Social media: the boundary between personal and professional

The value of personal data is often underestimated by the general public; the risks are commonly ignored on social media sites, especially by those in their teens or twenties.

On the positive side, building an online profile, such as through sites like LinkedIn or Twitter, has become an important strategy in increasing popularity and employability.

A negative is that of increasing accountability for all actions, even those outside of your professional life. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of social media in their hiring processes and will search for employees online before offering positions. This is where the link between your personal and professional social profiles can overlap in damaging ways.

There are many ways in which a public profile can be a positive, in which a person needs to take the risk of making data public. If I want companies to approach me with job offers, I need parts of my LinkedIn profile to be made public. If I want to sell music or writing, I need to build a public profile to increase awareness of my new works. If I want to advertise my small business, I need to tell potential clients where to find me or how to contact me.

This is the value of public data to its originator. In professional circles, you want as many people to know as much of you and your ability as possible. However there is another side to public data, one that blurs as the boundary between personal and professional profiles disappears.

There has been considerable research and insight into what is made public via social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. While a single personal profile made public can be damaging to one person (consider how your public information could benefit an interested stalker), a multitude of public profiles can tell us much more. Data aggregation and pattern finding can be very effective in these cases.

Recent examples of the dangers of data aggregation include the “Girls around me” app and the “We know what you’re doing” website show the danger of weak privacy settings combined with public profiles. In the “Girls around me” app (now withdrawn), public Facebook and FourSquare postings were aggregated and combined to tell you which girls (or guys) are near you, what their likes and dislikes are, and where they are right now. Such information is dangerous in the wrong hands, but easily available online. All this app did was create an easy to use interface.

In the “We know what you’re doing” website, public Facebook postings are searched through for patterns, such as mentioning your “boss”. One category, titled “who wants to get fired today?” showed people publicly complaining about their boss or job. In many cases for both of these examples, it is expected that the person doesn’t know this information is publicly available and probably doesn’t want it to be.

This problem isn’t just restricted to personal privacy either. With public postings made available, sentiment by employees of companies can be tracked and analysed to determine how effectively a company is running. A common strategy to stop this kind of behaviour is to prohibit the mentioning of a workplace on social media. This strategy is often unpopular with staff, as it is seen as crossing the personal/professional boundary.

I would argue that anytime a person posts publicly, this boundary has already been crossed, and that people must differentiate between their personal profiles and their professional profiles. If we take the stance that professional profiles need to be public, then personal profiles need to be as private as possible.

Given the ever-increasing overlap between personal and professional lives, how can we properly manage this separation? Is it possible to keep a clear distinction between the two on the internet, particularly in social media?

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