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The Brand That Feeds: Balancing Personal and Professional on Social Media

Regardless of how you start using social tools at work, it can quickly become endlessly complicated to use them as a civilian.

In February 2011, Andy Carvin posted around 400 tweets a day. Over the course of several months, Carvin, a journalist at NPR, took to the 140-character service to verify and reshare on-the-ground reports of the revolutions that rocked the Middle East—earning himself the accurate, if cringe-worthy, title of “the man who tweets revolutions.”

Carvin joined Twitter in 2007, a year after the service launched, with an update about watching his daughter play. Which shouldn’t have made it surprising that even as he worked tirelessly to capture Arab Spring, he shared the occasional personal update, or family photo. Yet people were upset that he mixed the personal and professional—he got a handful of @-replies saying the sharing of mundane personal details was inappropriate.

“I was surprised because I hadn't gotten that before,” Carvin says of the pushback. “The vast majority of my followers know that I've always mixed personal and professional and that is one of the things that keeps me sane on Twitter. It surprised me that people had this expectation that my Twitter account could only be used for one thing or another—that it had to be mutually exclusive.” Although he didn't change his approach in response to the criticism, the reactions highlight an unsettled debate of the social media age: How to balance the professional and personal on networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Carvin’s experience is familiar to many who have found themselves using social web tools professionally. Perhaps you were hired in part because you knew your way around Facebook, or you were the early adopter who set up the company Tumblr. Regardless of how you start using social tools at work, it can quickly become endlessly complicated to use them as a civilian.

I'm not talking about the having-a-beer tweets mistakenly sent from the company account, the ill-conceived #Cairo Kenneth Cole promo, or the tone-deaf souls who struggle to rein in their brunch photos. We got good at social because we weren't afraid to mix business and pleasure. We attracted audiences because we weren’t shy about tweeting out our favorite Whitney Houston song when we learned of her death. So what happens when the personal gets boxed out on the very networks we pressed our bosses to start using?

Sometimes the disconnect for professionals is caused by the content of the information we share at our day jobs. “When the personal and professional crash with each other, it's often because what I'm doing in real life is so radically different from what I'm doing online,” Carvin says. "It often comes up when I'm in the midst of covering a story that might be disturbing or violent. My kids are at a birthday party eating cake and I'm getting all these tweets about people getting shot." As Twitter has grown, it’s become a place for serious debates about policy and breaking news without shedding its role as a personal microblogging site. Of 16 news events that garnered the highest number of tweets per second in 2011, six were hard news events—including the Osama bin Laden raid and the execution of Troy Davis. But others were pop culture—Beyoncé’s announcement that she was pregnant at the MTV movie awards ranked #1—or sports.

Many professional organizations require employees' Twitter accounts to stay purely work-focused. George Washington University professor Nikki Usher recently took to Twitter to share the highlights from social media guidelines of various media organizations. "Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter," counsels The Wall Street Journal. "All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens," the capital’s paper of record notes. But on the social web it’s not always such an easy choice.

Consider Facebook. When you signed up for the service, you agreed not to create more than one personal profile. To administer a page—a now common work task—you must have an existing personal account. With the right privacy settings, it should be possible to maintain a strict divide between work and personal, right?

It doesn’t always work out that way. Last fall, Facebook introduced the subscribe function, which was billed as a way to extend your network without compromising your privacy. Users could allow any user to “subscribe” to certain updates they provided on their personal pages without “friending” them. Facebook has been criticized for what appear to be spam accounts using the feature, and for the harassing comments received by women who enabled it. (Facebook has strongly denied that any of its users are less than real—not surprising for a service that is about to go public.)

When you share a post with your subscribers, it’s also shared with your friends. And any comments made on that post are shared with friends and subscribers alike, blurring boundaries in uncomfortable ways for some users. “I would post something--an article, something my company had announced," says a social media manager at a large media company. (She asked I not use her name as she discussed friends and family.)"My family members would comment. And then my subscribers would ‘like’ comments my mom would leave. My mom would ask, ‘who are these five people who liked this comment on your article? Really, it's very hard to explain subscribers to your family.”

Sometimes, she says, subscribers will respond to her family and friends with requests to be added as friends, or with commentary unrelated to the topic of discussion. For the first time, she has begun to consider fully separating her personal and professional social media presences. When she reached out to Facebook, she was urged to take extra time to manage the interactions between her friends and her subscribers, perhaps blocking subscribers from posting comments. “Your social network on Facebook is no longer a social network, it becomes another community you have to manage,” she says. So far, she’s kept one profile—but says she’s using it less.

And cutting out the personal entirely can be problematic, too. Josh Kalven, a journalist building his second startup, a website called Newsbound, says he’s hyper aware of the contradictions: "You want to be appearing to be working hard and dialed in to the passion project, and at the same time be perceived as interesting and human.” Kalven has not posted updates and shares that he might have in the past after considering how they might appear to potential investors or advisors. “I find myself thinkings about the optics of my Facebook page and Twitter feed a lot more than feels natural. ”

Social networks come with their own rules that are largely unspoken, and vary from one social group to another—making it tough to explain to an older work colleague why you are refraining from accepting their friend request on Facebook, even as you administer the same page. Formal company policies may ease the tension, if only by providing wooden language to describe the experience.

Newer services like Path, Tumblr and Instagram can feel like a respite—at least until they get too popular. The social media manager keeps an Instagram account for friends only. “I haven't introduced it to my other audiences. It's a very small community there,” she says. Carvin has considered joining newer, smaller communities, but has thus far refrained. “I sometimes pine for the early days of Twitter; it felt like a tight community," he says. "Now it's a community of communities.”

There's no one-size-fits-all approach—professionals must define their own boundaries based on their industry standards, social group, and their own comfort level with mixing worlds. “You can’t lock all your accounts and expect me to take you seriously, but keeping one or two closed is fine,” Kalven says. "I'm a member of these communities first as a person, and they happen to have evolved into things I use professionally," Carvin adds.

I started working on this story while spending the week in Ohio for the Kiplinger Fellowship in social media, in which journalists at all stages of their careers joined together to consider the role social tools played in their reporting. "I will ruin social media for you. I have made it my mission in life to ruin social media for you," Columbia University professor Sree Sreenivasan quipped to us our first morning. Using social networks as reporting tools needn’t make them less fun, but figuring out how to shoehorn your self and your job into one account takes work.

These questions are particularly relevant for the journalists I interviewed for this story because the social web is constantly offered up as a means to saving our profession. (Outlets like BuzzFeed are counting on it). But the question of how to define personal boundaries on social networks extends to anyone who wants to appeal to a public audience.

"I worry if I went into a community purely as a professional, there would be some very human moments that would be missed,” Carvin says. “Because they would keep their distance, and I would keep my distance."

Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop

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