Friday, October 30

Balancing Transparency: Social Media And Psychology

"Recruiters shouldn’t care about that Facebook picture of your beer pong game in college." — Shel Holtz, ABC, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology.

Holtz calls the increasing shift toward total transparency a cultural transition, spurred on by social media. And, as a consequence, "Animal House [by Millennials] behavior really shouldn’t matter to hiring managers today."

The communication has sparked an interesting conversation, with Jen Zingheim, Media Bullseye, wondering if "Millenials are perhaps setting themselves up for future problems, because it's hard to put that privacy genie back in the bottle." At the same time, she recognizes that she came from a different era, one that celebrated the separation of professional and personal, work and play.

For my part, I offered up the interesting case study of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, who found their personal and professional worlds collide while working on John Edwards campaign just last year. Holtz said it was apples and oranges.

Is it? Marcotte and McEwan isn't a story about bad behavior. It's a story about merely having publicly conflicting views with the candidate you work for — without bad or illegal behavior. It led to the chastisement of two professionals over nothing more than their own rhetoric. It also marked the beginning of the end for the Edwards campaign.

The consequences present evidence enough. What we do in public is public. Social media can make personal public.

Does this mean Holtz is wrong? Not in the least. This is a conversation with a dynamic that allows two people to be right at the same time in that there is a cultural shift occurring that allows for greater personal and professional crossovers. However, Holtz might be taking one step to far in suggesting that what you share might be exempt from public scrutiny after it's shared publicly.

What we do in public, especially when it includes personal behavior, has always had professional consequences. To think otherwise is saying that the employee who unexpectedly got drunk and put the lampshade on his head at the company party didn't somehow change the perception of the public that was present. Social media expands that public.

In some ways, it might be more hazardous because social media is different from daily relationships as it expands the audience (instead of 50 impressions at a company party, there might be 500 impressions on Facebook).

We might also consider that the online public has a limited engagement. For some in social media settings, they might only see that lampshade on his head, which wouldn't create the impression of someone who had too many. They might only see a drunk. Or maybe an alcoholic. Or maybe something else. It's hard to guess.

In recruitment, it might beg the question: do we hire the drunk or the other guy or gal?

In some cases, it might depend on the corporate culture of the company. In most cases, maybe not. After all, there is a growing feeling that semi-public employees make statements about companies.

And while I may personally agree with Holtz that companies might be going too far (given some use sites like Zillow to evaluate a prospect's real estate), it may be equally irresponsible to suggest to students that what they say or share online ought not to have consequences when it very clearly has consequences, whether you're a student or not.

There are a good number of people who might disagree with me. Many social media professionals and social media authors practice, in varying degrees, total transparency beyond authenticity. However, there is another distinction to be made.

Many of them have already become public figures as de facto public speakers, columnists, and authors. And public figures, based in part on personal branding, follow different rules. Their fans and followers want to know more about them personally, horns or halos.

Where the challenge for everyone else is in that they want some semblance of privacy while operating as a semi-public person in very public forums.

And while I personally do not judge people on their behaviors, opinions, etc., the public most certainly does. Customers do. Constituents do. Colleagues do. People do.

This last weekend, two servers at restaurants shared personal information with me. One was tired because another employee called off after coming down with a severe medical condition and she was working a double shift. Another was tired because they stayed out late the night before, and were nursing a hangover. (Both of them were Baby Boomers, not Millennials, by the way).

I tend to be very personable when I interact with people; they share a lot of information with me. I make it a point not to judge or label them for it either. However, I cannot help but to wonder if a greater population really wants to know. Most people just want personal service without public commentary and introspection by those providing the service.

So whereas Holtz presents an interesting case study for how we are in transition (and we are, all the time, like a pendulum), I lean toward Zingheim's point in that there seems to be some ignorance about the potential consequences of participants who don't filter personal content, especially when the engagement might be confined to a single impression.

