One of the things people worry about, when it comes to their behavior on social media, is how much of their personal opinion can be shared.
And they should worry. Putting the legal discussion of rights and responsibilities aside, we exist in a social context. People judge us by what we say, and also how we say it.
For my part I think that you should be yourself online, just like in real life. If other people don't like it then you probably shouldn't associate with them.
But there is a problem with my position. And it has to do with the continuum along which "being yourself" turns into "sharing my views that are very offensive to you."
At work, in person, we know to keep strong opinions to ourselves. But online, we are becoming more and more conditioned to say exactly what we think, and the reaction of others be damned. And unless you're expressing your views in a way that is fully anonymous, someone can easily take offense to you -- someone you work with, someone you love, someone or some group you associate with on a regular if casual basis.
So a lot of people go out there and comment anonymously -- or, at least they try. The problem is that many times these people make mistakes as they do so. In an effort to help these people protect their personal brands, I thought I would list some typical mistakes that let me know who you are, even if you think you're shielding your identity:
- Using your name, or a portion thereof, as your handle. You may not realize that your name is very unique, and that your online activities can be traced to you if you provide other distinct identifying information as part of your commentary.
- Visiting multiple forums under the same handle. It has been my observation that people who do this tend to reveal some sort of identifying information. It is also my observation that people who do this tend to make very extreme comments.
- Complaining about your job, either generally or with reference to a particular person. You may keep your name offline, but if you make comments so specific that they can be traced back to you, you aren't really anonymous.
- Providing your telephone number or address. You may not realize that many discussion forums that seem private are actually public, and that "conversations" you're having online are open to casual readers who can trace your number back to you.
- Focusing your comments on your own involvement in an activity. If you provide enough of a description, your anonymity becomes less assured.
Again, I want to stress that there are many legal issues involved here, and that this is not a substitute for legal advice. Rather, it is a cautionary note. If you're going "the safe route" and venting anonymously online, understand somewhere in the back of your head that your anonymity is never truly assured -- especially if some hacker decides to release all the usernames and emails associated with the sites you visit and make use of.
All opinions my own. Photo by Richard King via Flickr (Creative Commons)