norms attributed to each setting. If I’m making a sales presentation to potential clients, my mannerisms and vernacular will reflect as much—I will try to comport with their expected behavior, avoiding unnecessary friction. If I’m at a casual lunch with a coworker or friend, I might open up a little. Context has changed at the rapid pace of modern social networks. The rules are blurry and hard to keep up with, if rules still exist. If I update my status on Twitter or Facebook, am I doing so as a professional or a private individual? Is such a distinction even valid? Should I be reticent about sharing my thoughts on thorny issues on the website I built for my real estate business?
What about audience? It’s pretty obvious that everyone with access to Social Media has an ever-widening audience. We now have unprecedented access to people we may never even meet, people with whom we often have little in common. This is because it is now so easy to cultivate these networks. One click of the mouse, and you and I are now “friends”. Some people are extremely selective about who they link up with, while some go to great lengths to make their audience as wide as possible. Either way, we are connected to more people than ever before. Add to this the fact that the Internet creates a permanent record of the things we say and do, and one thing is clear:
Our voices carry like never before.
Should we hold back for fear of offending a potential client or business contact? Should we avoid boring our non-industry friends with shop talk? Should I keep my mouth shut because it might reflect poorly on my superiors? No one can make this decision for you.
One option is to create different personas. I have a personal Twitter account as well as a professional Twitter account. With the former, I probably share too much, but I’m not anxious about it harming my business. With the latter, I try to develop connections that are professionally relevant, while sticking to updates that pertain to my professional sphere. So far, so good.
Another option is to embrace the synthesis of the personal and professional and throw caution to the wind. I am reminded of branded commercial vehicles with political bumper stickers. I always wondered if those people thought about the business they might be losing by wearing their heart on their bumper, as it were. This new era mentality can be seen in almost every corner of the web. Nancy is your “Austin-area Buddhist REALTOR®.” Paul has a “Support Proposition 122” web badge on the website of his business. Danesh posts a controversial piece about immigration on his ActiveRain blog. Is there a line being crossed, or is there even a line at all? By acting in such way, have they hurt or enhanced their professional prospects? In either case, such effects are not easily measurable.
I liken our Social Media presence to attending a work-related cocktail function. We have a little more leeway in terms of how we behave or what we say. We don’t need to necessarily walk on egg shells. At the same time, we will most likely interact with these people in the future, in a setting that is more professional. How we interact and what we say should reflect the shades of gray inherent in our current context. It’s probably best to avoid either extreme, but that is just my personal opinion.
What are your thoughts?