We all use social media, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any number of blogging sites. But rarely do we think about how social media leaves us exposed in a way that could hurt us irreparably.
In Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed he studied several people who in recent years have been widely criticized via social media — some of them for sharing things online they now regret. For instance, Justine Sacco lost her job after she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Or Lindsey Stone, who also lost her job after she shared a photo of herself on Facebook which showed her flipping off a sign outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Before they knew it, they were trending online and a social media hammer had come down on them. Something as simple as posting online made them infamous.
In Ronson’s book, both of these women talk about the indelible shame they’ve experienced. What happened here? They’re rather young but both professionals. Stone worked with learning disabled children. Sacco was a PR executive in New York City. But I don’t believe it’s age or inexperience that led these women to make such a misstep. It’s that social media is still rather young.
When we were using our .edu email addresses to join Facebook or using MySpace in 2005, no one was thinking about their careers and how social media could affect it. We didn’t need to. Social media wasn’t a serious place that could destroy your public image. In fact, we didn’t consider ourselves public figures just because we were on social media, but maybe today we should.
Have you ever asked yourself how social media is serving you? What does social media do for your life? These are important questions. The things we share online can affect every facet of our lives. And yet how many of us have never given it any thought?
For instance, if you’re working in advertising, there’s a lot you don’t want to share on Twitter. Sure, you can lean on privacy settings and hope your client never sees what you wrote, but how often are those settings changing? Stone thought that her Facebook post was private until four weeks later “when a Fire Lindsey Stone Facebook page had been created.”
“It attracted 12,000 likes,” Ronson wrote.
A lot of us consider ourselves to be comedians, even though we definitely aren’t. For a standup comedian to say something crass or off-color on Twitter, most people wouldn’t even flinch. But sometimes there’s also a backlash. A publicist might tell them, “No publicity is bad publicity.” But if you’re not a comedian — you’re a middle school principal or a dental hygienist or any number of things you’re more likely to be — social media may not be the place to practice your brand of humor.
All it takes is for a handful of people being offended by what you said for something potentially bad to happen. I don’t just mean getting fired. It could be worse. You could receive death threats, like the people in Ronson’s book.
Think about how you use social media. It should serve a purpose. Twitter, Facebook and others are all using your information to advertise to you. You should be getting something out of this arrangement. Younger people leaving high school or college should be thinking about this now, before they join the Stones and Saccos of the world.
Is social media a way to talk to family or friends far away? Make sure you bolster privacy so you’re really communicating with the people you want. If it’s personal, keep it personal.
It’s hard to think about because social media is rewarding. We get likes and retweets and shares, which reinforces our sharing. It feels like praise. But it’s not a real social life. Clicking “like” could mean anything, or nothing. Social media itself is no replacement for real friends and one-on-one communication.
If your social media presence is part of an image that pertains to your career, you need a clear picture of what that image should be. Write down your career goals. What you share online should reflect those goals in every possible way.
It may sound boring. You get mad at something you saw on TV and you want to go on Facebook and rail against it. Social media isn’t like screaming into a pillow when you’re frustrated. It’s not even an echo chamber. Sometimes what comes back to you when you share something heated isn’t what you want to hear or see. Is it worth it?
Whether you have 40,000 followers or 20, you now have a public persona. No matter how genuine you consider yourself, that persona isn’t you. It’s a public-facing representation with your name plastered all over it. Let go of the idea that you will manage to communicate precisely who you are and what you stand for. Instead, think about whether you’re getting what you want out of sharing yourself online.
Woman with tablet photo available from Shutterstock