Brands who have an authentic and transparent online presence get real engagement. But for ordinary people, is it wise to share everything online?

It’s clear that for brands, sharing and being authentic is key to success. When you’re sizing up a product, it’s reassuring when their social media personality feels as though there were a real person behind it. And we also know that transparency is fast becoming a hallmark of the modern successful company: Slack frequently and publicly releases their company demographics, both showing off their impressive diversity and acknowledging where they could be doing better. For a company, having transparent business practices allows them to show off their strengths and prevent their weaknesses from being used against them, while also serving as a morale booster for investors, consumers and employees.

The positive effects of transparent business strategy equally applies in the field of advertising. We talked about how Thinx latched onto a winning strategy  by simply speaking frankly about the usually taboo matter of menstruation on their NYC Subway billboards, and how adding a sparkle of wit and personality into corporate Twitter accounts can cultivate an internet fan-base and lure in new customers. Removing the layer of formality creates a presence that people are more likely to meaningfully engage with.

Let’s Get Personal

Companies are getting more transparent, but individuals are also making more personal information public than ever before: on average, internet users have 5.54 social media accounts. Many platforms are engineered to mimic the feeling of chatting with our friends, which can make it easy to forget that information shared online can be referenced years later. Unless your privacy settings are locked up tight, your posts can be found by anyone.

Social media platforms have gained universal popularity because they make connecting with people and maintaining relationships so easy. However, this means that the number of people we keep track of has leapt up in the last decade. While the median number of Facebook friends is 200, research shows that humans are typically only able to keep track of 150 relationships at one time in any meaningful way. With the rapid expansion of our (Facebook) friend lists, we might find that we’re making more and more connections, but are those connections maintained and nurtured to the same degree as our old-fashioned “offline friendships”? As our networks grow, are we able to put just as much emphasis on quality as we are on quantity of relationships?

DunbarsNumber

Certainly, the word “friend” means something rather different on Facebook than it does in the real world. Most of us would hesitate to post to Facebook things which we would only tell our closest friends. And, generally, we lean towards posting what is most appealing and impressive about our lives. This causes an echo chamber effect, which makes it even harder to post about what’s really going on in our lives. Part of what makes spending time with our friends so important is the ability to be our true selves, in a way that we might not be able to at work or around family. Being able to let loose without fear of judgement is what makes genuine friendships so rewarding – with the constant pressure in today’s world to curate and live up to a “highlight reel” persona, relief can be found in the company of true friends, who accept and appreciate your whole picture, bloopers and all.

Echo…Echo…Echo

Even though what we post online is (usually) not an unfiltered or complete misrepresentation of who we are, it’s still a source of personal information. And increasingly, employers and colleges are resorting to online sleuthing to find out what they can about candidates before proceeding with applications: research shows that 40 percent of college admissions personnel check candidates’ social media, as do 93 percent of hiring managers. This adds an additional filtering effect, as people are hesitant to post about matters that they perceive as not being work-appropriate, such as drug use or sexuality.

This creates a secondary echo chamber effect, where taboos on certain subjects get reinforced, rather than broken down in the way that one might expect from increased connectivity. In a way, this secondary echo effect is even more damaging than the first. While the first echo chamber creates a skewed world view where users showcase only the best parts of their lives, the second echo chamber suppresses opinions and genuine reactions, creating an amorphous “facebook-friendly” realm of “allowed” thoughts, opinions, and emotions. This type of social media self-censorship effectively nips innovation in the bud – nothing productive ever results from a circle jerk. Ultimately, holding back on certain views might make us feel less authentic and keep us from meaningful discussion, but it’s understandable that we do so, when it might mean the difference between getting a job or not.

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

Young people in particular are feeling the effects of their ill-considered words not only being immortalized but also publicly searchable. Twenty-one-year-old Mhairi Black made headlines when she became the youngest British Member of Parliament. Since older members of Parliament’s youths are undocumented by tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook wall-posts, they often have little explaining to do of their childhood thoughts and actions (albeit, with some exceptions). Black, by contrast has been using social media since her early teens: the press had a field day dissecting her six year old tweets, which discuss her underage drinking in frank and often crude language. While it hasn’t destroyed her career, it’s something that applies to those who grew up in the realm of social media who are now entering the job market. What were once excusable (and easily forgotten) characteristics of youth can now be researched and judged by others years after the fact.

Even after landing a job, a thoughtless tweet could be the end of it. That’s what happened to Justine Sacco in 2013, when she posted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding her flight. Sacco only expected this to be read by her 170 followers, but it blew up, attracting tens of thousands of replies and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. When she turned her phone back on 11 hours later, she found out about her dubious new-found fame through several texts from concerned friends. The furor led to her losing her job as senior director of corporate communications at IAC.

Without condoning her tweet, the backlash it attracted was surely disproportionate. Usually,  off-color jokes on and off Twitter are met with nothing worse to show for it than a rolled eyeball and an unfollow. But Twitter was designed to be a vector for viral content: one person’s outrage can be multiplied and snowball. #HasJustineLandedYet was driven by FOMO on the latest internet witch-hunt as much as by disgust at her original statement. In a similar way to schoolchildren joining in the bashing of a schoolyard bully’s latest victim so as not to be targeted themselves, Twitter users will hop on the latest insensitivity bashing train rather than be judged themselves for failing to express the “appropriate outrage” at the latest scapegoat.

John Pisone may not have published his racist views intentionally, but when he went on a tirade at a fracking protest, which photojournalist Tom Jefferson posted to Youtube, they were shown to nearly a million viewers. Three days after this, his employer posted a brief statement to Facebook, stating that they had terminated his contract.

It’s hard to feel sorry for either Sacco or Pisone, but the fact that they both lost their jobs over social media content is a potentially worrying precedent. We may have to abide by a certain code of conduct while at work, but when we’re not on the clock it’s understood that we have the right to behave how we want, within legal parameters. However, both of these people were terminated, not for breaking workplace rules, but for bringing the company into disrepute through their personal actions.

Is it Safe to Speak Up?

It’s easy to say that we should strive for more authentic online reactions, but given that what we say online can have profound repercussions, it’s not surprising that most of us choose to censor ourselves to some degree. Sure, some degree of self-censorship is expected in the increasingly judgmental company of social media, but when a simple tweet could potentially be misconstrued by millions of people with harsh repercussions on one’s real life, perhaps it’s time that the real-life implications of our internet judgement are examined. For now, all we can do is learn from the mistakes of those who’ve fallen in the courts of social media justice, and be aware of how easily one can fall into Twitter infamy.

To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer social media management services to build a vibrant audience for your brand across all media channels. Learn more about social media and PR here.

(Image credit: g.rohs/flickr)