Social networks are useful but also present big professional pitfalls by allowing individuals to mix their personal and work communities, according to a new paper by three business school professors from UPenn’s Wharton School and the University of Rouen in France. The fluid boundaries (or total lack of boundaries) can lead to inappropriate sharing, especially in the absence of traditional interpersonal cues, according to the authors of “When Worlds Collide in Cyberspace: How Boundary Work in Online Social Networks Impacts Professional Relationships.”
The study begins by observing that “… employees are interacting more with co-workers, supervisors, and other professional contacts on online social networks. Some of these online networks, such as Facebook or Twitter, are social spaces where interactions can be personal as well as professional. This results in a potential collision of worlds...” These collisions can have ill effects, including “non-tailored self-disclosure to broad audiences,” which stands out as one of the best euphemisms I’ve come across recently. Importantly, this content can also live on online forever.
The study goes on to assess the impact of different types of social network interaction on two key measures of workplace reputation, competence and likeability. It’s worth noting that while assessments of competence tend to be based on professional interactions, non-professional interactions can boost someone’s likeability by showing a more human side. Thus in some cases mixing personal and professional networks is actually advantageous -- provided that they “engage in some personal disclosure… without violating professional norms.”
Doing this on social networks is harder than it looks, in part because of the lack of traditional cues like “facial expressions, vocal tones, and body language,” which help guide our interactions during face-to-face conversations. Because we’re operating to some extent in a vacuum, this raises the possibility of what is termed a “false consensus bias,” in which individuals “overestimate how much their professional contacts share their understanding of what constitutes appropriate disclosure of information in online social networks.” Even before this stage, when you accept someone as an online friend, they instantly gain access to everything you have ever posted on the network. Here the authors observe that “connecting in online social networks unleashes a flood of self-disclosure in the form of an archive of information that is not tailored to the particular relationship or situation, and its original context and meaning may be skewed.”
Underlying all these decisions is a subtle balancing act. On one hand, there’s the risk of sharing too much: “Because individuals tend to forget part of their audience online, employees often unintentionally fail to mirror their offline professional norms by disclosing too much or inappropriate personal information.” On the other, over-cautious employees can be “perceived as uptight or cold by online professional contacts, as warmth and likability are associated with the degree and nature of personal self-disclosure in online social networks.”
To deal with all this, the authors identify four main strategies for managing social networks. The first, “audience,” consists of keeping your personal and professional networks totally separate. The second, “content,” allows mixing personal and professional networks, but paying close attention to what you post to burnish your image for both networks (this strikes me as the most “natural”-seeming, at least in the purely artificial sense enabled by social media, but also the most taxing). A third, “hybrid,” combines the “audience” and “content” approaches, for example by always using Facebook lists or Google+ Circles, as well as watching what you say regardless of the immediate audience. The final, and most recklessly liberating, option: “Open,” where you just call it like you see it, period, with no concern about who’s listening or what they think (my own addendum: this approach may be activated or augmented by substantial quantities of Merlot).
I imagine this research rings a bell for a lot of people. Does your own personal approach to social media resemble any of these strategies?