For most people in my generation or older, our first experiences with social media were back in the early days of the internet, when newspapers started adding comments sections below articles published online. I’ll never forget how shocked I was to read how scathing and vitriolic many of them were.
Younger people might be surprised to realize that there was a time when we had no knowledge that people could be that mean. Conversely, many people in my generation might be sad to consider that, for our kids, the potential of people to be that mean is all they’ve ever known.
Everyone who uses social media knows that, with all its benefits for the establishment of our personal brands, that it can potentially be very bad for us. We’ve all felt that shot of cortisol when someone makes a negative or potentially controversial comment on a thread we’re in, and those shots add up. The stress alone is a reason to be very intentional about how we engage online. And that stress is a sign of what looms on every post, a potentially career-ending foible.
For professionals and people in positions of influence, this is particularly true. The more followers you have, the more comments you’ll receive. And who doesn’t have that eccentric uncle or friend from college you know is likely to say something embarrassing? New dilemmas have emerged. Never in human history has literally everyone you know — childhood and college friends, church friends, work contacts, bosses, people you used to date, everyone — been tossed together on a platform where they can interact with each other 24/7.
In addition, we are living in one of the most divisive political and cultural environments in American history. All this is more than our 50,000-year-old mental operating systems can process.
I was seriously starting to rethink my social media usage during the 2016 election. The politics were so prolific and divisive, logging on to put “likes” on my niece’s graduation pictures was getting less fun. One day, a long-time family friend made a political post that I commented on. One of their family members took issue with me. Since Facebook will randomly alert any of your Facebook friends about a thread you commented on, an influential community leader jumped on in my defense.
My mom, not knowing who that person was, chimed in, too, and before I knew it, my personal and professional lives merged in a royal political squabble visible to the entire world. I was horrified. Two days later, I canceled my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
As professionals weighing the pros and cons of social media, there is a lot to consider. Am I reaching the audience I want to speak to? Do the privacy settings on the platforms I use give me comfort? Am I OK with blending my personal and professional contacts? Do I want my professional contacts to see pictures from my vacation? Do I want my personal contacts commenting on my professional posts? Do I want to risk alienating my boss, co-workers and employees by sharing political thoughts online? Is this good for my mental health?
My next few columns will offer advice on how to manage your social media brands. It’s not that I have it all figured out. In fact, the only people who are doing it right just might be the people who aren’t doing social media at all.
In the meantime, think about your answers to the questions above and consider joining me, and my mom, for a discussion online.
Daniel Flowers is president and CEO of Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank