There is a very strong element in social media to mix business with personal–friend your co-workers, list the places you have been employed so that old friends can find you, network for professional opportunities by staying in touch with new contacts via Facebook (or whatever medium you prefer but this post is about Facebook, specifically).
Worst idea ever.
People have long maintained separate circles in their lives because they use and value different people for different ends, and what you do with one group of friends may make another uncomfortable around you if they know that about you. In my opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong or shameful about withholding personal information from people you do not know well. I think learning to trust a stranger with more and more of your secrets is a beautiful part of human relationships. But if I had to share everything with everyone I met, I would have no real friends, either because I would scare off all strangers or never feel safe enough to share anything about myself at all.
Yet that sort of unfiltered sharing is what Facebook encourages, and it is leading to one of two places: complete shamelessness or complete superficiality.
This came up for me recently when one of my husband’s friends hinted I shouldn’t leave even joking comments on his wall that his work colleagues might find off-color. My husband insisted on an immediate defriending because he can’t stand that kind of superficiality…if his friend can’t deal with the fact that I am a romance novelist who makes jokes about “cockstands” on Facebook–when in person all he would do is laugh and high five me if it was especially funny contextually–then he shouldn’t acknowledge me in that context. Why should I be asked to change my behavior, or the tone of our friendship, because he finds it unsavory if it comes in front of people he works with when in private he has no issue with it?
The more companies push to have their employees be a public face via social media (and use social media to screen prospective employees), and the more people use it as a networking tool for work, the more bifurcating online profiles must become. I am a huge fan of the “private” profile and “public” profile–that is, literally having two accounts, one for personal use and one for professional. (This is why my public profile has nothing on it and no friends really, and why my private account is under a nickname that no co-worker or HR manager could ever find.) If you’re too lazy to maintain both profiles, then you have to choose between sharing nothing of your real self or sharing everything about yourself regardless of who may see it.
The drive to integrate our entire lives into one place online is a mistake, in my opinion, not only for privacy issues but also–and, for most of us, more importantly–for honesty issues.