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The Tricky Business Of Using Social Media For Work

Mixing professional outreach and social media is like walking on thin ice; here are some tips to keep from falling in.

Professional social networking isn’t. Not only is it a contradiction of terms, it’s a contradiction of purpose. Indeed, the relatively recent adaptation of social media for professional networking and correspondence is a bit like scheduling an afternoon business meeting at the local dive bar instead of Starbucks. It could get the job done–maybe–but the venue just wouldn’t make any sense. And this is precisely the trouble with today’s “professional” etiquette on social media: it’s been completely tossed out the window–along with people’s professional reputations–and risks causing far more harm than a few tasteless photos on Facebook.

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Social media has been around for a while now, and we’ve learned a thing or two along the way: private profiles, no inebriated clubbing photos, and no badmouthing your present employer are the new rules of the game. A dash of common sense, and all is well then.

Except it isn’t. Not even slightly. You see, there was a time when Facebook was just for college dorms: a place for friends to connect, keep in touch, and stalk one another. Then came Twitter, a service that ushered in the era of 140-character paroxysms of idle thought and Hollywood gossip. Yes, Facebook has evolved into a genuinely useful communications medium, and Twitter is now a powerful tool for disseminating breaking news, and yes, both have been hugely pivotal in helping empower people around the world. Think of the anti-FARC movement in Colombia and the recent Libyan uprising, for example.

But neither Facebook nor Twitter was conceived as professional networking catalysts. And you certainly didn’t use either to “socialize” with your professional contacts with a familiar candor best reserved for close friends. They weren’t places to find your next job. Employers and recruiters didn’t go to them to scout for top talent. You didn’t friend your boss or coworkers. That’s what LinkedIn was for.

But things have changed, lately. We seem to have forgotten something along the way, namely, that “professional” and “social” are supposed to be two diametrically opposite–albeit not mutually exclusive–things. Facebook really got this right. So did LinkedIn. Curious, then, that employers have turned lately to Facebook to search for potential employee candidates, and status updates on LinkedIn are becoming as indiscriminate and desultory as those on Facebook. Imagine if employers hung out at nightclubs to scout for talent. If they were looking for a talented dancer, DJ, or bartender, it might make sense. But, to find a first-year associate for a law firm, or a financial analyst? Surely not.

We don’t ordinarily blur our professional and social lives offline. Why would we online? “Professional” is supposed to impart a bit of distance from the “social,” or “casual.” A professional contact is supposed to command respect, at least a modicum of formality, and perhaps even a bit of humility. The writer of this story grew up in the 1980s, yet still remembers, not so long ago, when a “Good afternoon” here and a “Dear Sir/Madame” there at the start of a letter was the norm. Instead, the rules surrounding professional correspondence by email lately have blurred, and letters tend to be written with brevity that borders on curtness, and a tone that hovers precariously near to insolence. If everybody is fine with a more relaxed tone, so be it. The problem is, a bright line rule is always easier to manage than a blurred one.

This perhaps is why Google+ debuted with powerful anti-Facebook rhetoric touting its new “Circles” paradigm. Designed to separate–or segregate?–the people in your lives into an infinite number of categories–friends, best-friends, coworkers, exes, and so on–while also allowing “one-way” or “non-reciprocal” friending à la Twitter, its tremendous initial growth is a fascinating reflection of the times. Google+’s popularity exists precisely because it has inverted the very things that originally made Facebook so popular, namely, required reciprocal friending and no ability to categorize your friends.

But this presents a weird and confusing paradox: on the one hand, we agree that we don’t want to mix professional and casual friends on the same networks, yet now we can do so thanks to Google+’s Circles (which have been recently aped by Facebook’s enhanced Groups and Lists), thus encouraging us to add-yet-separate. On the other hand, employers continue to spy on potential candidates’ various social media accounts. When a prospective employee has taken all reasonable steps to limit his or her questionable social exposure–racy photos, inflammatory posts, or otherwise–and the employer still manages to seek out and discover such destructive material, something is clearly amiss. Imagine if employers went around peeking into employee candidates’ bedroom windows at night. How is the discovery of an unobstructed window of an otherwise locked house any different to a gap in privacy settings on one’s social networks?

