You Never Know Who’s Listening

Recently my desk phone rang, and the caller ID showed the name of a large, well known organization.  I answered with my name, as usual.  But judging from the reply I received, I might as well have been a prank caller at three in the morning.

“Who is this?!”  The caller’s voice was incredulous, and more than a little annoyed with me.  When I replied again with my name and company, I heard only an annoyed sigh, a click, and silence.

In the moment, I found the whole interaction more amusing than anything else.  It was only on further reflection that I realized the potential peril in which the caller had placed herself:  As it turns out, I have some relatively influential contacts in that organization, and thanks to Caller ID, her direct number.  I have no intention of taking any action, but the whole situation reminded me something I’d seen on Facebook recently:  a status update from a friend that said, simply, “you never know who’s listening.”

I think one of the reasons that sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LinkedIn are so enjoyable is that they give us insight into what our friends and colleagues are thinking and doing.  Whether someone is recounting a vacation, a conference, an enjoyable dinner, or even just a mundane meeting or grocery run, status updates provide a little bit of insight into someone’s life that we wouldn’t otherwise have.  Perhaps this makes us feel more connected.  Whatever the reason, we obviously like the feeling, because so many of us keep returning to the sites!

But there is a down side to giving such a wide audience visibility into your thoughts and actions:  the potential impact to your reputation.

Reputation is not a new idea.  We’ve known for decades, for example, that if you become known around your office as someone who doesn’t follow through on commitments, your chances of career advancement decline considerably.  As children, we all were taught various forms of the maxim that actions speak louder than words; as adults, we have all seen what can happen when that maxim isn’t followed at work:  diminished trust, diminished output, and diminished morale.  Nobody wants to work with someone who acts unpredictably, erratically, or inappropriately.

The problem with social networking sites, from the standpoint of reputation, is that they give people visibility into parts of your life that they wouldn’t otherwise have:  they connect otherwise detached social networks.  Think about it:  would you want your boss eavesdropping on a conversation with your significant other about your workday?  Would you want your toddler son or daughter carefully absorbing your choice of words during an adult night out with your best friends?  Many of us have been to a bachelor or bachelorette party at least once; few brought our parents along.  These are detached social networks!

And yet, many people seem to think nothing of posting a status message that is intended for only one of their networks, in full view of all the others.  After all, it’s so easy to do!  Just key in your thoughts and click send.  Who really remembers everyone on their “friends” list anyway?  Worse yet, the information provided by such status updates is usually vague and open to broad interpretation.  The fact that it is text-only just compounds the problem.  (If you’re unsure what I mean by this, take a few moments to watch “Why Email Starts Fights” below and you will.)  So, the chances for misunderstanding and misinterpretation multiply, even for an innocent posting.

In other words, be careful what you say.  As in the case of my aggravated caller, you never know who’s listening.

When it comes to social networking, I don’t think anyone has a perfect solution to this problem.  Some people closely control who gets to be on their lists, or simply decline to post updates.  These are certainly valid approaches; exercising discretion in terms of list membership and status content is surely wise.  And yet, too much restriction here will defeat much of the benefit of social networking.

At the other extreme are those who simply don’t give any of this a second thought, and post whatever occurs to them.  There is merit here too, I suppose, but personally I would be worried about the long term implications of this strategy.  And my worry is not without supporting data; there have been at least a few well-publicized instances of social networking faux pas that came back to haunt their owners, in tangible and even economically measurable ways.

My suggestion is this:  your brain is better with clusters than with individual list items.  So, don’t try to remember everyone who is on your friends list.  Instead, come up with around five categories of people who appear there, and then personify those categories with individuals you know.  Before you post a status update, think about those five individuals, and mentally check whether you would be ok with each of them reading it.  If it’s OK for that sample population, it’s probably fairly safe for your wider audience.

Personally, my five are my mother, my nephew, my client, my close friend, and my spiritual advisor.  And I will admit that on more than one occasion, this seemingly innocent list of people has stopped a status update in its tracks.  “On second thought,” I muse, “I’ll just keep that one to myself.”  Of course, this process isn’t infallible, but it only takes about ten seconds, so it is a pretty cheap insurance policy.

It is also far less of an imposition than one might think, at least for me.  As it turns out, I’m rarely at a loss for words.  There are plenty of things I can talk about in front of all five of my test people – not the least of which was a recent anecdote about an odd telephone encounter in which I was treated like a prank caller.