The psychology of social media: Can a visible brand ruin your life?

Having a visible personal brand does not need to be a relationship death sentence. It might just take more work.

I read a lot about social media. Partly because I am interested, partly because I have to in order to write this blog. In all of my reading, there is one implied thought I run across more than others: "Social media is powerful." It gives any average person who has access to the Internet and a bit of ingenuity the opportunity to create a more vivid, accessible "personal brand" and, if done right, that person can spend 15 minutes in the Internet spotlight. But at what cost?

We've all read the stories about people stupidly posting Facebook status messages about ditching work, only to have their bosses read it. We've also heard the stories about the guy who gets caught cheating because he was sloppy with his social networking. I'm not talking about those costs - that kind of human error deserves grief.

I'm talking about the side effects of creating a successful personal brand and, even if you make all of the apparent right decisions along the way, how it can create upheaval in both professional and private lives. The savvy engineer who creates a presence for himself via a blog or social network, only to make his boss feel threatened and then hamper his internal visibility. Or the rock star entrepreneur who feels she can't get a moment to herself without the world watching, including her boyfriend.

"In business settings, the impact-for better or worse-of social media activities on relationships will be determined by a company's culture," said Dr. Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center. "In personal relationships, social media will expose insecurity and a lack of transparency (aka honesty). Social media amplifies information and behaviors. If we value authenticity, this is a good thing... The good news is that social media exposes inauthenticity and selfishness very quickly, so it's easier to see them."

Next: Workplace Impact -->

Workplace Impact Dan Schawbel wrote a great article for BusinessWeek in which he discusses how social media creates new roles for employees, and how many employees don't realize that they are building their personal brands along with building their company's brand. He writes:

Building personal brands and strong networks is critical right now. The economy has made the job market so cutthroat that there are 5.4 candidates for every open job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you aren't meeting and exceeding corporate expectations, you may turn into a job seeker before you know it. To stay competitive in this environment, the two most important words for employees are "value" and "visibility."

Employees have to be careful, however. As Dr. Pamela Rutledge said, the perception of social media success in a company depends entirely on culture. And being sensitive to authority becomes a more delicate issue than ever before.

As an example, let's circle back to the engineer whose external visibility rocket fires past that of his boss due to his blog and social networking presence. The boss has a few choices as to how he might handle this situation:

  1. Empower the employee by supporting his success and working to integrate external activities into the daily job. Leverage the employee's external visibility for the greater good of the company. Play up the employee's successes internally, recognizing that it makes him look good as a manager as well.
  2. Talk out of both sides of his mouth. Give the employee the go-ahead to continue the external brand-building but make him or her manage all activities outside of work hours. Play down accomplishments internally. Over-assert authority.
  3. Pull the "conflict of interest" card and demand that the employee scale back his external communications (even if he isn't speaking on behalf of the company) and also require the employee to now help the manager build his own brand instead.

All employees would prefer the first option, but that puts companies in a challenging position. If being a "spokesperson" for your company isn't a natural part of your job, it's hard to integrate external personal branding into a position without compromising some of the work the employee was hired to do in the first place. At the same time, options two and three are tricky, because if you have a recognizable, successful, hardworking employee you want to reward them - and you don't want to lose them to a competitor.

"Successful managers, bosses, employers and partners make sure that their values are reflected in their behavior and business relationships," Dr. Pamela Rutledge said. "Jealousy, turf wars and resentment come from fundamental human emotions of fear and insecurity. Security is learned (or not) from your environment... if there are a lot of turf and tong wars in your company, look to the corner office. The apples don't fall far from the tree."

Next: Responsibility of the Employee -->

Employees, however, can't spend all of their time blaming their bosses for stifling them - even if they are feeling stifled. As mentioned above, there's a job that every employee is hired to do, and whether or not your job includes external communications a company will expect that you put its best interest first. There's the delicate balance again. Find ways to build your personal brand, but try to tie in quantifiable results that benefit your company when communicating about such endeavors to your superiors. For instance, being invited to speak at a well-known industry conference based on your external pursuits, yet tying your presentation to the mission of your company, could warm up your boss and other powers-that-be to the idea of your success. And, every manager wants to look good in front of his boss, too, so find ways to invite or include your manager where you can - even if it's just reporting it internally as a joint exercise.

"Highly motivated, effective employees usually rise above others, frequently their own bosses," said Dr. Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author. "If the boss is the owner of the company and jealous of turf, the employee will probably feel stifled and move on... A very highly motivated and self-starting individual might be a good candidate for starting an independent business."

That's not to say that employees with a good digital presence should immediately jump ship; there are issues with narcissism in social media that cause junior-level workers (those with under 10 years of experience) to start their own businesses before they are ready. Employees with recognizable brands need to remember that regardless of how much attention you might get in the outside world due to your persona, or writing, or ideas, there is still nothing like real-world experience. And it might benefit you to make some slight concessions to your personal brand pursuits to get the right skills that can carry you to further business success down the road.

