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How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation

Our beloved internet never sleeps, never forgets. Worse, people often don’t understand our intents or make wrong assumptions about us. We may assume a curator approves of the content of every article he shares, for example. As a beginner on the web, I’ve been misled like this myself. Or, we may make mistakes with the tools. We live in troubled times — the economy suffers and the social norms around online sharing haven’t been firmly established yet. Employees worry about what they can and can’t do online. Job seekers worry that what they share online can be held against them. In such a context, using Facebook’s frictionless sharing and semi-automated curation tools like Paper.li may seem risky for one’s reputation. Yet, the benefits of online sharing are too numerous to abstain. So, what can we do?

Letting Go of Fear

We’re all protective of our reputation. Who isn’t, right? So much so that worms and phishing attacks spread on social networks using our concerns. We, from time to time, all receive direct messages on Twitter saying “OMG, they’re saying nasty things about you here” with a link to a malicious site. Even if we suspect a trap, the urge to click that link is always strong. Yet if you click that link out of fear, your Twitter account will be hacked and send out the same direct message to all your contacts. Letting yourself get caught in this manner will damage your reputation.
Although less immediate, being defensive with your social media presence or your curation efforts will cause you harm also. People are able to tell when you let your fears drive you. Curation implies risks: you never have all the facts, you make decisions quickly, etc. Many regret having bombarded their friends with the KONY 2012 video because of the backlash and revelations about the campaign. Said friends may hold this against them.
You can’t stop people from talking. There might be people criticizing you down the street. Could you interrupt their conversation and protest that their characterization of you is anything but fair? Yes, but it would make you look freaked-out and whiny. Social media offers the unique opportunity to listen as people have conversations. Your new found ability to listen isn’t, however, a license to make rude interruptions, complaints and start petty arguments.

Letting Go of the Thirst for Control

We may have trouble accepting that we can’t control how others see us — ever. We can influence it to some extent but never control it. We can’t even control all the signals that we, ourselves, send into the world as tightly as we would like. Body-language, micro-expressions and other leakage can always be interpreted. Not accepting this will only make us insane.
It’s the same online: you can’t attend to everything all the time. Your Paper.li might go out with a story you wouldn’t have shared. One of your clever “If this then that” recipes might cause feedback loops and spill large quantities of updates. Tumblr’s queue might malfunction and all your posts might get published at once. Such accidents happen.
The best we can hope for is a set of social norms and best practices to handle these problems. Call it netiquette, social media guidelines, whatever… we look to grow and spread the online equivalent of tact and manners. Lots of people have been working on this problem by now and some widely agreed upon best practices have emerged. I have reviewed some of the many social media policies that organisations have made publicly available (and that Chris Bourdreaux has listed for everyone’s benefit). there are a few constants:

A Few Guidelines

  • Once something is published, it can’t be taken back. This is the first rule. Bots, archive builders and content scrapers are constantly making copies of everything. There’s no complete “delete” function. Therefore, you should always consider your posts carefully.
  • Be respectful. Avoid being a troll, feeding trolls or flaming people. Beware of themes such as religion and politics. Treat social media like you would face to face encounters.
  • Stay calm. As stated in the example above, do not complain about misrepresentation, just point it out and always assume it was a mistake made in good faith.
  • Admit your own mistakes and correct them. If you’re willing to admit and correct your mistakes, people will be far more forgiving.
  • Do not mislead your audience. Make a clear distinction between facts, opinions and fiction. If you want to experiment with self-representation as a literary genre, make the relevant writer-reader pact as clear as possible.
  • Respect copyright laws. There are countless resources to find free or cheap images to illustrate your posts. You can search Flickr by license, browse Wikimedia Commons’ catalogue or even take your pictures yourself.
  • Ask before naming friends who don’t blog. If your blog or social media posts get high PageRank, your blog may come up in the search results for your friends’ name.
  • When you disclose who you work for, put a disclaimer up stating that your opinions are solely yours.
  • As long as such a disclaimer is very clear, express your opinions.
  • When it comes to your profession, stay around your areas of expertise.

If you keep these guidelines in mind, everything shall be OK and you’ll be able to handle the risks of online sharing. I hope you are a little less worried — I certainly am, so we can go make and spread cool stuff. Sharing’s beautiful. Let’s go!
Image credit: “Surveillance Video Cameras”. Paweł Zdziarski. Creative Commons Attribution License.
I wrote “How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on April 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.