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And then there’s the recent trend to “gamify” social-professional broadcasting online. Your online influence, or clout, can now be tracked by the requisitely misspelled Klout, an online startup that assigns you a score and plots your progress on a four-quadrant continuum that describes your social media style and influence: for example, whether you tend to “listen” or “participate,” or “share” or “create.” While quantifying one’s interaction amongst the interwebs is all well and good, what happens when quantity starts to matter more than quality?

Consider Hootsuite, an online service that allows for scheduled, automatically distributed content through the various online social networks. No disrespect to Guy Kawaski and other social media powerhouses, but automatic tweeting or Google+ or Facebook status updates is antithetical to the very essence of what social media services are supposed to be about, i.e., personal communiqués with the world. Using automated services to broadcast your thoughts is about as personal as scheduling flowers to be delivered to your girlfriend every birthday or anniversary: granted it’s the thought that counts with flowers, and it was a very original thought, to be sure, to automate the process, but it’s not likely she’ll see it that way. It’s just so…impersonal, somehow.

All this has lead to a rather ridiculous state of affairs: along with trying to promote oneself with padded résumés and ridiculous cover letters that are little more than hyperbolic nonsense, people have turned to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and yes, even LinkedIn, endlessly proselytizing on even the most marginal of thoughts, and worse, echoing them ad infinitum with Hootsuite-type services. Contrast this unfocused, potentially unverified, and untempered mass communication with the more elegant, disciplined, and focused new medium offered by Quora. It still offers “gamified” elements like +1 votes, but the intensely strict self-policing practices of its members and moderators means that even if someone wanted to rant and rave to their professional self-destruction about “who is history’s greatest badass,” at least it would be confined to a particular question, remain on-point, and not pollute social media with mostly meaningless, redundant diatribes that risk shooting oneself in their professional foot.

So what to make of all this? We are entering a paradoxical era of confusions and contradictions: on the one hand we want to mix our professional and social lives yet still segregate them all the same, never knowing when a particular tweet or status update could bring an end to our careers. Fortunately, however, a bit of common sense can go a long way towards avoiding these potential pitfalls.

Consider the purpose of your tweet or status update, and the audience to whom it is being addressed. If it is a purely social message, the default rule should be to broadcast the message via your personal accounts exclusively. Similarly, if it is a professional communiqué, consider limiting your message to your professional networks. Unless you’re a bona fide “public figure,” tweeting nonsensical bits of idle thought is fare more likely to harm rather than enhance your public image. Nobody really cares about your FourSquare check-ins celebrating your latest culinary discovery or failure, and such hollow ramblings only effectuate a dilution of your otherwise informative, professional musings.

Of course, many messages fall somewhere in the middle, or are tips, suggestions, or your “expert opinions” on some matter. If so, feel free to broadcast away on any or all of your networks–or to really establish yourself as a legitimate expert in various subjects, become a regular contributor on Quora–but if you’re discussing a potentially professional subject matter or expect that your keystrokes will be read by some of your professional contacts, be sure to maintain the same tone in which you would ordinarily discuss the matter in person or by email.

Mixing professional and social networking then is quite literally like walking on thin ice: you never know when you’ve gone too far until it’s too late. The risks of accidentally sabotaging one’s professional image have never been this high. But then, we once respected the foolish contradiction of professional social networking. Perhaps it’s time to do so again.

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[Image: Flickr user Mikko Miettinen]

About the author

Marc Hoag, CEO & Co-Founder Venturocket. Marc is a California-licensed attorney with an Econ degree from UCLA and a strong background in math and science.

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