How much should you reveal online?


Getty ImagesGetty ImagesWe've all heard the stories of those whose imprudent online postings (usually involving some choice words about an employer or a poor choice of photos of themselves) cost them a job. In the past few weeks it happened to a New York City government staffer, who resigned after posting her views about the President (whom she dubbed "O-dumb-a") and his handling of the brouhaha over the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

These are gaffes, and the people who made them should know better.

But lately I've been pondering the opposite situation. In this era of online engagement and revelation, can it ever be a problem to reveal too little or to have no online persona at all?

People often ask me if they are using social networking sites professionally how much they should reveal about their personal lives. I always tell them to reveal enough to show that you're human and that you have hobbies outside of work. The key is to to reveal things that will allow people to connect with you around common interests. I often tweet or post on Facebook about cultural things I'm doing, visits with my grandmother, things that happen with my dog, or vacations I'm planning or returning from. On the other hand, I almost never post about my fiance, who doesn't live his life online as much as I do. I call this the illusion of transparency -- where you reveal things you want people to know, but protect areas you'd like to keep private. Some people draw the line at talking about their children. Others, like Penelope Trunk, build an entire personal brand around revealing stuff that other people would find way too intimate. In all cases, it's about revealing what you want others to know. No more, no less. Even in Trunk's case, there is no accidental revelation; she is completely intentional about what she reveals about herself.

I was chatting about all this Miriam Salpeter, a career coach I admire. Salpeter is a bit more cautious than I am about what she reveals online. And if you look at her Twitter stream, it's pretty much all business there, chock full of useful tips and advice about career information. But she told me that once in a while, particularly late at night when her guard is down, she sends out a tweet that reveals something about her personal life, like one that mentioned her cat's reaction to her newly refinished floors. "In the darkness, I convince myself that it's ephemeral and no one notices," she explained. Still, those even just slightly revealing tweets get a lot of responses from her followers, who know get a sense that they know her just a bit better. Even better, someone might strike up a conversation with her about their own flooring experience, and voila, from a mundane exchange, a new connection could be sparked. "It's a little like when I added a photograph to my blog and noticed that traffic doubled. I think it helped people to connect with me more on a personal level." she said.

Miriam and I work for ourselves so it's up to us what we choose to reveal. If you work for someone else, there's a whole extra layer to think about. What are your goals? What are the norms where you work? What kind of role do you have? Is it important that people feel like they can connect with you or your organization?

Salpeter says that her younger clients often say that when Gen Y rises to management, no one will worry about what people post online because the standard will be complete transparency. But once you're completely transparent, there's a bigger question. Will your personality help or hurt you?

How do you all feel about this? Have you ever been in a situation where it helped to reveal more about yourself online?