Saturday, November 30, 2013

Living Online

In these still early days of social media, folks struggle with how much of themselves to share online and who should be allowed to see it. And I’ve heard many professionals insist they don’t want coworkers to have access to their private lives via Facebook, winching from social media the way the Amish would photographs.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that walling off your personal life from the online world is not just difficult, but perhaps not even necessary, and maybe even a handicap. In some cases it’s become a negative to be a digital hermit. So just as face-to-face interactions require tact, perhaps it’s more useful to ponder what to share and what to keep private.

Because I’m a Realtor and a writer, I embraced Internet exposure. Anything to get my name out there. And when it came to posting political beliefs on Facebook, I always felt, “Hey, this is part of who I am. I’m not hiding it.” But sitting in a continuing-ed real estate class 18 months ago, the PowerPoint presenter, with remote in hand asked, “Who among you are posting strident political statements on Facebook?” Almost nobody (including me) raised a hand, but you could see the tightening body language across the room and some slumping in seats. He asked, “Why are you doing that? When was the last time you changed your opinion about something based on something your saw on Facebook? You’re just pissing people off.”
I fermented some hard cider, so of course had to tell everyone
about it. And somehow my Aug/Sept biking schedule appears
too. Is nothing private?

That rang so true I logged onto Facebook right then and there and began deleting all my snarky anti-Tea Party comments, reposts of Rachel Maddow quips, and Huffington Post articles.

But I never felt entirely comfortable with that decision. Being silent in the face of injustice is a special kind of sin. So I narrowed my social and political postings to two issues: social justice and gay rights, two issues I care deeply about that have particular social meaning right now.

Still, I know I’m inciting discomfort. Not a good thing in a medium where you can be hidden with a click – the online equivalent of someone throwing a black sheet over your head at a cocktail party because you discussed uncomfortable topics.

On the other end of the spectrum are 2 guys I’m friends with on Facebook who have raised the Facebook identity to a social art. Their posts carefully reflect specific personalities. And they’re the best Hoosiers ever, meaning their posts will never, ever, ever offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. That they’re both in the advertising industry at the same company says a lot about their style. Their Facebook personas are brands of sorts. Really sweet, endearing brands. We see their hobbies, their families, their children, their pets, even their quirks – with one it’s a love of vintage business signage, with the other it’s reoccurring photos of interesting number combinations on the dashboard odometer. And they have faithful followers. They can post nearly anything and comments flood in from their friends, co-workers, and clients.

Their posts give the impression they have no political opinions, are apparently unaware of religion in any form, and nothing bad ever happens to them, or, like good Hoosiers, they avoid discussion of all three topics.

Turns out they’re onto something. A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed that people who shared their personal lives online where perceived as better workers by their coworkers.

Not wanting my Instagram identity
to simply be another Facebook, I
decided to only post inanimate
objects - the cool stuff I encounter
in my daily life. Lots of archit-
ectural elements
That’s not true with everyone in social media. A former student from my teaching days is a Facebook friend with a filter more broken than mine. I used to see posts from her attacking her bosses and coworkers and customers. Still seeing her a little as the 16 year old girl she ceased being many years ago, I sent a fatherly private message asking, “Are you worried that people at your work will see your posts?” Her quick reply showed she didn’t care one damn bit.

But I think she’s on borrowed time.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep our work and online lives separate. If you’re clinging to that old, “I can’t be bothered with something as shallow as social media,” as I once did, you should know it’s not an attractive or endearing quality. It marks you as out of touch with modern social norms.

But managing what you share is a constant battle.

Before Micki and I went on our first date last March we only knew each other online. As she was getting out of the car at the end of our date, she noticed a pile of books in my backseat – copies of a local literary journal I publish with a buddy. I handed her a copy and said, “You might enjoy this.”

Once home she sent me a text saying, “Hey, the logo for your book project (a grasshopper) is exactly like your tattoo.”

I froze. She couldn’t know that.

“How did you know I had a grasshopper tattoo on my shoulder?” I texted back. There was a long silence before her sheepish reply. She admitted to googling me in the days before our date. There was my address, phone number, my real estate web site with details about my career and testimonials from past clients, links to newspaper stories and columns I’d written, reviews of a book I’d published, my blog – filled with stories about my life and details about my beliefs, an Indy Star story about the restoration of my house, and yes, the website for that literary journal, The Polk Street Review, complete with a photo file that included a picture of me pulling up my shirt sleeve at a public reading, revealing my grasshopper tattoo.

I wasn’t offended. Who could blame her? “Smart girl,” I texted back. She was going to meet a man she’d never met at a coffee shop she’d never been to. I might have wondered about her intelligence if she hadn’t googled me. But it was sobering to consider how much there is about me online. Not stuff marketing companies have gathered and shared against my will, but stuff I’ve gladly posted about myself.

It’s a little bit the nature of my work. How can you sell real estate or writing if you don’t throw yourself at people? But it’s also a measure of where we are. You are going to be out there. Sure, you can easily make yourself invisible to a particular person on Facebook – if they look for you it will simply appear that you don’t have a Facebook account. But that won’t work for the myriad of other web sites that have your info, right down to county tax records that show your address, what you pay in property taxes, and how much you paid for your house. Hell, Google street view will let someone virtually walk right up to your front door.

The reality about all these examples: each are pretty honest representations of who we are in real life. My former student is aggressively honest to a fault, the two advertising guys are genial, kind fellows with cool interests who don’t like to make people uncomfortable with their politics (I know the politics of one of them and so know he’s purposefully holding back), and me, I’m intellectually curious with an ADD-like scattershot approach, combined with a broken and/or immature filter and I’m constantly promoting my work online.

You can’t hide yourself, online or off. The real you still comes out. For better or worse.


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  2. This made me think of communion with the world as a kind of art the wave, knowing when to come in and touch the shore, and knowing when to recede. Everything (said) and everyone has its time and place. Enjoyed this...