Social Media and The Divided Self

On Friday I’ll be speaking at a conference at Pace University about social media and privacy, more specifically about what happens when an individual uses social media for personal or semi-personal expression but get into trouble with the brand that they also represent – or with the public at large.

Social media represents a strange dovetailing of my personal and professional life, as I’ve explained here and elsewhere. I came into digital as a writer and the evolution of my career occurred along with the evolution of these platforms and tools. I started doing this work because the idea of communicating ideas to an audience was interesting and, in its way, fun for me. But for the most part, I’ve maintained an internal code about how, when, and to whom I engage.

I became active on Twitter roughly around the same time I started working professionally in social media, but before Twitter was widely seen as a marketing tool. I don’t really use it for that purpose, except to promote posts to The Learned Fangirl and occasionally share information about speaking engagements at conferences. I still don’t see it as a marketing tool, but then again, I don’t really see myself as a marketer, even though that is the work I do. I consider much of what I share via social media a reflection of my authentic self, not for some endgame or marketing-oriented brand building because my social media life began with my desire to connect with friends and make new ones, rather than to build a personal brand or sell a product. This does create a certain level of tension in what I do. I probably talk way more about going to concerts than I do about Google Analytics considering what I do professionally, but my persona on Twitter was never intended to be a place for that, and I don’t feel motivated to start another Twitter feed for my professional life.

While it seems frivolous to devote so much thought to the idea of a personal vs. professional social media persona, it clearly has real-life consequences for many professionals. Years before Justine Sacco got canned for her idiotic Twitter racism, or Connor Riley got a job offer revoked for complaining about a potential commute, or Scott Bartosiewicz for fired from his agency job because he thought he was tweeting from his personal account, there was Heather Armstrong and Dooce. For a short period of time the word “dooce” was actually used as a word to describe someone getting fired from their job due to their online activity (i.e. “she got dooced because of her erotic fanfiction blog”) though the generation that came of age with Facebook are likely too young to remember it.

The gray area between personal and professional online personas exist for several reasons, the biggest ones I see are the emergence of personal technology that allows easy, real-time sharing on information to the public but also a difference in the intended use of these technologies between social media users as a whole and the goals of social media marketing and brand building, particularly on Twitter, where most of these conversation gaffes occur. The goals of social media marketing approach Twitter conversation as marketing communication and audience response, while social media users see Twitter as a cocktail party where private or semi-public conversations occur. When individuals share personal information on Twitter, most of the time, the intent is not to communicate as a brand representative, but as an individual. This of course runs counter to the goals and intent of social media marketing communication where any and all communication, even personal, “authentic” communication is brand-focused.

I see this in action a lot with brands. In social media and blogger outreach efforts, where Twitter users are not approached as fans communicating with each other but as an audience reacting to a brand. Of course, these folks are going to go off-brand because the brand isn’t their reason for communicating in the first place! However in professional environments where individuals are expected, encouraged or even required to represent the brand that employs them via social media, it can cause potential conflict if the individual’s pre-employment social media profile isn’t “brand-compliant”

But should it have to be? Do individuals have a legal right to maintain their personal social media persona and keep it separate from their professional brand-building work? Beyond legality, are certain individuals punished for the “authenticity” that social media brand building encourages? (e.x being openly gay, overtly religious or political, etc.) Who benefits from the unified social media persona that is viewed as the ideal?

This is a lot of what will be discussed at Pace University on Friday. More to come!

One response to “Social Media and The Divided Self”

  1. This is a HUGE frustration of mine in so many ways.
    With things like Disqus and other apps that link our various accounts together, it’s tough to have any kind of partitioning.

    Years ago I was running a nonprofit. I went on a bourbon website and left a review. The review posted with a picture that I used for my nonprofit activity. ARRGGGHHHHH! I deleted the review, then went to figure out what had tied all of that stuff together.

    Bourbon isn’t anything to be ashamed of, but I didn’t want it so closely tied to the nonprofit.

    I’ll be following what you have to say about this because this is a big issue, and I don’t even know how to begin thinking it through. Some people set up multiple accounts which means multiple email addresses, multiple passwords and all the associated maintenance. HASSLE.

    Thanks for bringing this up. It’s good to know that someone else is thinking about this.

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