Is it possible to separate a personal, (though not private), persona from your business or professional persona online? It had better be. At least for today's younger generation, given the kind of online artifacts they're - sometimes foolishly - leaving behind. Much is being written about this lately from at least two perspectives; the obvious safety issue of children divulging personally identifiable information and young adults laying out some of their more foolish antics for future employers to see. But the question being asked now isn't which of these or other aspects may be right or wrong in and of themselves. It's whether these aspects of self can be taken in the proper context, both situationaly and in terms of an individual's life time line.
Why Does it Matter at All?
Reputation matters. We all know that. Credibility matters. Who you are matters. And it matters to different people for different reasons in different contexts. Any stock prospectus says, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," yet a whole industry analyzes these things in an attempt to determine those future results. Clearly we do the same with resumes. And now it is also done - on a personal level - with the things we leave online. Perhaps some things we'd thought we'd left behind.
Is it possible to segment ourselves online?
It should be possible. However, the ability to do this will depend as much on how we as a society collectively choose to interpret context as much as what we each individually choose to divulge online. (Or what shows up that we didn't personally choose to show.) In real life, we all play different roles. And though the core of our identity may remain the same, we certainly and obviously act differently in these roles. A stoic business person known for cool demeanor in the boardroom may hoot and holler at a child's little league game. With hardly a moments thought, you'll easily come up with many of your own equally obvious examples.
Typically, there's a tacit understanding about this. Eveybody gets it. We have our family, social and work lives and perhaps other social circles as well. A bad joke in the locker room is maybe OK, whereas you'd never do that, (OK, some of us would; and might pay for it), in a business setting. Sometimes these "worlds collide." Most often, we can choose when and how and to what extent our worlds overlap.
But what happens when a name search online may reveal multiple aspects of your online self; likely out of context?
My Perspective, Then Some Ideas for the Future
From my perspective, having been online and having worked in the online industry for over 17 years, I've personally left a fairly long trail of online artifacts. (Yes, there was an online industry 17 years ago.) While some of my historical postings or web pages findable in archives reveal immaturity, (or even some not so historical items), I'm thankful that even back then I was fully aware of the potential future impact. And I didn't say or do anything in public online environments that - I think - would drastically damage a future reputation. (Such as it is and whatever that may be.) Like anyone, I may have made a variety mistakes in life, but those are between me, my family and friends. In any case, while my personal online activities go back to the early days of online and web, they didn't extend back to my teen years. The teens and early 20-somethings today are online. En masse. Will the things they say come back to haunt them? Clearly, sometimes the answer will be yes. The thing is though, they're not really making an informed choice when they're putting up their homemade videos and such. Maybe someone coming across this content may take it in context. Even then, some stuff may be seen by some as going too far in any context. Would they still choose to post such things if they really thought how it could come back at them?
My personal choice to have a home page, place information on it and so forth, is my own. People may judge me based on some of what I have to say. I've intentionally set up two separate blogs. One business/professionally oriented, the other personal. Since my full name doesn't appear on either, ideally anyone who'd seek out my personal web page to see who's talking would at least see that attempt at context. There's other things that I didn't choose. A search for my name will reveal - for example and among other things - that I used to be a whitewater kayaking instructor for an outdoor club. This is trivial. But the thing is, I didn't ask for this to be online nor was I asked if it was OK. While I couldn't care less about this snippet, what if instead of something 'neutral' such as a former hobby there was a membership list of a political organization I belonged to? So sometimes we can't even choose what goes up that has to do with us. Though we may have recourse to get it down, once the genie's out of the bottle, it's out.
Just How is Context Interpreted?
There's already a ton of societal norms here. Though just what they are will vary from culture to culture. If a couple is arguing in a closed room somewhere and we happen to open the door and walk in to this, most would likely say, "Oh, Sorry," and bow out. That same couple in a crowded theater might be met with, "Hey, could you two just take it outside please?" (Or perhaps some slightly stronger suggestions.)
But we don't have these tools and rules for online personas. Not as they might relate to varying contexts we might find ourselves in online and offline. Though computer mediated communications from bulletin boards/forums to chat and so on have been around for decades now, it's really only been since maybe the late 90's they've become truly mainstream. There are ideas of so-called "netiquette" for online behavior in chatrooms and so forth, regardless of how poorly followed. But there doesn't seem to be clarity on how to separate online from offline when it comes to a visceral feel for the varying context.
Personal web page publishing only came about in the late 90's. More recently, some easy to use form-based "About You" pages have been available on a variety of services. Along the way, everyone - and especially the so-called Gen Y'ers and after - have become more sophisticated. And now we have the easy to use blog world, which - ease of syndication aside - is purely an interface invention. The technology to create a serialized journal-like web page publishing system existed as long as there have been online forms. But it took until the mid zips, (or whatever the 00's are called), for this idea to find its time.
End result? There's a whole lot more personal expression going on then ever before. Some it is professional, some corporate. Some someplace in between. How can we tell which is which? And does it even matter?
So What's Next and What Should We Do?
These are just my opinions on how maybe we can collectively get to a balance that allows for online self-expression with an understanding that traditional social boundaries still exist. Though for better or worse they more easily collide online, so the road to that balance requires both those who create and those who view to take some small steps.
- Accept that We Own Our Words
Even the younger generation that's spewing all manner of brilliance and creativity, but also trash need to fully understand free speech has two sides. We can say what we want, but understand that others will make judgments and perhaps take actions based on what's said. Understand that while you have a right to self expression, and maybe there should be a privilege to be accepted in context, some extreme things may just break through that wall. Consider this before publicly exposing such things in non-anonymous online environments.
- Try to Accept the Context
Just as we would offline, we need to try to understand the context in which things are being said. (This is likely especially for those beyond the 20-something years. Consider your antics as a young adult. Should the few worst things you may have done at a party have kept you from the high end job you do so well today? If they'd been captured by a cell phone camera - with or without your knowledge or consent - should that have been the thing you'd want a hiring manager to weight beyond the skills you chose to put on your resume?)
- Don't Crash the wrong online worlds together
As a manager at a company I once worked for, I once got a somewhat decent resume from a candidate. Unfortunately, the Email address was at an Email provider called slacker.com. I trashed the resume. It wasn't so much that the 20-something "kid" had that as an Email. Had I found that on a web search, I'd not have cared. That's his personal life. I might have thought him a bit more of a moron, but in the context of "ok, he was being a kid," and he'd of at least gotten to an interview stage. In the end though, it was the poor judgement he used in applying for a serious job with that Email which was more than I could look past. Moral? Don't do things where you force the wrong context on people. It doesn't usually work out in real life, nor will it online.
There's probably more. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.