I am a writer. And I'm good at it. I’ve spent a lifetime developing my skills and honing my craft. I’ve worked as an employee for more years than I care to acknowledge, I’ve earned multiple formal qualifications and much valuable experience in my area of expertise. Now I run an eLiteracy consultancy, teaching creative writing and eLiteracy skills to kids. And I write fiction. I am living my dream supporting myself with my writing. I’ve worked hard for it. And it’s been a long time coming. I love what I do and I’m very happy doing it.
But there’s another side to me that’s a little less professional. Most Friday nights I sit in front of the telly with fish & chips, drinking beer and watching Glee. Sometimes on weekends, after a few bottles (or more) of red wine with friends, we jump around the lounge room like decrepit 80s rock star has-beens, playing SingStar on PlayStation. It’s not pretty (nor necessarily melodic) but it’s always fun. And occasionally I’ll go out with friends and we don’t make it home in quite the same state we were in when we left.
But this is my personal life. And during this time with close friends—in my inner sanctum—photos are taken. Photos are, after all, about creating memories with friends, and for acting as stimuli for discussion later that may or may not be restricted to facts. But these are private memories—not for public consumption. No scrutiny by strangers allowed. The world does not have a right know how or with whom I spend my leisure. Nor should it be public knowledge if occasionally I drink too much, or if I wear underwear around the house, or sweep the dust under the refrigerator instead of picking it up. Some things are just not meant to be broadcast around the world.
People are critical creatures. Every one of us. We can’t help it; it’s built into our DNA. We make snap judgements based on superficial criterion without even realising we are doing it. About everyone. All the time. And social media sites like Facebook and Twitter take this to the extreme in ways most people can’t even begin to fathom.
Building a professional brand is important to promoting your work and building your reputation. But protecting it is critical to maintaining your credibility. These days, using social media to build your brand is an essential component. Writers (like other sole traders) typically work alone, and boundaries between professional and personal branding are often blurred. Or overlooked altogether.
Everything you post online says something about you, as a person and as a professional. Every photo you upload, or are tagged in, every status update, every check-in, every link and every tweet. Every. Single. Thing. It all paints a picture of you as a person. And sometimes, you won’t like the colour or texture used because the picture is not an accurate representation.
Back in the old days when you showed someone a photo, it was a Polaroid or some such paper, and afterwards you’d put it away. You might have a laugh at the crazed expression and dilated pupils or ‘panda’ eyes as you hang between two of your friends who are propping you up, but it would remain between you and your friends. Fast forward a few years, and that photo now on Facebook becomes a permanent record. Viewers will not realise that it was the only time you’ve ever been drunk, or that you reacted badly to the two drinks you had because of your sinus medication. They won’t know that the event might’ve been years ago when you were young and now you are a respected business owner (or writer, lawyer, doctor, teacher, etc).
Similarly, once upon a time when you made an offhand or flippant comment to someone just because the thought occurred you, it would be gone and forgotten in minutes. But when you say that same thing as a tweet or status update, it becomes a permanent record that may come back to haunt you years from now. Because people make judgements, especially when they have no context. And judgements can be devastating to your reputation.
This doesn't mean that you can’t have an online personal life. It does mean that you have to be very clear (and aware) about what and how much you do share. You can maintain a personal Facebook profile safely if you understand the security settings and the ‘sharing’ and ‘subscription’ functions. And only add people you know personally. You wouldn’t invite complete strangers into your home and let them go through your personal effects, but this is exactly what you are doing when you add people you don’t know as friends on Facebook. To build your professional profile, use the Facebook fan page, or better still, LinkedIn. And don’t use social media outlets to vent. Ever!
All the work you put into building your professionalism can be completely undone by mixing your personal and professional online presence. And the damage it can do to your business is immeasurable.
In case you missed it — everything you post online says something about you, as a person and as a professional. EVERY. SINGLE. THING.