Or, in other words, choosing not to consider what people might think about certain behaviors, actions, or ideas is one thing. But expecting people to only affirm those behaviors, actions, or ideas is another all together. Not all such stories will end like David Letterman. Some will end like John Ensign. Are you ready to flip the coin?


Kevin Goodman on 10/30/09, 2:30 PM said...

Interesting post Rich and I think you pinned it right.
I personally think social media transparency is deceptive, and for many reasons. I think the greater phenomena is not in ‘social media transparency’ but that corporate culture is embracing popular culture more so than it has in the past (aided by social media)– but I don’t believe this really constitutes a psychological sense of transparency.

Rich on 11/1/09, 9:06 AM said...


Interesting. I'll have to consider your first point. It seems to me that companies have always embraced pop cultures (and, at time, even embraced it).

I dunno about the other point. There are some interesting trends that do impact people psychologically, with many having a greater propensity to share things about themselves online than in person (although this trend is changing).

Now, one thing I may be wrong about is the Letterman case. It seems a whole bunch of conservative folks are calling for boycotts over it.

Weird. I think the public is burning the candle at both ends. They call for transparency and then chastise people for giving it to them for any number of trivial reasons.


Kevin Goodman on 11/2/09, 6:49 AM said...

I think what I meant by the first point is that ‘work’ cultures at one time seemed more distinct with more formal etiquette, clothing, and dictates than in casual life. In my description casual may be a better word choice than popular…

“There are some interesting trends that do impact people psychologically”

I absolutely believe that, but I also think there is probably some dimensionality to it. Some sociologist will have us believe all social behaviors have some symbolic intentions – so my question is how genuine is the behavior, how much of it was encouraged by the social media phenomena? If social media causes the behavior then is it really a transparency of what that person is like without social media? For instance, we now have social media experts telling us it’s ok to bong beer and display it on you tube – but could that compel me to try to position myself as a more interesting and fun loving person, and consequently take such risks – and would this ‘act’ be a sincere transparency?

Rich on 11/2/09, 9:17 AM said...


Got it. Perfectly explained.

Some social behaviors have some symbolic intentions, but not all of them. I think the verdict is out on social media and whether it is transparent or an illusion of transparency.

In some cases, people "feel" liberated when in fact they are their own cagers. In other chases, people take on a persona on how they think the world wants them to be. In other cases, they are transparent and then get beat up over it.

Or, as I said this weekend on Twitter ... Transparency only works after people learn tolerance. We're not there yet.

Today, Mark Reagan mentions a nursing student being expelled over a blog.

I'm especially interested in your point that people can pretend to be transparent as a tactic, but exhibit inauthentic behavior, e.g. staging themselves as a beer bong expert. I think it happens all the time.

I've been fortunate in that the people I've met are not so different online or off. Those people tend to practice tempered transparency in that they neither share everything (because they wouldn't share everything to mere strangers) nor put on an act for the masses.

However, when we add this all up, I think very few people can sustain that direction. One would have to be whole to do it. Hmmm ... I think you helped me frame up what might become another post.


Kevin Goodman said...

The nursing student is an interesting story. I am curious if she identified the patient – hopefully not.

You know, there are so many degrees and perspectives on this topic….

Thinking about it a little further I think social media probably has more a consequence (vs. deliberate action) of transparency. That is definitely a good thing for consumers and something businesses should consider embracing. However, philosophically and morally I think organizations and people are entitled to certain privacies.

There is other social media phenomena that seems to work the other way such as a The interesting thing about this is that there is a lot of publicity about it but you can hardly find any inside information – as per member requirements. But you can find plenty of discussion forums with people begging for some hypothetical member to invite them.

Rich on 11/2/09, 2:53 PM said...


It would violate HIPPA if she did. Then the grounds wouldn't be about the blog. It would be illegal.

You're right of course, there are many different degrees to this topic. I'm glad you enjoy it because there is a real emphasis on it in the book I have on deck.

I also think you're right that there is a consequence factor more than deliberate. People are just generally unaware of why they do what they do (myself included at times).

I'll have to visit the site you mentioned. Interesting stuff. :)



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