Social Media for Humans (in 3 Easy Steps!)

posted on 11/12/10 by Meghan Wilker

Lately, lots of people have been asking about how to handle social media on an individual level. The questions really boil down to this: "How much should I share?" and  "How 'strategic' should I be about what I share?"

My answer is simple:

1. Keep an eye on the content you're putting out about yourself and determine if it's an accurate representation.
2. Think about what content you want to — or should — share.
3. Try stuff, and see how you like it. Keep doing the stuff that feels right and quit the stuff that doesn't.

Business Strategy vs. Personal Strategy

There's a difference between organizations and individuals when it comes to social media. Generally speaking, an organization's goals are relatively static; it's strategies and tactics that, to varying degrees, change more often. But, as a human, goals change all the time. Sometimes, there is no goal. I've certainly published content about myself that had no point except that I wanted to say it. (Actually, that pretty much sums up my 20s.) But the same goes for real life, too — we have all sorts of pointless conversations with each other because that's what humans do. The seemingly pointless actually does have a point and that point is socializing. That we would create technology to facilitate this was inevitable.

Organizations are starting to get comfortable with the notion that if they can figure out how to socialize with us — or at least connect with us in social spaces without pissing us off — it might lead to business. But, ultimately, their goal is business. No matter how you cut it, how awesome an organization's social media engagement is, the hard truth is that they're trying to sell you something. There's nothing wrong with that (Go, capitalism!), but organizations aren't in the business of being our friend. They're in the business of business.

So, like I said: sometimes, for people, there is no goal. At other times, our goals are quite concrete: Get a job. Sell a house. Find a daycare. And during those times our social interactions, online and off, are often in service of those goals. It is in those times that we are grateful for all the non-goal oriented interactions we've had with people, because now we feel okay about asking them for favors. We get a little (ahem) strategic about who we communicate with, and how.

When my son was a baby, my goal was to find some new friends to hang out with because I felt kind of lonely as a too-busy working mom with two young children. Did I write that goal down and create a strategic plan to find friends? Nope. I organized a happy hour with a bunch of chicks I knew via Twitter. People that seemed funny, smart and interesting based on the stuff they were sharing. I formed an opinion about who they were and whether or not I wanted to hang out with them based mainly on what they had shared online. In other, more gross jargon-y talk, I selected them based on their personal brand.

But getting overly "strategic" about your personal social media usage can be skeevy. It removes some of the humanity that makes social media...social. On the flip side, not stopping to think about what you share can be damaging to you, your employer (and therefore, your employment), and your family and friends. So, how can you be thoughtful about what you share online without going overboard and creating a spreadsheet and quarterly reports about your bad self?

My© Patented™ Process♥

1. Keep an eye on the content you're putting out about yourself and determine if it's an accurate representation.

To take care of the "keep an eye on the content" part of this, Google yourself, and set up Google Alerts (see our 5-Minute Guide to Google Alerts) for your own name, and any other names or terms you want to keep an eye on.

As far as whether or not it's an accurate representation, you can decide that for yourself. Or, better yet, ask someone who doesn't know you very well to Google you and send you a recap of who they think you are based on what they find. You might be surprised.

If what they find dismays you, start cleaning it up by creating new, more accurate content (or, if they didn't find anything — start creating ANY content). LinkedIn is a great place to begin because it's very low risk (in terms of sharing personal information) and ranks highly in Google search results.

2. Think about what content you want to — or should — share and make public.

  • Does your Facebook profile show up in Google search results? Do you want it to? How much can strangers see of your profile?
  • Are you going to use location-based networks like Foursquare? Who do you want knowing where you are?
  • Who do you want knowing what your political or religious beliefs are?
  • Do you want to connect with clients or co-workers?
  • How might revealing personal information affect your professional life and vice versa?

There are no right answers. What do YOU want to to share? There are valid reasons for making lots of your information open to the public, and many risks, too. It's just like the stock market: some people have a high tolerance for risk and others don't. Figure out how safe you want to play it, and start there. It makes no difference what works for someone else: figure out what feels right to you. Start with what feels comfortable. Over time, your risk tolerance may increase as you start to see some of the personal rewards that can come from healthy social interactions online. I don't know what that "reward" may look like for you: keeping in touch with family, expanding your professional network, establishing yourself as an expert in your field...there are endless possible benefits.

3. Start trying stuff out, and see how you like it. Keep doing the stuff that feels right and quit the stuff that doesn't.

This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Explore. Hey, it's the internet: it's pretty fun, and you won't break it.

Online vs. Offline

Ok, really? This "process" is just a digital version of what we do in real life all the time. We edit ourselves every moment of every day based on our environment (am I at home or at work?), our company (am I with my boss or my swear-like-a-pirate sister?), and our motivation (am I trying to get a job with this person or trying to get them to wake up?). The thing is, in real life, we rarely need to stop to think about it. It just happens. It's a natural human response to our surroundings.

Online, we don't have those same social cues. Updating my Facebook status feels different than standing in front of a room filled with 500 people, and yet the two actions have a similar effect. So, here's a pro tip: don't post anything online that you wouldn't stand up and say in front of a room full of strangers. It sounds simple, but I'm often amazed at the things people say online that they would never have the guts to say to someone's face. So, while you don't need to draft some kind of complex content diagram for yourself, it's important to take a minute to think about what you want to share online because of its ease and relative permanance.

I'll admit I've had my fair share of awkward moments where I've shared something that I later wish I wouldn't have. It happens. It's easy to forget when you're tweeting or blogging or Facebooking that you're writing something that could be seen by a whole lot of people — some of whom you may not know — and that it's contributing to their idea of who you are.

So while "personal brand" is a popular term (and one I've been known to use myself), I don't think anyone needs to take themselves so seriously that they need to create an official brand strategy for themselves (and, by extension, some kind of complicated personal social media plan).

If I had to sum up my thoughts on this in two sentences, it'd be this: Think, but don't think too hard. Be the best human being you can be, and it will come through in everything you do — online and off.

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