"When anyone on a team outshines the others, there's always the risk of resentment. For employees who want to continue their current career path, it's important to keep their work life and digital life as separate as possible," said Patrice-Anne Rutledge, business technology coach and author. "Managers, on the other hand, should strive to remain neutral and avoid rewarding---or punishing---employees for these outside activities.  One thing that helps is having a clear corporate social media policy outlining what rules or limits, if any, the company places on employees who participate in social media.

Next: Personal Impact -->

Personal Impact Before I get into the example of the rock star entrepreneur I mentioned above, I want to talk a bit about my own personal experience. I'm a single gal. I date but I haven't been in a serious relationship for a little bit now. I meet people through my social groups. I meet them in work-type environments. And I've met them, well, online. A while back I spoke to a guy that I met through a social network / dating site. I tried to keep myself as anonymous as possible, while also sharing what type of work I do. When it came up that I write for ZDNet, and this gentleman found my Twitter page, interviews with me, etc., he backed off. He said, "You're a little too visible for me. I wouldn't want my personal life all over the Internet." In truth, this is the first time I've ever really written about my personal life in a public setting, but that possibility scared this guy.

So, did I just sacrifice a potential date because of my interest in having a public image?

"Digital brand-building involves creating powerful networks, building followers, and managing relationships with people who are available 24/7. The omnipresence of a large network of relatively "polished" looking people (thanks to professional head shots) can drive a wedge into the relationship," said Nathan Egan, founder and managing partner, The Freesource Agency. "The best way to manage this is to get your friend, spouse, or relative involved. For example, if you tweet all day make sure your wife or husband has an account and is following the action."

Let's look at the example I mentioned at the start of this article. Remember the rock star entrepreneur? She wants to have a healthy relationship but she's so focused on managing her public image that the world doesn't know who she really is. Not to mention, her boyfriend can see every thought, every activity, and has the propensity to often assume the worst or fall victim to the public image, as well. Simple things like "I've landed!" all of a sudden get blown out of proportion when they are sent to Twitter before sending them to the person with whom you're involved.

While the rock star entrepreneur's frustration with her situation is understandable, at the same time she could be taking some steps to be more sensitive to her partner. For one, why does she feel compelled to tell the online world what she is doing before she tells her boyfriend? The insecure reaction from her partner can be avoided with a five minute heads up before heading to Twitter. At the same time, the same trust rules for any relationship apply: If you don't trust the person, and the partner in question isn't sensitive to the fact that her visibility is hard for the partner at home, perhaps there are larger issues beyond those attached to the personal brand.

"Many people build a brand for themselves online that is in complete contrast with who they are in real life," said Hal Niedzviecki, author of "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors." "They often reveal more online than they do in real life, such as a woman I speak with in ‘The Peep Diaries' who runs a blog called ‘Tales from the Darkside,' which documents her family life as well as her kinky master-slave sex life. She doesn't want friends and family to know about the sex aspect, so she blogs anonymously. But she is so focused on building her digital brand and attracting visitors, her real life friendships are suffering. She replaces one kind of isolation with another."

Next: 'Saving' Your Life? -->

For those of us who have visible personal brands, whether it be me scaring off potential suitors with my visibility or the rock star entrepreneur trying to have a normal relationship amid her fame, are we creating personal isolation for ourselves? There are many successful people who are in the public eye via social media who have seemingly healthy - and visible - personal relationships with partners or spouses. Just like in the workplace, having a visible personal brand does not need to be a relationship death sentence. It might just take more work to ensure that your partner feels valued with all of the other noise going on around you.

"When someone develops a strong digital brand and the following that goes along with that, friendships and relationships can change," said Patrice-Anne Rutledge. "The fact that the success is online doesn't necessarily make it much different from success in other areas of life. The successful person will encounter some resentment and "false" friendships, whereas other relationships will remain the same. The main difference online is that success can happen much faster and the reach isn't just local, it's worldwide."

When it comes to platonic friendships, there's always the possibility that resentment can form, especially if goals are similar. It is also possible that the people building the recognizable brand need to be careful with whom they become friends. Often times, and sadly I have experienced this myself, the friendships are motivated by "what can you do for me?" rather than "hey, you're a really cool person." Does it always have to be this way?

"It depends on the friendship or relationship," Tessina said. "Truly supportive friends will be excited for each other, learn from each other, and rise together. If friends become jealous, check your attitude: is your ego putting your friends off? As a friend, you could offer to teach your buddies what you know, or work together with them. If your friends are not interested in growing, but want to keep you down to their level, you may need to find more supportive friends."

In the end, we're all people under these personal and workplace relationships, and the age-old rules of being trustworthy, considerate and respectful apply in every situation, no matter if you have a visible personal brand or if you pride yourself on being outside of the bubble and only use the Internet to email. Creating this type of exposure for yourself does create some issues, but none of them unmanageable if willing to put the time and energy, and even self-education, into fostering your most important relationships: whether they be personal or work.

"We have native-born digiterati, naturalized digital citizens, and the digitally clueless," Dr. Pamela Rutledge said. "No matter where you are on the social media adoption scale, however, it is impossible to escape its impact.  Social media is changing the way we work, play, connect, and, many would argue, think."

Image by Bill Pennington / BlazingB Photography

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