Balancing your work and personal life on social networking tools such as Facebook has become more complex than ever -- and the dangers go beyond the well-publicized examples of posting party pictures to your profile.
A more subtle faux pas can affect your online reputation and even future job path, as your friend list on Facebook includes both personal and professional contacts. Information you post can mess up your work relationships and personal ones in one quick swoop.
For example, the immediacy and ease with which you can post a quip on Facebook may get you into trouble if you're teasing your significant other -- plus tell work colleagues more than they need or want to know about your relationship. This recent story of a man caught cheating by his wife when she perused his iPhone got us thinking: In this day of gadgetry and near-constant contact via social networking, how can you avoid blunders that will deem you a thoughtless spouse, friend or colleague?
Kirsten Dixson, a reputation management and online identity expert, has some tips to keep you on the appropriate social networking etiquette path. Because Facebook mixes your personal and professional life, she says it requires more careful attention than LinkedIn, the social network for professionals, which keeps a strictly all-business look and feel due to its design.
Here are Dixson's suggestions for managing your Facebook profile and your overall social networking persona, and warnings about places where you can get into trouble with people who matter to you personally and professionally.
1. Choosing your profile picture
Thoughtful: Some people militantly believe that Facebook is all personal while LinkedIn is all professional. If this sounds like you, you might choose a Facebook pic of yourself fishing, hanging out at a party or playing a guitar. But Dixson says you're better off to err on the side of caution here, by keeping your profile picture professional, or at least neutral. Your photo doesn't need to be in a studio with a boring canvas backdrop - it could be outside on your deck or on a mountain side, for instance - but it has to be fairly even-keeled. (This is different than LinkedIn, where photos should be strictly professional, Dixson says).
Thoughtless: According to Dixson, don't post profile pictures that are "too sexy, cartoonish or that might alienate your audience." A look through your friend list can usually reveal the ones she's talking about. The stylized glamour shot, the quick snapshot of slicked up hair or low-cut dresses taken right before heading to a party, or worse, costume-like pics: wet suits and surfboards, bike gear, Halloween outfits -the list goes on.
2. Filling Out Your Biography
Thoughtful: The biographical section of social networks vary. On Facebook, the service provides fields for a variety of interests, both professional and personal. Don't be afraid to post some nuggets that convey who you are, within reason. On Facebook, you can decide with great granularity what information people can view by altering your privacy settings. For instance, you can set it so every visitor to your profile sees that you enjoy golfing, reading and civil war history, but maybe only a certain group of people see your religion, political affiliations and relationships. For Facebook's "About me" section, building on the Twitter doctrine, Dixson says to be short and concise. Don't worry about being clever.
Thoughtless: While there aren't many numbers to back this assertion (because Facebook is a private company, and data can be hard to come by), most social networking and identity experts believe a great many Facebook users never so much as glance at their privacy settings pages. The same probably holds true for other social networks. Remember that social networks plan to monetize their service by ensuring that you share as much information as possible. As such, you should believe that they'll share as much information about you as they can, and make it available to the widest audience.
The default settings for Facebook, for example, make all your profile information available for everyone on the service to see. "Assume from the get go that anything you put in there is viewable on the public internet," Dixson says. "Go in with that line of thinking. Then go in and say, if you don't want to make certain information available to certain people, go turn them off with the privacy settings."
With the information you do share, avoid being vain. Social networks do enable, if not encourage, a bit of narcissism. But don't assume people want to read a novel about your life. Also, be protective of your family. It's fine to list yourself as "married" in the info section, for instance, but don't necessarily feel that you have to put down a link to your significant other. If you have young children, for their protection and privacy, Dixson recommends you don't include their names anywhere in the bio or in pictures of them that you decide to share.
Oh, and a word about age. While you may want to include your birthday on your Facebook profile, so people can message you on the big day, you should exclude the birth year, Dixson says. Your friends and family know how old you are, and there's no reason for your professional ones to know.