We’re often shocked by what people post online. Sometime this year, you’ve probably marveled at an offensive Tweet, a debaucherous Facebook picture, an embarrassing YouTube clip, or an unprofessional comment on LinkedIn from someone you know. What shapes why some people seem to have no filter in social media, whereas others are more selective and private—and what should your strategy be?
There are two key factors that drive our social media choices, according to new work by researchers:
One is our boundary preferences: are we integrators or segmentors?
If you’re an integrator, you like to build bridges between your professional and personal lives. Integrators strive to blend their jobs with their lives outside work—they’re eager to talk about their kids at work, don’t mind bringing their work home, and happy to share the same information with colleagues as family and friends.
If you’re a segmentor, you like to keep your professional and personal lives separate. Segmentors create mental fences between their jobs and other aspects of their lives. On social media, this might mean using privacy controls, making your profile unsearchable, or segmenting your network by using LinkedIn for professional contacts and Facebook for personal contacts.
The other factor is how we want to be seen by others: are we aiming to impress or express?
Impressers see social media as a vehicle for looking good—they want to build a positive reputation and attract a strong base of followers. As the researchers write, impressers aim to “disclose information that is flattering (e.g. achievements, good picture), glamorous (e.g. travel observations and pictures) or makes one look smart (e.g. interesting news articles).” They also avoid controversial posts and carefully control and monitor photos, tags, and comments.
For expressers, social media isn’t about winning others over; it’s an opportunity to be seen accurately by others. This means being more open online: sharing vulnerabilities, disclosing unpopular opinions, writing about stressful experiences, or posting photos that might not appeal to everyone.
When we combine boundary preferences and image motives, we can gain insight into the strategies that we select and how much other people will like and respect us.
Integrators with a strong motivation to express don’t filter their content or their audiences. This open strategy is the least time-consuming and the most authentic, but it sacrifices respect and liking: people develop a reputation for revealing too much information and sharing inappropriate information. Evidence suggests that compared to other generations, Millennials seem to care more about self-expression than social approval.
Expressers are able to maintain respect by segmenting their audiences. By keeping LinkedIn and Facebook networks separate, for example, segmentors can still reveal their true identities and experiences to their friends and families without alienating or offending their colleagues. However, this approach still poses some challenges for liking. 41 percent of Facebook users think it is irresponsible to ignore a friend request from a coworker.
The researchers make a compelling case that keeping an eye on our image usually earns us greater respect and liking. By segmenting what we share with different audiences, the researchers write, we create online relationships that “mirror the tailored nature of offline relationships.” The challenge is that it involves a lot more work. Few people have the time and energy to create and maintain separate lists of contacts for sharing different types of information, and evolve these lists as our relationships change. And as hard as we try, sometimes it’s out of our control when friends cross our boundaries.
Since many people are segmentors, being liked and respected probably requires some selectivity about what we share and with whom we share it. And there’s a way to be selective without spending inordinate amount of time and energy managing different networks and lists: it’s called conversation. So I’d like to propose a rule: when in doubt, share it offline.